Marina Abramović, Art Must Be Beautiful, 1975
The female nude is an all too familiar figure in the history of Western art. There is a lot that is troubling about representations of the female form in art and the notion of beauty as an essential facet of art. Seen in the context of this, Marina Abramović’s Art Must Be Beautiful is an intriguing work. Abramović is seen brushing and combing her hair, repeatedly and with an intensity that makes the performance – or the video documentation of it – really hard to watch at times. Abramović accompanies the often violent hair brushing with a mantra ‘art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful’. The notion that art must – or at least, should – be beautiful remains a quite widely held belief albeit one that has been widely challenged over the last hundred and fifty years or so.
As a performance artist, Abramović uses her own body – often nude, in the 1970s at least – as subject matter, surface and tool; in doing so she tests both her own endurance and, to a lesser extent, that of her audience. The grim determination with which she apparently seeks beauty through extreme grooming here certainly tests the viewer; though Abramović is beautiful, the work is too painful to watch to be described the same way. Coupled with the second half of the mantra – the rather more unusual assertion that the artist must be beautiful – the first part of the equation starts to sound bizarre. Abramović’s work is seldom less than compelling and this is a work I find it impossible to turn away from even as I find it painful to watch. I’m not sure I ever believed that art must be beautiful – though I’m quite happy that so much of it is – but Abramović confirms for me that there’s plenty of room for art that is challenging both aesthetically and conceptually. The artist has no particular need to be beautiful but stamina and a health dose of obsession can certainly come in handy. As can a decent hairbrush, it seems.