Wednesday night, I attended Steven Cohen’s presentation of film works at CPR in Williamsburg. During one of the brief discussion breaks—led by a becostumed Cohen—one audience member prefaced his question by stating that “the audience inevitably becomes part of your work.” The assumption went unchallenged.
It struck a particularly live chord for me, as throughout that evening, I had been wrestling with this question: To what extent are the unsuspecting people in Cohen’s film documentations a part of the work? For me, it is not a closed case.
The co-existence and co-contextuality of Cohen and the people his performance reaches—generally a live, public, and incidental (if targeted) audience—is certainly integral to the constitution of his work. The two cannot be entirely separated.
But I am suspicious about just how readily Cohen and many others transmute real live autonomous human beings into works of art, which is what we do when we say that an audience “becomes part of the art”; we have circumscribed the audience within the material boundary of the art; we have taken away their autonomy and their will.
Cohen’s work, like the work of certain other artists creating work today (and also like the work of many artists over the last handful of decades), blurs the conservative separation of performer and audience. But while blurring may occur—and I’m starting to understand most definitions as blurred lines, rather than crisp lines—I don’t know that it’s actually ever possible to erase that line.
For me, performance must always be consensual. Absolutely. No question.
It is interesting that in the beginning of the first film Cohen showed, he includes documentary images of Jews in Nazi-era Vienna who were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes before crowds of jeering onlookers. This presents us immediately with—well, above all else, a morally reprehensible action, but also—a precise illustration of what performance cannot be.
In a sense, you could say that the Jewish people in these situations were “performing” for the racist crowds; at the very least you could say that the crowds were interacting with the persecuted individuals as performers of entertainment. But that would be an incomplete understanding of how the so-called performance is being made, which, in reality, is being made by unthinkable coercion, intimidation, the enforcement of a fascist politics, and mob rule. The Jewish people in these images are not consenting—not in a practical sense; not in a humane sense—to perform; they are being compelled.
Cohen’s performance—when he willfully enters the vicinity of a Holocaust memorial in a public square, and crawls around scrubbing the cobble stones with super-sized toothbrush—is, in monumental contrast, entirely voluntary; even uninvited.
The happening of performance as art depends indispensably on a voluntary and revocable agreement for anyone involved. The revoking of this agreement by any party does not destroy the totality of the art; it merely removes one component from the total collective of the art experience.
Like children who choose to sit out of a round tag, you can always choose to get back in the game. But if you’re in the game, and you suddenly tag someone who’s sitting out, it doesn’t automatically make that person “it.” Everyone knows the rules; and the rules define—even enable—the game.
Because, like games, any performance involves a field of play. That is, a linguistic, time-based acknowledgement that says “Yes, now art is happening.”
In this way, I feel it is always the option of a person not to participate. Particularly in a public scenario, no person is obligated to engage in the mind-play that is necessary for the artistic experience to materialize.
For some captured in Cohen’s film documentations, its seems as though you can see them reacting to his presence, not as an art experience, but as a real experience, either through complete indifference, or more interestingly through wanting to stop Cohen; i.e. a police officer who escorts him away in one film, or a man who is angered and threatens Cohen with a stick in another film.
Cohen artfully translates the cop’s actions as “choreography.” In a way, it absolutely is, the way any duty is a kind of script we follow. But I don’t find the police officer’s actions to be “art.” They are real actions. It does surprise me to have to point that out: There is a difference between reality and art.
I find it at best a contemporary romantic notion that art and reality are interchangeable, or that art can usurp reality whenever it wants to. This kind of thinking undermines what is vital to the experience of art, and what shapes art as an avenue of meaningful transfiguration: That art is a motivated act of free will.
Perhaps it is an act of free will within the already artful infrastructure of human reality. If anything, art might be a subset of reality, a wrinkle or fold of the linguistic fabric; but it isn’t equivalent to or greater than reality. Either way, the art experience is a different kind of experience from the real experience.
I tried—unsuccessfully—to argue this case to a few friends after Cohen’s performance. During our conversation, it crossed my mind to consider the film “Who the *$&%25Is Jackson Pollock.”
I believe I brought this up as a way to illustrate the necessity of subjective human agreement in the valuation of art; valuation being a form of recognition. I will try to articulate here what I was unable to do the other night.
In this 2006 Harry Moses documentary, Teri Horton, a truck-driver from California, struggles to convince the art dealing establishment that a painting she bought at a thrift shop for $5 is an original Jackson Pollock.
Despite convincing forensic evidence, the art establishment, and those individuals with the monopoly on the commerce of Pollock’s work, refuse to recognize that this painting is an authentic Jackson Pollock. This stonewalling virtually renders Horton’s painting worthless, or considerably less valuable in terms of money to a certain group of people.
The art establishment’s reasons for refusing to legitimize the painting are of little concern here. But what is of concern is the fact that a group of individuals of one perspective can refuse to recognize the constitution of art by not participating in the transaction necessary to create the experience of art.
To Horton, the painting is a Jackson Pollock and is worth countless millions. To others, the painting might as well be burned for heat. It is merely incidental that the naysayers have the power in this situation. Either way, art being worth anything at all—which, when it comes to art especially, is tantamount to art being at all—proves to be dependent on human consent and collective acknowledgement.
But Horton’s “Pollock” actually is worth tens of millions of dollars—to her. The disagreement of the art establishment cannot literally make her painting worthless. In this very way, if a member of an audience for any reason feels that the art experience has stopped for him—that it no longer has artistic value—it does not mean the art experience has stopped for all. But it does mean that the artistic experience—for him—has stopped, and no one, not the artist, nor any other member of the audience can compel him otherwise. And to assume that Cohen’s audiences are either obliged to participate as an audience or, reaching further, consenting to participate in the creation of the work is without question unethical.
This discussion is by no means complete or comprehensive. And, I am willing to offer that I may not have laid out this argument very well, and that it is possible that I might be wrong. I make no claims to infallibility.
Also, I was delighted to receive an email just today about Jack Ferver’s upcoming gig at the New Museum, which sounds like it deals explicitly with this crisis.
I promise to go as an audience participant. And, if at any point I choose to engage as a performer, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.