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Identity and Cultural Expression: An Interview with Robert Priseman

Lucy Cox: Why have gender, race and sexuality become dominant themes in the art world?

Robert Priseman: Many shifts in thinking appear to have enabled the western art world to transform from being primarily concerned with nature, religion, and power to one focused mainly on personal identity. 

Perhaps the first and most significant occurred in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp inverted a porcelain urinal, titled it Fountain, signed it ‘R. Mutt’ and submitted it anonymously to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Fountain, possibly Duchamp’s most famous artwork, is one of thirteen ready-mades he produced over thirty years which helped establish the idea that anything can become an art object merely by the artist deciding it so.

By 1973 a second significant turning point occurred when Joseph Beuys invented ‘social sculpture.’[i] Beuys, who built on the romantic ideas of writers such as Schiller, believed that society as a whole should be one work of art to which each person could contribute creatively, a theory perhaps best distilled in his phrase ‘every human being is an artist’.[ii]

These concepts bring together the simple idea that anyone can be an artist, and anything can become an art object by the artist merely deciding it so. The two combined dismantle a common historical orthodoxy that crafts were for the masses and a social elite made fine art for a social elite. In short, it democratised fine art and removed a previous understanding of it being an exclusively bourgeois pursuit.

Whilst ‘ready-mades’ were initially slow to take off, the concept has become widely adopted by artists, art schools, galleries, and museums, culminating into newer forms such as performance, installation and conceptual art. Duchamp and Beuys helped unlock fine art for anyone and everyone to engage with and enjoy. This appears to have inadvertently created a crisis of identity for the art world whereby no single object can ascend to a position of meaningful engagement over and above anything else. 

It seems to me the way contemporary art galleries and museums have navigated around this dilemma is by shifting their focus from the merits of artwork to the virtues of particular people. An example of this occurred in 2014, in London, when Hans Ulrich Obrist, Director of the Serpentine Galleries, commissioned a new work of art by the Serbian conceptual and performance artist Marina Abramović. In a BBC interview, Abramović described the origin of the work she eventually offered: ‘I called Hans, and I said, “I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but this is what I want to do: nothing … there’s nothing.” No work, just me; the public is my live material, and that’s the most radical, the most pure I can do.’[iii] She titled the performance piece 512 Hours, named after the exhibition’s duration, which lasted sixty-four days, six days a week. 

Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. Photograph via Wikipedia Commons.
7000 Oaks by Joseph Beuys, 1982, Kessel. Photograph via Something Curated.

LC: How does this indicate a shift in focus towards the theme of personal identity?

RP: The Serpentine promoted Abramović’s piece as a ‘unique work’[vi] created for the gallery. Subsequently, the Guardian newspaper reported that a group of historians and curators had sent a letter to the Serpentine accusing Abramović of failing to acknowledge the influence of artist Mary Ellen Carroll.[v] Carroll has been creating an on-going project titled Nothing, in which she addresses the concept of ‘nothing’, since the 1990s[vi]. The historians and curators explained how Abramović’s failure to cite this influence would be detrimental to Carroll’s ability to perform Nothing in future. Their letter was reportedly sent to Obrist and signed by a number of leading art world figures, including David Joselit, a professor at the City University of New York, Frazer Ward, a professor at Smith College, and Yona Backer, an arts consultant to the Lambent Foundation. Joselit told the Guardian that he felt it was important for Abramović to ‘acknowledge this genealogy’ because, although the works were different, both addressed ‘the question of doing nothing’. 

Carroll’s defenders represent an ideology of the past where critics, curators, and historians valued the merits of works of art and decided their place within the canon of art history. By contrast, the Serpentine Galleries denote a new chapter of thinking that art alone is no longer enough for judgement. Instead, it is now for curators and experts to decide who is and is not an artist and whereabouts they will appear on the artistic scale. Ultimately, this new wave of art specialists can ignore the integrity of works of art in favour of a hierarchy of people and judge one person as having a higher status than another. 

Marina Abramović, 2014. Photograph via The Serpentine Galleries.

The Serpentine Galleries defended 512 Hours and, in response to the artist’s performance, wrote: ‘The pared-down nature of this exhibition corresponds to Abramović’s interest in the historically well-established relationship between art and ‘nothingness’; visual artists including Robert Barry, John Cage, Mary Ellen Carroll, Robert Irwin, Yves Klein, Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono, to name only a very few, have all explored the notion of material absence within their practice. The idea of emptiness––of minimalism, reduction, and simplicity––plays an intrinsic role in Abramović’s work, and has increasingly led to more and more of less and less.’

