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Archive for October 10th, 2016

Marina Abramović Invited the Public to Hurt Her … And They Did

At 23, Marina Abramović lay on a table and invited the public to do what they wanted to her.

Various objects and implements sat at the ready: flowers, a feather boa, a knife, a pistol. The first attendees were shy.

But soon enough, someone cut off her clothes. Another pushed the thorn of a rose into her flesh. The gun was aimed at her head. After six hours, Abramović says, she rose, battered and bloodied, and limped out, with a kind of terrible knowledge about the harm that humans will inflict on one another.

Sean Braswell

Ozy Author SENIOR WRITER

Sean Braswell is a Senior Writer at OZY. He has five degrees and writes about history, politics, film, sports, and anything in which he gets to use the word “dystopian.”

Some 40 years later came a different kind of experiment.

In “The Artist Is Present,” a 3-month-long performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Abramović sat for eight hours a day in a simple chair. Opposite her, a few feet away, sat strangers, who had waited hours to sit down opposite the stern-looking Serbian with jet-black hair and “exchange energy” in the longest, and perhaps most demanding, ongoing performance work ever mounted in a museum.

It consisted of nothing more than eye contact between strangers — and, as Abramović recounts in a TED Talk that will co-premiere on OZY today, it changed her life.

TEDLike Page. April 17 at 8:31pm ·

“Ultimately, my message is very simple. The only way to change the world is to change the self” (via OZY).

The celebrated performance artist wants to help liberate you from your fears, and your iPhone.
 t.ted.com|By Sean Braswell

“When you give the public things to harm, the public can actually harm. But if you give them things to make them better, they will become better,” she told OZY in an interview last week.

The connection she witnessed in that chair turned her on to the ever-growing “need of people to actually experience something different” in a world in which online networks and electronic devices have in some ways isolated us from ourselves.

Abramović’s latest, and most ambitious experiment, invites her audience to discover themselves as never before — in a kind of culture spa where visitors purify themselves for six hours before experiencing “immaterial” art.

Abramović’s fears, as well as her hunger for a connection, originate in her youth in postwar Yugoslavia, where her parents gave her a first-rate education in the arts but not a loving childhood.

She found love in 1975, at age 28, in the form of a tall, flamboyant artist named Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen).

Sparks flew during their first encounter, the married Abramović wound up staying in Ulay’s bed for 10 days and the two artists quickly became lovers and collaborators.

Abramović put aside the implements of pain (and her first husband) in favor of love and trust, albeit with an often pointed edge, as in the pair’s famous collaboration “Rest Energy,” in which the two pulled on opposite sides of a drawn bow and arrow, the arrow aimed straight at Abramović’s heart.

Her early work with Ulay, says Peggy Phelan, a performance-art expert at Stanford University, demonstrates a “commitment to performance as a way of understanding love and power that remains … unsurpassed in the history of live art.”

Since her split from Ulay in 1988 — the pair broke up by walking thousands of miles toward each other, in China, for a final goodbye — Abramović has embarked on a new stage of her career.

As her fame has grown, she has become as much art celebrity as artist, one whose ambit now includes the likes of Jay Z, Lady Gaga and James Franco. Gone are the days of putting herself in grave danger with “no security apparatus,” says Phelan, replaced with a “fundamentally different kind of event,” like the one in the MOMA atrium, which had ample security.

Abramović’s evolution has not dulled her ambition. Her chair-inspired insights have sparked plans for a 33,000-square-foot center in Hudson, N.Y., designed by Rem Koolhaas.

The Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) represents not only a chance to cement her own artistic legacy but also to give back to her audience in a more permanent fashion than the all-too-transient performance world typically allows.

Still, the MAI is fundamentally about immateriality. Visitors, who must pledge to stay six hours and don white lab coats, will make their way through a series of exercises, from counting rice grains to sipping water, designed by Abramović to help them restore simplicity in their own lives.

On the surface, such a cultural spa seems a long way from Abramović’s own staged encounters with the razor’s edge. If confronting fear and loneliness requires a sharp instrument, is it sufficient for the rest of us to be threatened with the absence of our phones?

being true to your art is about more than placating the purists.

James Westcott, a biographer of Abramović as well as a former assistant, says she has always seen herself as public property, more like a shaman or priest — with the MAI now as her temple — and she is not one to put her followers in the same danger she would place herself.

