The Woman Who Stared at Sheep … And the Sheep Stared Back

All right, my little chipmunks let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time there was this performance artist and she cooked up a show for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she sat in a chair and stared at whoever wanted to sit in front of her. The critics raved and the people came, some 750,000 people. Folks stared back, others laughed and some really sad saps actually were moved to tears. A video game was released. A documentary film was made about the performance artist and was shown on HBO. And all were happy and content…well except for the performance artist. See, the performance artist only got an honorarium of a hundred grand.

I got this little tidbit about the $100,000 from an interview the performance artist Marina Abramovic gave to Andrew Goldman about her show and the documentary “The Artist Is Present.” Ms. Abramovic states in the June 17th edition of the New York Times Magazine interview, “I got so little I don’t even want to tell. I was paid an honorarium of exactly $100,000. It covered one year of my work, plus how much I pay for assistants and office rent.”

Cover of The Artist Is Present
Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. I’d like to think it has nothing to do with my natural distrust of performance artists, and more to do with the blatant waste of a hundred grand. Staring at people as an art form? Come on. About halfway down my street there’s a creepy, old guy, who, with his equally creepy and equally ancient dog, stares at people all day and he does it for free. Now, most folks who want to turn the tables and stare at other people often head to the streets, or a club or some darker kinds of joints like Sleazy Pete’s Peep Palace or Bucking Bob Boob Barnyard. And, let’s face it creepy, old guy and those girls at the Peep Palace do it for a hell of lot less than what Ms. Abramovic was paid. And, maybe that’s just it. It’s the money.

Let me put that $100,000 into some perspective. With $100,000 you could buy

  • 2,500 Cresent 4/4 Beginner’s Violin Sets with carrying case and accessories
  • Or

  • 3,125 Darice ArtyFacts Portable Art Studio – a 131-piece art set with wood case and add in some Strathmore drawing paper and the Pro Art 18-piece sketch/draw pencil set
  • Or

  • 2,000 1-hour guitar lessons from the Howard Vance Guitar Academy in Memphis, TN
  • Or

  • 7,692 West African dance lessons at One World Dance and Drum in Seattle, Wa
  • Or

  • 2 years at the Yale School of Drama and that includes tuition, fees, book, supplies and estimated living expenses.
  • Most artists, actors and musicians I’ve met would be happy if they were able to pay to fix their car, pay rent for the next couple of months or had enough to visit the doctor or the dentist. Ms. Abramovic got paid $100,000 to sit and stare at people. Let’s look beyond the price of living in New York, as I’m sure there are a few people who make due on less. But what’s this about office space and assistants? Why would you need an office? Why would you need assistants, and yes, that’s more than one, other than some hunky guy named Sven to come in every once in a while and massage your butt cheeks? Seems to me this whole deal requires a couple of chairs and bunch of dupes.

    Let’s just separate ourselves from the what-is-art argument right here. Remember, this is a woman sitting in a chair and staring at people. I don’t want to hear about artistic angst, the toll of blood, sweat and tears of personal catharsis or the strain of provoking an emotional response from your audience. I do have my suspicions that there’s a little how-could-you-possibly-understand-you-don’t-live-in-New York thing to this entire business – yes, that the age old argument about how the New York art scene is far too sophisticated and erudite for the rest of us who live in the hinterlands to comprehend. I would like to counter that with the fact that I’ve been to New York several times and I’ve met my share of New Yorkers. I’d also like to point out that I’ve seen some of those slick, savvy New Yorkers sporting the season’s latest fashions, never mind the neck pulled to one side and the color made them look nauseous. Those tired arguments don’t hold water when we live in a country where public schools go without music or art programs, where public art councils go without funds and where sharp-tongued, hard-headed politicians are cutting off any and all public art projects labeling them as pointless, flights of fancy that aren’t worth your good tax dollars.

    When it comes down to it Ms. Abramovic got while the getting was good. She can busy herself with whatever her next project is amid a flurry of press releases, interviews, assistants, sycophants and the like, but was it worth it? In the big scheme of things did that $100,000 go to waste? P.T. Barnum is credited for saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute” and I have to wonder if that’s true in Ms. Abramovic’s case. I mean she’s allowed, right? No law against the scam of performance art, right? I guess what bothered me was the fact that as an artist with assistants, an office, the notice of some 750,000 people at a major art museum in New York City and a documentary, she just could take money and run like any other good scam artist. I mean if she really felt it, really was filled up by the art she’d be like creepy, old guy and do it for free.

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