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Marina Abramovi: Witnessing Shadows Author(s): Peggy Phelan Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, No.

4, Theorizing the Performer (Dec., 2004), pp. 569-577 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25069529 . Accessed: 10/05/2011 16:45
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Peggy Phelan
Born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Marina Abramovic might be too old to qualify as an "'It' girl"?but attention, if certainly she is enjoying a new level of concentrated not quite celebrity. Her performance in New York's Sean Kelly Gallery in November 2002, The House with theOcean View, won the New York Dance and Performance Award (the Bessie) and Best Show in a Commercial Gallery from the International Association of Art Critics. The same performance was featured on HBO's Sex and the City during its sixth season in 2003, and the New York Times ran four pieces about Abramovic's (the world's performance, including a short interview in the Sunday Magazine largest
circulating magazine).1

Abramovic has been positioning herself for this kind of fame for some time now. She won the Golden Lion Award for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale for Balkan and mournful her meditative installation about the disaster in Baroque, performance her collaborative walk with Ulay across the Great Wall of the Balkans. Before that, a lot of attention as well. But those pieces were celebrated China (1986) commanded for the endurance and strength they required. In 1998, Abramovic began to change her some degree, her work as well. The cover of her extraordinary image, and to catalog, Marina Abramovic: Artist Body, features a photograph of her romping on a beach holding a beach ball aloft.2 This same image adorns the espresso cups designed by Illy
and sometimes now available on eBay . Posing more in the mode of a movie star than

an ordeal artist, Abramovic's but they are not responsible

not entirely unwelcome, I'm

recent photographs might have helped stoke her fame, fame and its ties to the market?while for it.Abramovic's
sure?sit uneasily with some of the premises of her art.

is the Ann O'Day Maples in the Arts and Professor Chair Peggy Phelan of Drama, Stanford She is the author of the Survey essays for Art and Feminism, Helena ed. (Phaidon Reckitt,

University. and 2001)

Sex: Performing Public Pipilotti Rist (Phaidon 2001). She is also the author of Mourning Memories (Routledge 1997) and Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (Routledge 1993). She
coedited The late Lynda Currently Routledge. Ends Hart, she Press of Performance (New York University she coedited Acting Performances Out: Feminist a book entitled Twentieth is writing Century 1997) with Jill (University Performance, Lane. And with the 1993). ofMichigan to be by published

"A Viewable New York Times 10 November Fast, Enforced 2002; Henry Madoff, by Knives," but Also Creating," Is Not Only Believing, New York Times 22 November Smith, "When Seeing on an Ordeal That Was Also Art," The New York Times 28 2002; Steven Henry Madoff, "Reflecting Saint Louis, "What Were They Thinking: The Way We Live Now," New November 2002; and Catherine York Times Magazine 15 December 2002. 2 Marina Artist Body: Performances 1969-1998 Abramovic, (Milan: Charta, 1998). Roberta

1 Steven






2004 by The

Johns Hopkins




Peggy Phelan
the art Abramovic questions makes and the form about both art and capital in

Or to put it slightly differently, the gap between of itsmost recent celebration raises interesting
the new century. came of age as an artist in the





art's most


and daring decade. But unlike Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, all of whom were working in the capitalist Adrian Piper, or Dennis Oppenheim, was art in States in the early 1970s, Abramovic United exploring performance art of under Tito's regime. A significant aspect of the US-based performance Belgrade to the commodity the early 1970s defined itself in opposition based art market. to create art that had no object, no remaining trace to be sold, collected, or Attempting
otherwise "arrested," performance artists of the seventies were working against the

accumulative logic of capital. Adrian based art in 1970:

All a around me I see

Piper articulated

the problems with


on which good

are based they idea after all. rather while themselves artists

and museums galleries crumbles. This makes That the value of That an interest.

