Performing thought: Hegel and Deleuze on performance art
Between March to May 2010, Marina Abramović sat still and silent in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the exhibition The Artist is Present. Although the exhibition comprised a retrospective of her previous work, critical and popular attention focused upon the titular atrium performance. Garnering reflections from the likes of Colm Tóibín and Arthur Danto, the work was heralded as a great success. These written reflections, portraits of Abramović’s sitters, and associated documentary feature, present an account of a work that affected those who viewed it in both intense and at times contradictory ways.
I argue that the work requires us to utilise the thought of two philosophers often considered at odds with each other – Hegel and Deleuze – to fully understand how such effects are generated. Beginning with Danto’s own reflections and analyses of the work, we first view the work through Danto’s neo-Hegelian aesthetics. When this proves insufficient, I shift to Robert Pippin’s neo-Hegelian concept of the ‘Modern’, before extending Hegel’s original artistic categories, following Jim Vernon’s work on the aesthetics of a contemporary artform (Hip Hop).
This account, however, does not properly explain the actual experience of those who engaged with the work, primarily because a distinction that becomes apparent in the account of time we need to bring to it. Hence, engaging in a philosophical reading of the work prompts me to turn to Deleuze to analyse its temporal, event-like, and affective dimensions. I conclude with the suggestion that the work in fact gestures toward a break in the history of art, whose contours can be seen in the analysis provided through Hegel and Deleuze, and in their conjunction provides an account of The Artist is Present more complete than either might have provided alone.