The audience suddenly found paper towels drenched in -what could be- HIV positive blood hanging right above their heads…
This is a ‘scene’ from a performance titled ‘Four Scenes from a Tough Life’ by gay artist Ron Athey, who made cuts in his co-performer’s back and soaked the paper towels in it. And even though the blood was not HIV positive, you can imagine both the panic of some, the anguish of others, not to mention the perplexed and aggressive reaction of the critics (add to that the fact that Athey was financed in part by public money). What was Ron Athey thinking?
In her book ‘But is it Art?’, Cynthia Freeland refers to the strong ‘ritual’ quality of blood and what it means to different cultures and within different contexts. Athey explores issues of sexuality and physical pain, as well as elements of masochism that are strongly present in his works. In these works, blood is more than just a ‘medium’, it’s more of a ‘ritual’ that incarnates an extreme human condition (of a man dying slowly?).
So many people find the idea of using real blood or the practice of self-mutilation in live performances appalling and, to say the least, ‘un-artistic’. They hate it and they protest to labeling it art at all. They forget that art is an expression of the human condition, and that these ‘extremes’ form part of our contemporary reality. Art has never been as faithful to reality as it is in Contemporary Art, the problem is that those who hate / reject certain aspects of this reality will also reject the corresponding art mirroring this reality.
That brings us to another question? Is it art or ritual? Should we consider every expression of the human condition ‘art’? While I can answer the first question (to me it’s art because it is ‘performed’ rather than ‘practiced’), I do not dare tackle the second. It would be better to let you reflect without conditioning your thinking.