faltering me realize artwork inconceivable


as the closing capitalist that art as a commodity has somehow become amounts of money secretarial work are

structure isn't such to

monetary on objects, support

that aesthetic and

subject lavished

the artist [sic] product, innovate. That the artist wouldn't civil seem so servants who

in to their energy and in order expend plumbing on a to their art. That by depending and sell his gallery package a to sell rather becomes who work tailored than parasite produces as parasite if artists dies when the host necessarily had the same social and financial to their community.3 dies. status That all this as all other

inevitable provide

a service

Some quaint.

thirty years on, Piper's The connection between

as art and capital have

seems almost survey of the crumbling art market the parasite and host, however, has only gained in
become ever more intimate. Antonia Fraser's video,

clear. Shown at the Untitled this parasitic (2003), makes relationship depressingly in New York 10 June-9 July 2004, Untitled Friedrich Petzel Gallery is a video
documenting a collector and Fraser having sex. According to the gallery's website,

Fraser suggested
Untitled, Gallery for the which 2003

the idea and asked

was initiated a commission were recorded to on in 2002 with include videotape,

the gallery
when a

to find the collector:

Fraser approached on her behalf. between Friedrich The Petzel


to arrange commission be

private a sexual with

collector encounter the


participating ment shot

first exemplar of is a silent, collector. The unedited, resulting videotape sixty-minute a room with camera in a hotel and existing stationary lighting.4

requirements Fraser and a collector, to the the edition going docu

three all seem to have gotten what they wanted: the gallery got some videos sexual encounter?); Fraser got a big payday of the exemplar/y (the collector (copies and a lot of press; and the collector got to be both patron and collector paid $20,000) (and he appears to have enjoyed the sex). The price for copies of the video, Fraser in New York.5 reports, rose during the exhibition The


to Myself: of an Art Object," The Ongoing in Out of Order, Piper, "Talking Autobiography 1 (Cambridge: MIT Press, inMeta-Art, Volume 1968-1992, 1996), 40. of Sight: Selected Writings 4 See http://www.petzel.com. 5 Jerry Saltz, "Super Theory Woman." http://www.Artnet.com (July 2004).

3 Adrian



While Fraser and the Petzel Gallery seem to have hoped that the work would be seen as part of Fraser 's ongoing interest in "institutional of critique," her examination the political literal enactment of the art world?the of the relationship economy of art. The utter loss of metaphor between art and prostitution?robs the performance at the center of the video action, a kind of check-the-box rehearsal of common heterosexual sustain to the central frame necessary collapses the crucial division, positions, I contacted the conversation between art and life. More depressing still, when the gallery to inquire if the collector wore a condom and if Fraser had an orgasm? both issues central to the "institutional and its representa critique" of heterosexuality tions?the gallery told me they would not answer my questions because they were
"not relevant to the work."6 Great art accumulates relevance and meaning as itmoves

beyond the control of its creators; weak art decides in advance what the piece is about. about what is and is not relevant to contemporary art critical discussion Constraining not only makes things dull and boring, it reveals a lack of faith in the quality of the

the literalism attendant upon acting out simple analogical propositions While such as "art is like prostitution" has haunted performance art from the start, the limitations of this literalism have been long ignored by performance theorists. Indeed, it could be that performance has celebrated the incipient literalism of the form. argued theory confronts Piper again: "The immediacy of the artist's presence as art-work/catalysis a broader, more powerful, the viewer with and more ambiguous situation than discrete forms or objects."7 While I agree entirely with Piper, the ever-growing cultural in the United States?an uneasiness with "ambiguous situations" anxiety especially meant evident in Bush's White House?has that what began in the seventies as an examination of the often arbitrary line between art/life has turned into an energetic a robust sense of "life" as something other than erasure of that line entirely. Without
art, the terms collapse into one another and we are left with an all-performance-all-the

time reality, a reality that risks making Perhaps,

art nothing more

than amode

of documentation.

of Fraser 's then, it should not surprise us that video documentation sit so congenially within the commodity would fetishism that still performance all other markets). Fraser 's video, however, seems already the art market (and inspires as a in relation to work dated and pass?, especially that views the art market
subsidiary, rather than central, motivation for making art. In the case of Marina

seems decidedly Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View, commercial marketing I do not believe it is possible beside the point, for reasons we shall see shortly While art as somehow to think of performance I do "beyond" or "outside" the art market, continue to believe that one of the most politically radical aspects of live art is its
resistance to commodity form.

art a like Piper, considered early solo pieces, Abramovic, performance in consciousness. for experiments But whereas Piper was interested in how laboratory consciousness might be changed by politically progressive and sophisticated perform was interested in pushing her own consciousness to its limit. She ance, Abramovic In her

6 E-mail 7 Piper,

reply Talking

from Maureen toMyself,

Sarro, Director, 42-43.