With regards to John Cage, The Serpentine Galleries refer to his 1952 performance 4’33. This composition, which lasted four minutes and thirty-three seconds, was made for any instrument or a combination of instruments; the score instructed performers not to play during the piece’s entire duration. Whilst performed, the composition consists of sounds of the environment that listeners hear. Conceived around 1947–48, while Cage was working on Sonatas and Interludes, for him, it became the epitome of his idea that sounds might constitute music. Simultaneously, the composition reflected Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, which he had studied since the late 1940s. 

Similarly, between 1947 and 1948, Yves Klein formulated his Monotone Symphony constituting a 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence. Klein, born in Nice in 1928, studied Rosicrucian philosophy and Judo. He described how age nineteen, while laying on a beach, he experienced a ‘realistic-imaginary’ mental journey into the blue depths and, on reflection, declared ‘I have written my name on the far side of the sky!’[vii] In his imaginary wandering and philosophical beliefs, Klein sought an artistic engagement with the infinite. Inspired by the experience, in 1956 he created and patented a highly saturated version of the colour French Ultramarine, which he titled International Klein Blue, also known as IKB. The following year Klein organised several exhibitions known collectively as The Blue Epoch, in which IKB was applied to objects and canvases and displayed. Klein associated the colour blue with the sea and the sky; the limitless void of space. In 1958 while in Paris, he further explored the notion of the limitless void and arranged an exhibition of emptiness; the gallery, with its furniture removed, was painted white. 

John Cage preparing a piano. Photograph via SASSAS.

John Cage, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48), vinyl. Photograph via Discogs.
IKB 191 by Yves Klein, 1962; one of a number of works Klein painted with International Klein Blue. Photograph via Wikipedia Commons.
Yves Klein, Yves Klein in the Void Room, 1960. Photograph via Abe Books.

LC: How is 512 Hours different from the work of people like Cage and Klein?

RP: Cage and Klein used music and paint to capture a small piece of the world around us. In doing so, they show how, if we open our eyes and our minds, the banality of the world also contains all the beauty and majesty we could hope to find in even the most significant works of art. They deliberately sought to shift our perception from ourselves to the world that surrounds us. The Serpentine Galleries and Abramović, on the other hand, have done something different: the gallery acted as a frame, in particular its opening times and the duration of the exhibition, within which Abramović presented herself as the central theme of the artwork. Indeed, one could argue that by setting the opening hours, the Serpentine helped create the artwork, with gallery and artist working in collaboration. So, it appears that the world around us is not significant for either the Serpentine or Abramović; instead, the two represent the elevated individual. 

512 Hours evolved from an earlier artwork Abramović performed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010 titled The Artist is Present, which itself had emerged out of a 1981–87 collaboration between Abramović and her former partner Ulay, titled Nightsea Crossing. The pair sat motionless at either end of a table facing each other. 

Marina Abramović and Ulay, Nightsea Crossing, 1982. Photograph via the Pomeranz Collection.
Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010. Photograph via MoMa.

MoMA details how in The Artist is Present Abramović was ‘seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair; she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. For nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.’ In a review for, Charlie Finch describes the exhibition as ‘a watershed of feminism. Marina said to the women sitting across from her in The Artist Is Present, “I’ll be your mirror.” Marina’s show is psychoanalytic; the counterintuitive notion that the path to mental health lies in pain and the discipline to endure it. In the kaleidoscope of oil spells, bomb scares, crushing debt, and hooking up; the one fixed point, Marina reminds us, is you (and me).’[viii] This core theme which emerges in Abramović’s work, of her body’s ability to endure pain and persevere through prolonged periods of discomfort, is an assertion of the will of the individual over suffering.

MoMA explains that Abramović ‘has been making art since childhood’ and realised early on that it did not have to be produced in a studio or even take a concrete form. ‘I understood that I could make art with everything and the most important [thing] is the concept,’ the artist recalls. ‘This was the beginning of my performance art. The first time I put my body in front of [an] audience, I understood: this [performance art] is my media.’

Her comments reflect a broader late 20th Century western cultural shift towards a philosophy based on personal obsessions and the cult of personality elevated over and above other considerations such as our place in the natural world, community, and family. The Artist is Present MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach said of Abramović, ‘Marina seduces everybody she ever meets… I try to be matter-of-fact with her because I don’t want her performance persona to get into the way. Because with Marina she’s never not performing.’[ix]

The promotion of individualism reflects a broader social rise of intersectional and identity politics, which classifies certain people as better than others, based on perceptions of their suffering. For an artist, perhaps this means that a set of immutable characteristics one possesses becomes more important than the art one creates. Conversely, in works FountainIKB and 4’33, the artist is very much secondary. Likewise, in art produced by many of the great artists of the past, such as Agnes Martin, Käthe Kollwitz, Andy Warhol, Johannes Vermeer and Leonardo Da Vinci, who placed themselves as subordinate to the work they created. In doing so, they enabled an engagement with the mysteries of the universe, human existence and life and death.

