I had earmarked the final week of July on my calendar to review Marina Abramović’s new piece, “The Hero 25FPS,” a 2001 film now minted as NFTs and displayed on giant screens across various world capitals. What that week actually brought was my harassment on the internet, en masse, mostly by fellow leftists, instigated by a prominent Twitter personality. None of the details are in and of themselves now important, but I recite them as a kind of performance, the kind that usually sets the stage for an unfurling of self and world, not unlike the way Abramović positions her own tools, and her body as tool, at the beginning of a work. “L’affaire Mardoll,” as I have come to call it, has been well covered in online media circles, culminating in a damning exposure: Ana Mardoll, a pseudonymous purest hero of the online left and self-appointed moral censor for a certain portion of Twitter, apparently worked for weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. At the end of it all, his minions clustered over the account de-activation statement like black flies over a corpse. My own crimes previous to this included: pointing out the racism directed by Mardoll and his followers toward novelist and critic Brandon Taylor, asserting the necessity of reading to learn writing as a craft, and the fact that Mardoll himself wrote with the approximate quality and stylistic tics of a teenage girl on Tumblr in 2014. My retrospective apologies to teenage girls here. In any event, a hero was dethroned, and I sat in the muck and felled limbs behind the horses on the field, wondering what these people, who I thought were my people, had made of us all, and what we should do about heroic self-fashioning anyway. I found myself sick of heroes. The artwork and this incident are now inseparable to me; I cannot write a disinterested review. This is instead an intertwined reflection, on Abramović’s body of work, but also on heroes, leftists, and our discontents, and what the internet may make of them.
Perhaps we have been talking about the problem of both heroes and human cruelty since Hesiod. Hesiod, who wrote the Works and Days between roughly 750 and 650 BCE, defines five ages of man. The Golden and Silver Ages occupied the generations of gods, starting with Cronus. The men of the Bronze age were sort of a failed prototype. They reached a more perfect form in the Heroic age, but died mostly at Troy and went to Elysium. Hesiod disparages the Iron Age, when men have forgotten xenia, the ritualized contract of hospitality, the gods have largely forsaken us, and we end up fighting each other all day long in misery. There are no more heroes, and this is, to Hesiod and apparently Abramović, part of the problem.
Ovid also complains that he lives in the Iron Age during the Roman Imperial period five to six centuries later than Hesiod, and no one has stopped complaining about it since, mostly because it seems that we never left it. “The Hero 25FPS” shows Abramović riding on a white horse and waving a large white flag in a green, Arcadian landscape. It suggests that heroes might be possible again, that maybe we can stop clubbing each other over the head with sticks. I watched the piece, filmed in 2001 and now digitally available as individual frames, over and over in tiny increments. Meanwhile, strangers tore me apart online. My phone bricked into a black obsidian tomb from the notifications. The white horse blinked steadfastly in the video’s never-ending field, playing in another browser window.
“Our planet needs uncorrupted heroes with morality, who embody courage and bring real change,” said Abramović about the piece. My harasser, meanwhile, called me ableist and transphobic for suggesting that authors did indeed need to read to write well. Was he uncorrupted enough?
Abramović’s piece, sold through Circa as NFTs, will in part provide grant funds to what she terms a new generation of web3 heroes.
Abramović dedicated “The Hero” to her father, Volo, who had died shortly before it was filmed. He fought the Nazis and then the Yugoslavian Communist party. The white flag signals surrender because he threw his Communist Party card to the crowd when he judged the party oppressive. This is indisputably admirable. Must all admirable people be heroes?
Like Abramović, I returned to the core of my personal history in the midst of my harassment, as the artist’s flag rippled on a loop in the breeze. First, to Homer and Hesiod, and then to the classicizing heroics of the French painters of the Revolution. I wanted to understand why the left often makes heroes out of mob leaders, and why a mob was eating me alive. I went to Rousseau, and Sade, to David’s painting of Marat’s death, and then finally to Peter Weiss’s 1964 play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The actors all play asylum inmate who play French historical figures supposedly written by their contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, who is himself a character. It is colloquially known as Marat/Sade.
Perhaps I returned to the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune for other reasons, too. I remember the Judy Collins version of Marat’s theme playing on repeat my mother’s silver Volvo station wagon in the suburbs of Miami in the 1990s, where I grew up. There was an abortion clinic relatively near my house. My mother used to drive by it with her two tiny daughters in the back and shout at the protesters that she loved us more for being a choice. That’s where I come from, really, from the postcard of Susan Sontag taped onto my adolescent bedroom mirror that made me want to write like this. So my harassment by the nominal left, by people I considered to be deeply my own, was even more painful. Maybe this is also why I turned to 18th-century leftists stabbing each other in bathtubs over internal sectarianism in Paris.