20 July 2004.



Peggy Phelan
realize that exploring consciousness required a willingness to be uncon

In Rhythm 2 and Rhythm 5, both made in 1974, she lost consciousness during once intentionally In Rhythm 5, Abramovic and once accidentally. her performance, a five-pointed star made from wood constructed shavings soaked in gasoline. She lit star and then walked around it, cutting her hair and nails and throwing them into the each end of the star. She then lay down inside the star; not realizing that the flames consume all of the oxygen in the inner area of the star, she lost consciousness. would scious. In Rhythm 2, she took drugs designed for treating catatonia and schizophrenia, passing seem more sensational out from the latter. In retrospect, perhaps these works might an insight into than illuminating, but performing these extreme acts gave Abramovic nature of "solo" and the oxymoronic the line between strength and vulnerability, In Rhythm 5, for example, a doctor in the audience realized that her performance. clothes were star. Rather dedicated ness was on fire and that she was not moving, and he pulled than being chastened the need for rescue, by in which her own herself to designing performances not necessary for the completion of the event itself. her out of the burning however, Abramovic individual conscious

She said, "After this in and out of consciousness body that her art was quite literally more in which her conscious presence than her mind, she created performances important was both a provocative and strangely irrelevant, if not quite com anchoring point I ask[ed] myself how to use my performance, without the performance."8 Deciding interrupting pletely expendable. in another

often said,

tradition, Andy Warhol

my art," he meant

came to a similar conclusion.

both that his actual presence



can make

art and that anyone who stepped inwould, needed for the execution of his mechanical In this statement, Warhol of course, be making Warhols (and not, say, Phelans). are all artists" and retains the proprietary ideal of "we straddles both the democratic in the Warholian economy of power in the marketplace?even democracy, "my" is

as allies since, on the it is a bit jarring to think ofWarhol and Abramovic Admittedly, surface at least, their work seems so absolutely different. But while they took different to completing routes to arrive at the notion that they were not necessary their work, in the impersonality and while had different reasons for believing of art, their they
mutual conviction that the artist's consciousness is not necessary for art is worth

tour de force, Shadows (1978), shares a pondering. Warhol's grand environmental trait with Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View. Auratic and abstract, surprising literal and expansive, both artworks operate in an economy predicated on the belief that emptying out and erasing the self and the objects used to sustain that self (from food to creates extraordinary plastic form) paradoxically abundance might well be a kind of vast emptiness, form and formlessness, Warhol between knowing But the price of this abundance. a glimpse of the threshold between and unknowing, between life and death.

claimed famously arrived at shortly after he was

is the best art," a conviction he that "good business started his professional shot by Valerie Solanas.9 Having

8 Artist Body, 69. Abramovic, 9 The Philosophy Andy Warhol, & Company, 1975), 92.

of Andy Warhol:

