Sex, religion, and politics - three fundamental topics guaranteed to provoke most people to a response. Given that fact, it isn't surprising that artists have often explored them... with varied degrees of success, but almost always gendering some response from the audience. Sometimes, any response- even a negative one is all that is required.One of the jobs artists have in society is to wake people up from complacency, get them to think, churn up that grey stuff called a brain.
Some artists do that by pushing the envelope and courting controversy with fanatical passion. We need people like this in society. Whether we agree with their vision or not, we all need to have our eyes and emotions opened up periodically.
Marina Abramovic is an internationally renown performance artist, now in her 60s, who has incorporated some very drastic acts into her performance art over the years. These include stabbing herself, brushing her hair until her scalp bled while chanting "Art is beautiful, Artist must be beautiful" and inviting an audience to use instruments on her body in any way they chose... including a gun.
Some of her pieces are currently being reinacted by performance artists she has selected at MOMA. She is also present, sitting silently at a small table and staring down visitors who sit across from her.
The exhibit has stirred some controversy, not because of the history of her work, which she purposely pushed the edge on to make points about politics, war and sexuality, but because of the live nudes used in the performances. Visitors are immediately made uncomfortable as they have to squeeze past two nudes to enter the exhibit. It beautifully reinforces the concept that we like to keep a distance and detachement from those things that make us uncomfortable. As a society we have equated nudity, even in art, with pornography so consistently, that for most having to brush past a nude stranger - even though there is nothing sexual in their positioning - is unbearable. It isn't a matter of what is proper that evokes discomfort, but a matter of being forced outside our normal comfort zone.
Hopefully the show will give some visitors pause and make them consider WHY they are uncomfortable. Because being pushed out of the normal box can be a healthy, enlightening experience if it isn't dismissed out of knee-jerk fear.
"The Artist is Present" will be running at the MoMA through May 31st; it includes five of the ninety pieces she has created since 1969.