What Actually Happened at The LA MoCA Gala

by Reid Singer on November 14, 2011 · 1 comment Opinion

This post's author, being carried by his high school physics and trigonometry teachers, via Getty Images

The donor gala at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art went off yesterday, and more or less without a hitch. The event was subject to quite a bit of fuss this past week, when choreographer Yvonne Rainer wrote a letter to director Jeffrey Deitch expressing disgust at Marina Abramovic’s planned performance. She and her co-signers were concerned that naked performers might be touched or at least gawked at by the benefit’s attendants. They expressed outrage at the interposition of clothed, rich donors with unclothed, not-so-rich performers in a glitzy gala environment. Responses to her letter (including in our own comments threads) have shown that Rainer was not alone in believing that elements of the plan were obscene and that the performers, while paid, were nevertheless being exploited.

AFC’s response first sprouted from Rainer’s comparison of the participants in the Abramovic piece to the victims in “Salò,” a film that depicts instances of extreme violence. This was hyperbole. Nothing close to extreme violence was inflicted on any living person at the gala on Sunday. Nearly every performer interviewed by the LA Times had heard about Rainer’s letter, and the general consensus was that it was overheated. Many performers objected to the term “exploited.” None of them sounded grateful that she should speak for them. One participant even expressed offense at Rainer’s appearance at one of the rehearsals, telling the Times:

When Yvonne came for rehearsals and interviewed us, she slid into our group wearing our clothes and pretending to be one of us — she never said who she was — I felt that was really tricky, not fair disclosure. And she was rude, saying degrading things to us like ‘Why would you do this?’ Or ‘yes, you get paid, well prostitutes also get paid.’

And what actually happened at LA MoCA? Look to Ryan Trecartin’s twitter feed for a pictorial account. His tweets show participants sitting, as they’d rehearsed, on slowly-rotating lazy susans, their faces completely still as they rotated, visible from the neck up, at the center of the diners' tables. According to the L.A. Times, one guest taunted a performer and kept repeating, “This isn’t art, this is stupid.” Another placed a small pile of salt near a performer’s face, as if to suggest someone snorting a line. By and large, guests’ reactions weren’t so rude as they were feeble and awkward, described by one participant as a “missed opportunity.” Meanwhile, another performer held eye contact with a MoCA trustee for thirty-five minutes, an experience she described as “monumental.”

The Daily Telegraph didn’t mention Rainer’s letter at all, making only a vague reference to “criticism” of the performance. They took the characteristically tabloid-style route, laying as much focus as possible on the part of the evening in which Marina Abramovic and Debbie Harry put butcher knives to enormous cakes made to replicate their own naked selves. There were also several photos of Harry, reclining gracefully on a stretcher, microphone in hand, as a group of handsome shirtless men carried her about while she sang “Heart of Glass.”

In other words, it was a Jeffrey Deitch kind of night, eliciting reactions that run exactly parallel to how people feel about Jeffrey Deitch. If Deitch’s penchant for campy spectacle is not to your taste, then you probably found the gala distasteful. If you admire Deitch’s approach to fundraising and attention-farming, then you’d likely describe the donor gala as a success. If you’re often overcome by imbalances of power and capital in the art world, then you won’t overlook how Deitch’s employment of Abramovic, a fellow art superstar, discouragingly affirms that order.

Unsurprisingly, this past weekend made way for many of the usual Deitch debates over the work’s status as “art” or “entertainment.” While we generally regard this subject to be a waste of time, it seems worth acknowledging a few posts by Greg Allen, whose thoughts on the matter are closest to our own:

Rainer goes to great, cordial lengths in her open letter to Deitch…to separate her criticism of the gala from Abramovic’s work. While generous, I believe this is incorrect; the only context in which a revolving human head centerpiece on a $100,000 table could be realized is as an artwork. I mean, Abramovic’s certainly not claiming this is just edgy party decoration, is she?

If that were so, the case for embarrassment would be easily made. No, I think the reason this rankles so much is precisely because the gala does take on the mantle of art–and the stamp and stature of the artist. It’s not possible to say that this gala is not art; it is art you cannot afford to experience. It is art that you find humanly, ethically, and socially objectionable. And it is being produced and shown for money in one of our [sic] most reputable museums, by an artist who shows and is celebrated in similar institutions.

That’s a reality of the art world as it’s currently constructed.

The man has a point. Anyone with a response to the gala and Rainer’s reaction would do well to observe the great irony in all of this, namely, that both Jeffrey Deitch’s recruitment of Abramovic and the gala itself were an acting out of the worst aspects of museum culture. The uneven distribution of power, the irrational love for stars and star-making, and the overwhelming deference to the caprices of the rich are key ingredients to making a lot of crappy, expensive art. And yet we endure them.

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