From AtoB

and Back Again

(New York: Harcourt



career as a commercial


artist, Warhol became a fine artist, then aspired to be a business artist. His Factory and film production work were signs of his desire to think of art as a mode of commerce. But while this aspiration has often been viewed as crass and most of the art he actually made is subtle, complicated, and astonishingly cynical, Shadows is among his most brilliant works. Commissioned sophisticated. by the Lone Star Foundation the Dia Center for the Arts), Warhol's Shadows was first (now in January 1979. Twenty years later, Dia again exhibited exhibited the installation 60 of the 102 panels of the work were hung edge to (1998-99). In both installations, and close to the floor. The paintings are each 76 x 52 inches and range in color edge from Day-Glo brown. In the 1998-99 exhibition, green tomud-like they covered the room. Attending entire circumference of the lower part of Dia's the first large is almost nothing on them. Yet they seem exhibition, Julian Schnabel observed, "There to be pictures of something."10 While accounts of what that something is vary, one can like shadows themselves, capture what Wallace safely say the abstract paintings, Stevens aptly described as "the nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is."11 in a room surrounded in negative Standing by their colors, one feels enveloped and stylization of a lost light source, remade into a vast reflection. The preservation feel. The screens seem to chamber of new light, color, and texture, has an alchemical to vision the poststructuralist confirm and extend phrase, "the presence of absence." Trevor Fairbrother has linked Shadows toWarhol's Skulls, and suggests that both are on death.12 I find them less somber and dark than Skulls, primarily meditations because they refuse to take definitive shape or to yield some knowable underlying object of which they are a reflection. They function as copies for which no original can be deduced. The serialization of the image of negative reflection bespeaks a resistance to the consolations of form, even while the repetition elegantly composes amesmeriz of texture, scale, and color.13 In 1981, three years after completing the ing environment a self-portrait called The Shadow, suggesting that his own series, Warhol composed identity was the distillation of the history of his own negative reflections. The dizzying force of Warhol's environment (he referred to the serialized Shadows as "disco d?cor") comes from the realization that one spends all one's time looking at them and sees both the effort to see and the paintings' repeated refusal to yield anything but that I saw Shadows at Dia in 1999,1 was aware both of my effort to "get" the effort. When and the energetic pursuit made by other viewers with me in the space to paintings, power. This shared sense of effort (a sense that grasp the source of the paintings' was somehow exhilarating rather than defeating) was part of failure but encompassed and theatrical. This effort cannot be what made these works essentially environmental sold and displayed, but it is central toWarhol's best art. Abramovic's House might best be seen as a late flowering of environmental theatre, a bloom based on a radical paring away of the noise and hubbub usually general associated with such work. Abramovic lived in the Sean Kelly Gallery for twelve days, notes, fasting and refraining from talking, reading, or writing. As Thomas McEvilley

10 Shadow Paintings "Preface," Andy Warhol: Julian Schnabel, (New York: Gagosian 1989), Gallery, 11 in Harmonium "The Snow Man," Wallace Stevens, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), 24. 12 Trevor Fairbrother, in 77m? Work of Andy Warhol "Skulls," (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989), 95-114. 13 see Lynne Cooke, For further discussion Warhol's Shadows," "Andy http://www.diachelsea.org /exhibs/ warhol/shadows/.



Peggy Phelan


decision to live in the gallery repeats and extends similar decisions made artists in the seventies, including Chris Burden, Linda Montano, by performance and others.14 But in these works, the artists Gerard Richter, Gilbert and George,
performed "for" the audience, rather than "with" the audience.


in the public was invited to the gallery to participate installation, she called "an energy dialogue." This consisted primarily of an exchange of gaze in turn, the artist and her spectators between (usually one at a time). This exchange, across three was observed by the other viewers.15 Abramovic her time moving spent center about six feet from the floor, and buttressed with stages, each suspended ladders with butcher knives for rungs. The stage to the viewer's left had a toilet and table and chair with a large crystal embedded shower, the center stage had a wooden in its back, and the right stage had a wooden platform for a bed. Each day the artist In Abramovic's wore a different

color linen jacket and trousers. A metronome was also usually clicking one calls it environmental the performance. Whether theatre or social throughout in at work of the repetition and serialization House extends something sculpture, Shadows into the realm of live art. While Warhol was operating within the Warhol's economy of the object and setting up repeating copies of the same image, Abramovic was theatricalizing the repetitive everyday acts of sleeping, showering, eliminating waste, and sitting at a table. But these acts, each perhaps an homage to the quotidian, a literal treatment of these common acts. On the did not render the performance were dense, and metaphorical associations from the symbolic contrary, ranging acts of a Sufi mystic. The accumulation of Kafka's Hunger Artist to the prayerful associations

