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Francine Prose on When Art Makes Us Cry

Francine Prose on When Art Makes Us Cry

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Prose reflects on the fading emotion of art @ The New York Review of Books.

During the spring of 2010, when Marina Abramović’s retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” was on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it sometimes seemed impossible to open a magazine or newspaper without reading about the artist and her show. I remember feeling curious, admiring, and vaguely irritated. Why, with so few hours in the day, was I spending even five minutes wondering about whether Abramović was exploiting the artists who had volunteered to serve as her apprentices and to reenact (in most cases naked) some of her most physically demanding performance pieces?

I went to see the exhibition and its eponymous centerpiece: the artist, seated in a chair in the museum’s atrium, gazing intently, immobile and in silence, at the audience members who came, one by one, to sit opposite her. As I watched from the sidelines, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. We chatted about our work, exchanged news of family and friends. Then I left, glad to have seen my friend, but otherwise no more affected by the Abramović show than I had been when I arrived.

So I was surprised and pleased—as I usually am when something persuades me to reconsider an overly hasty judgment—to watch Matthew Akers’s documentary film, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, and to realize how much I’d failed to comprehend. Some of what I’d overlooked seems, in retrospect, obvious: spending months in a hard chair, staring at a succession of strangers, was no less punishing and painful than earlier Abramović works which had involved self-mutilation and physical danger. But though I’d read about the intense responses of so many of the visitors who came to experience the artist’s presence, I didn’t—and perhaps couldn’t, unless I’d stayed around for as long as Akers did—register them in my own brief visit to the show.
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