Untitled by Agnes Martin, 1958, oil on canvas, 165.1 x 165.1cm. Photograph via
Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, 1490. Photograph via Wikipedia Commons.

LC: Some might argue that throughout history, artists––Albrecht Dürer, Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to name a few––explore their suffering to create great art. What is different about what they did to what artists like Marina Abramović are doing today?

RP: That’s an interesting consideration. If we compare Kahlo and Abramović specifically, we see that both are icons of feminism respectively; personal suffering and identity are core themes in their art.

Kahlo painted fifty-five self-portraits that often reflected the lifelong health problems she suffered. In her 1940 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, for example, the initial thing we notice is that the artist’s gaze is inward-looking. Kahlo considers her internal monologue, which appears to be visualised externally by the objects and animals surrounding her: she poses in front of leaves while butterflies and insects hover above her head; a monkey sits behind her right shoulder, and a cat behind her left; a black hummingbird dangles from the thorn necklace around her neck. Everything present in Kahlo’s painting has symbolic meaning to her. The motifs she paints act like an elaborate puzzle for us.  

Kahlo made extensive use of iconography from indigenous Mexican culture, which helped situate her work within a broader context of other contemporary Mexican artists who, like Kahlo herself, were influenced by a romantic nationalism that had emerged during the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. It enabled Kahlo to create art that simultaneously examined her sense of national identity and acted as a form of catharsis. Out of her pain, she produced personal transitional objects, which opened up her most private, intimate self for us to contemplate. As psychotherapist Carl R. Rogers famously said, ‘what is most personal is most universal’.[x]  

Kahlo defined the parameters of her work herself. By contrast, the Serpentine and its gallery space enabled Abramović’s The Artist is Present to exist; it resulted from a symbiotic relationship between museum and artist. Moreover, Abramović offers an outward-facing stare, declaring to her audience ‘I’ll be your mirror.’ Unlike a self-portrait, a mirror does not encourage viewers to contemplate another person’s inner world but instead allows them to gaze upon themselves. Finally, there is no sense of national identity. Rather, Abramović represents the individual located in a city, isolated from the signifiers of the natural world; separated from family, community, and state.   

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo, 1940, oil on canvas, 4.11 x 18.5 inches. Photograph via

LC: Is globalism becoming a form of identity?

RP: I think this question cuts to the very heart of a movement in art and media driving towards individualism. Historically, culture has always had a geographical identity as our geography dictates the environments where we live; what materials we have ready access to; how far we can travel; what kind of food is available to us. Geographical boundaries are as distinct to us as our accents are to our regions and our languages to our countries. As people, we are essentially social and have an innate sense of wishing to belong to a group. When I contemplate culture and cultural expression in the digital age, I think we are witnessing a move away from regional and national identities and a shift towards identity focusing on other factors such as our sexual preferences, skin colour, and gender bias. This change indicates that geography no longer defines many people, moving towards a global identity rooted in the self. 

LC: Will another ‘ism’ develop in contemporary painting over the coming decades? 

RP: It is hard to say. But I figure we have been through an age of multiple ‘isms’, from ‘realism’, to ‘minimalism’ to ‘conceptualism’, and have now reached a point where artists no longer work in movements. Today, artists work as individuals who draw on different media and past movements to present their ideas. We are in the period of one large ‘ism’––‘individualism’––that sources from the past and borrows from the present. 

LC: What does this mean for artists going forward?

RP: My feeling is that we look again at the works of artists like Abramović and carefully re-read the words of Joselit, Ward and Yona Backer sent to Hans Ulrich Obrist, that it would be difficult for Carroll to perform Nothing in the future. Perhaps it is time for artists to do something and give up doing ‘more and more of less and less’. And maybe that something should be original: original in the pure sense of the term, which is to seek a return to the origins of why we make art.


[i] Joseph Beuys coined the term ‘social sculpture’ to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society.

[ii]  Tate, Joseph Beuys: Every Man is An Artist, November 2015. 

[iii] Zeitgeisters: Marina Abramović (radio programme) (London: BBC Radio 4, 17 July 2014). 

[iv] Serpentine Galleries, Marina Abramović: 512 Hours, August 2014.

[v] Dominic Rushe, ‘Art star Marina Abramović caught up in row over “Nothing”’, Guardian, 29 May 2014.

[vi] Additionally, Mary Ellen Carroll, a New York-based conceptual artist, exhibited with Abramović in a group show at the Smart Museum in Chicago in 2012.

[vii] Tate, Yves Klein: 5 Things (No Date).

[viii] Charlie Finch, ‘What Marina Wrought’, ArtNet, (No Date).

[ix] Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, dir. by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre (HBO, 2012).

[x] Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, 2nd edn (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin, 1995). 

Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.

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