and meanings



to bear on the art quite

literally added

to its

At the core of Abramovic's House is the belief that live performance might illuminate as and repeated attempt to grasp, if not fully apprehend, consciousness the mutual and immensely vast and impersonal. While many simultaneously intensely personal to similar relationships Zen Buddhism?postulate spiritual traditions?especially art is fundamentally theatrical in the sense that it depends Abramovic's consciousness,
on an audience. Moreover, the public nature of Abramovic's meditation rendered the

an experiment in intersubjectivity. experience has been Intersubjective performance and celebrated for a long time, but rarely has it been theorized, idealized, disdained, offered as the centerpiece of a five-day-long performance. encounter that ethics is Emmanuel Levinas argues that it is in the face-to-face is couched in markedly different language, but distilled.17 Abramovic's performance the ideas are startlingly similar. The House with the Ocean View combines themes and and nurtured over thirty years of performance Abramovic has developed methods

McEvilley, "Performing View (Milan: Charta, 2003), 167-69. 15 see Marina For a fuller discussion, by Thomas McEvilley, 16 This accumulation Untitled, in which both be seen. might 17 Emmanuel (Pittsburgh: Cindy Carr, of reference the artist Ethics University

14 Thomas

the Present Abramovic: RoseLee and


inMarina with

Abramovic: the Ocean

The House

with includes

the Ocean

The House

View, which


Chrissie Goldberg, range of meaning might seek to patrol with

Phelan. lies, and Peggy be seen in direct contrast the frameworks through trans.

to Fraser's the art Cohen

and and

the gallery

which Richard



Infinity: Conversations Press, 1985).





itwould be false to call House the culmination of Abramovic's practice. While study? on this performance she plans to continue working and to do it again?nonetheless, the performance certain concepts in live art that I think are worth consolidated

These concepts include the still complex relationship between the commodity and live art. In the twelve years since Iwrote "The ontology of performance: representation without the technology live art has grown reproduction," capable of broadcasting enormously18 Now we have streaming video, webcasts, digital video, and other media can give us something that live events. These technologies resembles the live event, but they remain something other than live perform closely ance. In terms of performance's ontological question, streaming video functions in the a still photograph works: it conveys the work but it is not the live event itself. way remains a compelling art because it contains the possibility Performance of both the actor and the spectator becoming transformed during the event's unfolding. People can often have significant and film experiences of spectatorship watching meaningful or streaming video. But these are less interesting to me because the experiences
spectator's response cannot alter the pre-recorded or the remote performance, and in

able to record and circulate

are indifferent to the response of the sense, these representations other. Interactivity holds more promise, but thus farmost of the technology delimits in advance the kinds of interaction possible between audience members and performers. of this reminds me of the illusionary notion of "letting the audience decide" the (Some theatrical casts rehearsed multiple endings of certain plays. Essentially, endings and then picked which of the prescripted actions they would offer in response to the this fundamental
audience's "choice.")

In live performance, the potential for the event to be transformed in unscripted (both the artists and the viewers) makes itmore exciting to ways by those participating me. This is precisely where the liveness of performance art matters. Of course, a great number of performances do not approach this potential at all, and many spectators and performers have no interest in this aspect of the live event. But the possibility of mutual transformation of both the observer and the performer within the enactment of the live event is extraordinarily important, because this is the point where the aesthetic related to live art because both are joins the ethical.19 The ethical is fundamentally arenas for the unpredictable force of the social event. makes consideration of the commodity aspect of live performance object at best. While the logic of capital certainly produces ethical considerations, secondary concerns the ethical and the aesthetic tout the particular force of live performance court. The House with the Ocean View illuminates the pivotal oscillation between the ethical and the aesthetic. Emptying herself out, becoming physically smaller in front of our eyes, Abramovic to invoke the economy of literal (female) sacrifice and managed but also to sidestep them. (Although itwould be hard to deny (pseudo)-martyrdom, This

18 "The ontology of performance: in Unmarked: without Peggy Phelan, representation reproduction," the politics of performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 146-66. 19 For a fuller discussion of the ethical and the aesthetic live culture and things of see, "Performance, in conversation the heart: Peggy Phelan with Marquard Smith," The Journal of Visual Culture 2(3) (2003): 291-302.


