May 12, 2015

"Some dismissed Mr. Burden as a mountebank, while others praised his explorations of masculinity, martyrdom and the Romantic ideal of suffering for one’s art."

The New York Times has an obituary for the artist Chris Burden, whose death I acknowledged yesterday, here. I don't normally double up on obituaries, but it took the NYT a while to get its obituary up and it's very substantial and says things in an interesting way. (I don't remember ever seeing the would "mountebank" in the newspaper.)
... Mr. Burden was perhaps the single best-known practitioner of the subgenre of body art. In that field, artists documented themselves in still or moving images as they gained or lost weight, underwent surgery or, in his case, courted genuine danger.
Yes, wasn't there an artist who sliced off parts of his body and actually died? Let me detour for a moment into a 2011 Guardian article titled "The 10 most shocking performance artworks ever/Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky's nailing of his scrotum to Red Square isn't as unique as you might think: artists have shot, burned, disfigured, and eaten themselves":
In attacking his own genitals, Pyotr Pavlensky may have been inspired by inaccurate stories about Austrian artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler. When he died in 1969, it was widely believed he had killed himself by cutting off his own penis. The works of this Vienna actionist do include images of castration, but they were mocked up. So Schwarzkogler's reputation as the ultimate performance artist is somewhat exaggerated. He actually died after falling from a window.
Not on purpose, I take it. Anyway, Burden gets a mention in that article (as does Yoko Ono, for her "Cut Piece," in which she invited people to use scissors to cut pieces of her clothing off and they did).

Back to the NYT obituary on Burden:
To some observers, it recalled the gleeful tradition of American hucksterism à la P. T. Barnum. To others, it celebrated the ability of Mr. Burden, whose very surname seemed to foreordain a life of professional dolor, to inscribe himself indelibly into his own work, as artists from J.S. Bach to (Stuart Davis to Alfred Hitchcock had done before him.
The NYT needs to indelibly inscribe another parenthesis in that last sentence. Or (more likely) get "(Stuart Davis to" out of there. I'm having a bit of professional dolor trying to read this damned thing. Talk about burden!
“When I use pain or fear in a work, it seems to energize the situation,” Mr. Burden said in a 1975 interview with the film critic Roger Ebert. “In works with violent or unpredictable elements, the fear is really the worst part, worse than the pain. Getting nailed to the Volkswagen, for example, I had no idea what to expect. But the nails didn’t hurt much at all. It was the effect that was fulfilling.”...

Mr. Burden’s first marriage, to Barbara Burden, onto whose nude body he flicked tiny incendiary devices as part of “Match Piece,” a 1972 installation, ended in divorce...
Body art with somebody else's body... your naked wife's body... I'm glancing back up at the post heading to "explorations of masculinity." Anyway... more at the link. The obituary ends with a vivid description of a piece called "Doomed," which could have involved Burden lying on the floor until he died, but didn't, because someone offered him a drink of water.

But what I want to do is check the NYT archive to for that wonderful word "mountebank." Ah! It was used — recently! — and it was in another obituary that I know I read because I know I blogged it, just last March, "Gary Dahl, Inventor of the Pet Rock, Dies at 78":
Gary Dahl, the man behind that scheme — described variously as a marketing genius and a genial mountebank — died on March 23 at 78. A down-at-the-heels advertising copywriter when he hit on the idea, he originally meant it as a joke. 

15 comments:

rhhardin said...

Mountebank turns up in conservative newspapers, writing about liberals.

Liberal newspapers don't want to mention the word.

traditionalguy said...

A mountebank is a skillful politician selling what you want to hear.

The winners are the best mountebanks.

J2 said...

Hucksterist.

tim in vermont said...

Art is sort of like Murphy's Law, if it can happen, it will and somebody will call it "art," not because they are the first person to think of it, but because they are the first person to think of calling it art.

Lem said...

Before it was the Hero's Journey it was the Mountebank's Journey... but Mountebank was bulky and unfamiliar. So the editors went with Hero ;)

William said...

The most successful mountebank performance artist of our era was Walter Keane. For many years Walter took credit for his wife's paintings of sad eyed little girls. The bamboozle was much more evocative and significant than the paintings themselves.......The bamboozle spoke to the true meaning and purpose of art in our society. Walter was a marketing genius who really knew how to sell and publicize a painting. The art involved was kitschy but had broad appal to the superficiality of women. You could say that the paintings exploited woman's matriarchal feelings much more than Walter exploited his wife.. It's very difficult to pinpoint just who was exploiting who and just who was more fraudulent in this case. At any rate, his wife ended up rich and famous and played by Amy Adams in a sympathetic biopic. In just this way does America devalue and discard a true marketing genius in favor of a Hallmark illustrator.

Unknown said...

I had just finished a story about an "artist" whose work consisted of cutting off pieces of his body, and which culminated in his final piece of "art" (activating a guillotine with his tongue, the only portion of his body left that could operate anything); railing against the "ridiculous" and "unbelievable concept," when I heard about Burden's work.

In this case, art was imitating life...

William said...

I have an idea for a performance art piece called Voyeur. Here's how it works. Kate Upton and various supermodels will lavish sensual pleasure on my man root. While this is gong on, the best known contemporary artists will sketch my ecstatic face. The sketches will then be auctioned off at Sotheby's. The proceeds will then be donated to the Clinton Foundation.......The complexity and levels of meaning in this piece of performance art speak for themselves.

Laslo Spatula said...

Remove shock value from performance art and you have ballet.

Something like that.

I am Laslo.

kcom said...

"Some dismissed Mr. Burden as a mountebank"

And others dismissed him as irrelevant. If they even bothered to notice.

robother said...

Zounds! The act of composing the obituary of this mountebank seems to have transported out NYT obit writer back to the Victorian era: "whose very surname seemed to foreordain a life of professional dolor."
Mayhap the deep purple drapes of the Funeral Parlor infected his prose.

Laslo Spatula said...

"He actually died after falling from a window."
Althouse: "Not on purpose, I take it."

Nice.

I am Laslo.

Lem said...

Before the baby was named Charlotte Elizabeth Diana they had tentatively settled on Dolores Candelabra Mountbatten.

Cooler heads prevailed ;)

tim in vermont said...

Mojo Nixon was the musically mediocre musician who wrote "Don Henly Must Die." That's because the only arrow Mojo had in is quiver was shock, so of course those of genuine talent and accomplishment must be swept from the stage for the more politically correct voices which must command it.

He sometimes hosted a show on Satellite radio called "Outlaw Country" where he pushed his politics. His politics gave him a right to be an artist. I was so happy to cancel Sirius for Pandora, which is blessedly free of politics, the way Amazon Prime and Netflix are free of politics the way HBO is not.

mccullough said...

I'd like to see varlet brought back. With next year's election cycle, the word could describe the candidates