Sunday, November 14, 2010

Oleg Mavromati truly suffers for his art

There are several cliches about what makes an artist great. One of the main ones is that he must have suffered deeply somehow.

Notable painters in particular seem to have lived pain-filled lives more often than not. Take Van Gogh. While he was definitely hugely talented and his art spoke for itself, I doubt very much that he would now be held in such high esteem had he not been such a tortured and miserable bastard.

It's a weird phenomenon. But I think it's basically because the idea of someone doggedly honing his craft for decades on end and at great pains to himself (and those around him) is widely seen as romantic and exciting. People (often mistakenly) believe that all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the artist's work necessarily gives it substantially more gravitas and depth.

I think that's part of the reason so many artists and performers are addicts of some sort. It's not just that they have little self restraint or need to self medicate. Some of them indulge so heavily in drugs or alcohol (or both) almost as a career decision. They are consciously (or rather, semi-consciously) tapping into that image of danger, risk, and ultimately suffering that is so often associated with great artists.

That said, in most cases the suffering they put themselves and others through is not central to the art they produce. It tends to occur in their personal lives and while it's part of the emotional stew they draw from in producing their work, it's not an overt part of it.

But here's a case which bucks that trend. Suffering is a big part of the artwork itself. A Russian by the name of Oleg Mavromati has set up a strange and disturbing living art installation featuring himself. He's hooked himself up to the internet and whenever 100 online viewers vote for him to be given an electric shock, he actually receives one. It's his way of making a statement against religious oppression.

I don't doubt his sincerity. And he certainly seems much more courageous than most artists in the west, who rarely suffer any negative consequences for their art no matter how provocative it is. (Mavromati has so angered the Russian Orthodox church in the past that he had to flee to Bulgaria.)

But I have to ask, where's the art? Call me old fashioned, but Mavromati hasn't really created anything. He's just performing a masochistic public stunt. It's something anyone could do if they were committed (or crazy!) enough.

Still, it's garnered him a lot of publicity, and will certainly add to his reputation as a cutting edge artist. It's got suffering in spades, after all. It also employs shock value. That's clearly another crucial requirement for art nowadays - even if the person the art shocks the most is the artist himself.

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