This past year’s reckoning against powerful men in the United States whose alleged abuses have been reported on nearly every day by the corporate media has made me reflect on a performance by artist Marina Abramovic done in 1974. Filmed on camera, she stood in a room for six hours and allowed the audience to do anything they wanted to do to her body without resistance. It was a piece that left me shaken. As the hours progressed the artist endured humiliation, torture and even near death as individuals, mostly men, cut off her clothes, groped her and even made her point a loaded gun at her neck.
Of the experience Abramovic observed:
“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”
The performance piece was a powerful display of the lengths human beings, particularly men, will go to degrade, violate and even mutilate other human beings, particularly women, whom they view as powerless or inferior. This had nothing to do with a harmless, consensual fetishism, it was about the ruthless and merciless patriarchal power that pervades our culture. And I found it to have even broader implications. On some level it exposed a latent animus on a micro-scale that echoes how most women and children are treated day in, day out largely throughout the global south thanks to a system of exploitation imposed by the global north. But it also speaks to the way industrial capitalism has long treated the living earth which is often portrayed as a mother and as “not fighting back” against her assailants.
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