Peggy Phelan

that there was a spiritual, if not exactly religious, cast to the whole event, in part At the end of her twelve-day the three raised stages resembled altars.) came down from the stage and addressed her viewers. She performance, Abramovic explained that she thought of her piece as a response to the events of 9/11. She said, "I want to dedicate this work to New York and to the people of New York. In a city that to create an island of time." By remaining silent for twelve days has no time Iwanted because and inviting opportunity for the first time. to join her in that silence, she gave some observers viewers to dwell within their own memories of the events of that calamitous the day

Jacques Lacan claimed that love is a giving of what one does not have.20 In giving also time to those who had none in the fevered frenzy of that morning, Abramovic and gave us, love. Addressing both those who came to see her in the gave them, gallery and those who had ceased to see, The House with the Ocean View was perched of the here and now of twelve days in New York, between the specific concentration and abstract pull of the history of war and geography. This and the more complicated abstraction was not so much a lesson in the facts of different wars and terrorist acts; it
was more a meditation about the vastness of intent, cause, and meaning.

In making that Abramovic also the world her stage, RoseLee Goldberg suggests in decades."21 Part created "without a doubt one of the most important live art works or exhausted is its inability to be communicated of what makes the work so powerful it generates.22 One can describe the commentary the setting and the physical by movements this House took place in the of the performance, but the art that made between the spaces we saw, in the eyes and minds of the artist and the viewers spaces of liminality, who sat silently and were transformed. A celebration and dramatization In House resists the commodity and logic of discrete forms that fuel the art market. is this, I am not saying that no objects will be sold, or that the performance saying "beyond" this piece. the market. But I am saying that there are other kinds of capital at work in

can be celebrated and made I The performance famous. But can it be understood? on two different days, gave a talk about it at the T?te the performance attended and have written about it here and elsewhere.23 But I do not think I have Modern, to approach what really occurred in the performance, primarily because Iwas begun a witness in the realm of I was to something I did not see and cannot describe. the trace of a history of negative Warhol's reflections that refused to Shadows, seeing find form.

in ?crits: A Selection, trans. Alan Schneider of the Phallus," (New Jacques Lacan, "The Signification York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 281-92. 21 inMarina Abramovic: The House with the Ocean View "The Theater RoseLee of the Body," Goldberg, 2003), 157. (Milan: Charta, 22 to the commentaries In addition cited in the New York Times and the 2003 Charta catalog already "Marina Abramovic: The House to the piece, other significant include: devoted James Westcott, essays with the Ocean View," The Drama Review 47.3 (T179): 129-36; and Laurie Anderson, "Marina This The House with essay Bomb Magazine 84, http://www.bombsite.com/abramovic/abramovic.html. the artists. interview?more of a conversation?between Abramovic: in Live, ed. Adrian Abramovic," includes View The a


wide-ranging 23 in Marina the Invisible," "On Seeing Phelan, Peggy also appear 2003), 171-79. The essay will (Milan: Charta, T?te Modern, 2004).

the Ocean (London:





what one did not (and perhaps condition of witnessing cannot) see is the we are now entering. Whether we call this period "the post condition of whatever age both by an intimate postmodern age" or "the age of terrorism," it is characterized to the fragility of life and a more general sense of connection to one reawakening or cultural another that exceeds simple geophysical, ideological, proximity. If Levinas is right, and the face-to-face encounter is the most crucial arena in which the ethical bond we share becomes manifest, then live theatre and performance might speak to with renewed vigor. So far the language of this conversation has been philosophy nonverbal. Becoming fluent will require practice, patience, humility, and the largely that the social body, like our own all-too-human recognition body, is both stronger than we guessed and unbearably tender. The connection between the social body and the mortal body is defiantly metaphorical. The metaphorical is fused by link, however, the literal physical body?whether the body of a suicide bomber or of an earnest its actions and inactions make vivid the drama we face every moment artist?as of this, our dismaying young century.