“As long as she can get people to an elevated state of consciousness,” says Westcott, “it doesn’t matter if the methods aren’t as extreme or as personal as they were for her back in the ’70s.”

Abramović, in her way, is in accord. Artists exist not just to answer questions but also to “give you a different vision,” she told OZY — including finding connection and beauty and love right in front of you.

“Ultimately, my message is very simple,” she says. “The only way to change the world is to change the self.”

WashPost Makes History:

First Paper to Call for Prosecution of Its Own Source (After Accepting Pulitzer)

Journalistic treachery

Three of the four media outlets that received and published large numbers of secret NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden — The Guardian, the New York Times, and The Intercept –– have called for the U.S. government to allow the NSA whistleblower to return to the U.S. with no charges.

That’s the normal course for a news organization, which owes its sources duties of protection, and which — by virtue of accepting the source’s materials and then publishing them — implicitly declares the source’s information to be in the public interest.

But not the Washington Post

In the face of a growing ACLU and Amnesty-led campaign to secure a pardon for Snowden, timed to this weekend’s release of the Oliver Stone biopic “Snowden,” the Post editorial page today not only argued in opposition to a pardon, but explicitly demanded that Snowden — the paper’s own source — stand trial on espionage charges or, as a “second-best solution,” accept “a measure of criminal responsibility for his excesses and the U.S. government offers a measure of leniency.”

In doing so, the Washington Post has achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source — one on whose back the paper won and eagerly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
But even more staggering than this act of journalistic treachery against the paper’s own source are the claims made to justify it.

The Post editors concede that one — and only one — of the programs that Snowden enabled to be revealed was justifiably exposed — namely, the domestic metadata program, because it “was a stretch, if not an outright violation, of federal surveillance law, and posed risks to privacy.”

Regarding the “corrective legislation” that followed its exposure, the Post acknowledges: “We owe these necessary reforms to Mr. Snowden.” But that metadata program wasn’t revealed by the Post, but rather by The Guardian.

Other than that initial Snowden revelation, the Post suggests, there was no public interest whatsoever in revealing any of the other programs. In fact, the editors say, real harm was done by their exposure.

That includes PRISM, about which the Post says this:

The complication is that Mr. Snowden did more than that. He also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. (It was also not permanent; the law authorizing it expires next year.)

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention?

That the newspaper that (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top-secret manual all over its front page is called … the Washington Post.

Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

If the Post editorial page editors really believe that PRISM was a totally legitimate program and no public interest was served by its exposure, shouldn’t they be attacking their own paper’s news editors for having chosen to make it public, apologizing to the public for harming their security, and agitating for a return of the Pulitzer?

If the Post editorial page editors had any intellectual honesty at all, this is what they would be doing — accepting institutional responsibility for what they apparently regard as a grievous error that endangered the public — rather than pretending that it was all the doing of their source as a means of advocating for his criminal prosecution.

 

Worse than the intellectual dishonesty of this editorial is its towering cowardice.

After denouncing their own paper’s PRISM revelation, the editors proclaim: “Worse, he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations.” But what they inexcusably omit is that it was not Edward Snowden, but the top editors of the Washington Post who decided to make these programs public.

Again, just look at the stories for which the Post was cited when receiving a Pulitzer Prize:

Almost every one of those stories entailed the exposure of what the Post editors today call “details of international intelligence operations.” I personally think there were very solid justifications for the Post’s decision to reveal those.

As Snowden explained in the first online interview with readers I conducted, in July 2013, he was not only concerned about privacy infringement of Americans but of all human beings, because — in his words — “suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95 percent of the world instead of 100 percent. Our founders did not write that ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all U.S. Persons are created equal.’”

So I support the decision of the Post back then to publish documents exposing “international intelligence operations.” That’s because I agree with what Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said in 2014, in an article in the Washington Post where they celebrated their own Pulitzer:

Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said Monday that the reporting exposed a national policy “with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights” and the rights of individuals around the world (emphasis added). “Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service. In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

The editorial page is separate from the news organization and does not speak for the latter; I seriously doubt the journalists or editors at the Post who worked on these news stories would agree with any of that editorial.

But still, if the Post editorial page editors now want to denounce these revelations, and even call for the imprisonment of their paper’s own source on this ground, then they should at least have the courage to acknowledge that it was the Washington Post — not Edward Snowden — who made the editorial and institutional choice to expose those programs to the public.

They might want to denounce their own paper and even possibly call for its prosecution for revealing top-secret programs they now are bizarrely claiming should never have been revealed to the public in the first place.

 

But this highlights a chronic cowardice that often arises when establishment figures want to denounce Snowden. As has been amply documented, and as all newspapers involved in this reporting (including the Post) have made clear, Snowden himself played no role in deciding which of these programs would be exposed (beyond providing the materials to newspapers in the first place).

He did not trust himself to make those journalistic determinations, and so he left it to the newspapers to decide which revelations would and would not serve the public interest.

If a program ended up being revealed, one can argue that Snowden bears some responsibility (because he provided the documents in the first place), but the ultimate responsibility lies with the editors of the paper that made the choice to reveal it, presumably because they concluded that the public interest was served by doing so.

Yet over and over, Snowden critics — such as Slate’s Fred Kaplan and today’s Post editorial — omit this crucial fact, and are thus profoundly misleading.

In attacking Snowden this week, for instance, Kaplan again makes the same point he has made over and over: that Snowden’s revelations extended beyond privacy infringements of Americans.

Leave aside the narcissistic and jingoistic view that whistleblowers and media outlets should only care about privacy infringements of American citizens, but not the 95 percent of the rest of the planet called “non-Americans.”

And let’s also set to the side the fact that many of the most celebrated news stories in U.S. media history were devoted to revealing secret foreign operations that had nothing to do with infringing the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens (such as the Pentagon Papers, Abu Ghraib, and the Post’s revelations of CIA black sites).

What’s critical here is that Kaplan’s list of Bad Snowden Revelations (just like the Post’s) invariably involves stories published not by Snowden (or even by The Intercept or The Guardian), but by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But like the Post editorial page editors, Kaplan is too much of a coward to accuse the nation’s top editors at those two papers of treason, helping terrorists, or endangering national security, so he pretends that it was Snowden, and Snowden alone, who made the choice to reveal these programs to the public.

If Kaplan and the Post editors truly believe that all of these stories ought to have remained secret and have endangered people’s safety, why are they not attacking the editors and newspapers that made the ultimate decision to expose them? Snowden himself never publicly disclosed a single document, so any programs that were revealed were the ultimate doing of news organizations.

Whatever else may be true, one’s loyalty to U.S. government officials has to be slavish in the extreme in order to consider oneself a journalist while simultaneously advocating the criminalization of transparency, leaks, sources, and public debates.

But that’s not new: There has long been in the U.S. a large group that ought to call itself U.S. Journalists Against Transparency: journalists whose loyalty lies far more with the U.S. government than with the ostensible objectives of their own profession, and thus routinely take the side of those keeping official secrets rather than those who reveal them, even to the point of wanting to see sources imprisoned.

But what makes today’s Washington Post editorial so remarkable, such a tour de force, is that the editors are literally calling for the criminal prosecution of one of the most important sources in their own newspaper’s history.

Having basked in the glory of awards and accolades, and benefited from untold millions of clicks, the editorial page editors of the Post now want to see the source who enabled all of that be put in an American cage and branded a felon. That is warped beyond anything that can be described.

What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture

From her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries.

But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004.

The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Maria Popova posted:

Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

What might Sontag say of the exponentially more exacting struggle against the cultural momentum of cynicism a mere decade later?

With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:

A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:

The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.

Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ideas on how storytelling transmutes information into wisdom — Sontag was a great admirer and rereader of his work — she adds:

To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.

Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.

Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:

By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards.

By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent

This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own.

They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

In a sentiment that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that creativity is the act of choosing the good ideas from among the bad ones, Sontag defines what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective.

The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.

[…]

The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:

Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts.

(Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:

Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.

[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”

Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one.

A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.

Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders.

One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models “competing for our loyalty and attention”:

There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media.

Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.”

One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:

Literature tells stories. Television gives information.

Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.

The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding.

(This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning.

(Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed

Sontag, who had admonished against reducing culture to “content” half a century before the term became the currency of said commercial media, writes:

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle.

It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time.

(“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

At the Same Time is an indispensable read in its entirety — an eternally nourishing serving of wisdom from one of the most expansive and luminous minds humanity ever produced.

Complement it with Sontag on love, art, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on writing.


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