Hito Steyerl once said, as a critique, that the internet didn’t invent the Paris Commune. All those resources, all that potential, and we got this? Tearing each other to shreds in 280 characters? But maybe we did get part of the Paris Commune, the infighting part where we all want a better world but destroy ourselves instead. Abramović’s (in)famous 1974 performance piece, “Rhythm 0,” reminds me of this. The artist laid 75 different objects out on a table, including a rose, a feather, a camera, a knife, and a gun, and invited the audience to do whatever they wanted to her naked body with them, without resistance. It started as you might expect — gentle tickling, flowers. It escalated quickly. Abramović bled. Someone got out the gun. Against the artist’s wishes the performance was called off at that point.
On the internet few of us turn out to be heroes. We comment in passing on some pile-on, prick the body of the day’s subject with the rose or even get out the blade, if we’re feeling invested. On the days you get harassed, you really can’t do anything. You can’t even intentionally deprive yourself of agency to make an artistic point about the nature of mobs, because there is no nuance for this, only a kind of frozen flattening. You just wait to see who picks up the Polaroid, the whip, the flower, and what they do with it. It is a perpetual “Rhythm 0,” and every time the participants fail the test of their own humanity, including me. Abramović lays this bare, as did Peter Weiss in Marat/Sade, and Sade himself in the throes of the French Revolution.
Sade would agree about the innate baseness of the masses that “Rhythm 0” seems to reveal. Sade would probably laugh cruelly at the white flag and white horse of “The Hero,” and see it as satire from the same person who so clearly unveiled heroism as perhaps neither desirable nor possible. Abramović, whose work lingers in the shadow and influence of Balkan conflict, manages to often re-cite the cruelty and vulnerability of human experience on her own body. She does not seem to argue for a kind of innate heroism or the general good of man in a piece like “Rhythm 0.” In “Balkan Baroque” (1997), she ritually scrubbed the blood off the bones of innumerable cows over four hot days in Venice. It smelled. The bones were never clean, as we as a society are never clean from the stain of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is Sade we often invoke as a historical counterpoint to Rousseau, who argues the “natural” good of man can inform the coming Republic. Sade sees no such nature, and no such man. Neither, it seemed, did Abramović.
Online, we’re all the inmates performing Sade’s play within a play in Marat/Sade. We’re all assigned the role of Marat in the tub sometimes, somethings the preacher Roux, sometimes Charlotte Corday, sometimes Sade himself. The roles vary, but we do not leave. We embody Artaud’s theatre of cruelty even as we are technically disembodied, mere text on a screen.
And you mean to tell me, Marina Abramović, a hero on a white horse with a white flag would somehow stop this? Remember, all your heroes are bankrupt. So are all your villains. Sade knows this: the replication of pain from the conditions innate to being human. I thought you already did too, in 1973 for “Rhythm 10,” when you dashed a knife again and again between your fingers on successive videotapes, implacable in your revelation of cruelty and its insistences before I was even born. I thought you showed me here that the only real, pure hero is the truth of the knife; if it hits the flesh, it cuts.
Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed Marat with a white-handled dagger, is described in Marat/Sade as follows (in Skelton and Mitchell’s translation from the original German):
Roux: If I were still alive here I’d say beware of this young woman here [pointing to Corday] For time and again we are forced to pay For those who choose the idealist’s way Who talk of purity and spiritual aims While playing their oppressors’ games More dangerous than those with all their wealth Is this girl here for she works by stealth In some we can easily recognize our foe But what she is after we can never know …
My online harasser had Charlotte Corday tendencies in that he wanted the world to be pure, to suit his vision of the good. This meant, for instance, that novels must always describe relationships as healthy, mutual, open — never mind that happy families are all alike! This meant that fiction and art in general that merely depicted something harmful to him constituted harm and should be censored and upbraided in the public sphere — something Mardoll called for regularly. This also means no Sade, no Marat/Sade, no framework for considering what even constitutes a goodness apart from my harasser’s own orthodoxy, which might as well be a cultic oath to his 50,000 followers. This kind of identical nouveau Left Puritanism that is so contra Weiss and contra Sade is toxic, stifling, and hypocritical. Abramović ’s work never felt like this to me, never had this kind of moral flatness, until “The Hero.”
I love some of Abramović ’s earlier pieces because they dive into precisely this ambiguity of the viewer and their moral stances. What does it mean to stare into someone’s eyes and pass your own judgment in The Artist Is Present? What is presence, even? What does the body in the room entail? The nude body? The clothed one? What bodies are vulnerable? In “Rest Energy” (1980) Abramović and her frequent early collaborator, Ulay, use a bow and arrow drawn directly on the skin to threaten each other’s lives with each breath. There is no safety in this partnership, no “healthy” role models. Just the threat of sudden blood.
This is my major problem with “The Hero.” It doesn’t suggest ambivalence, just a belief in heroes as a generic idea, propagandistically broadcast to the masses on giant public screens. You can buy a selected length of the piece’s run as an NFT, which is an interesting mechanism, but I wondered more what it meant to be a 10th of a hero, or a 50th. Abramović, who had been so apt to mine this ambiguity in the past, didn’t take this up at all. There was the perfect figure, the perfect flag, the perfect horse. My harasser would have loved it. It was a fairy tale. It indicted no one. It stands for heroes without showing anyone what heroes do.
When Achilles’s son kills Priam, King of the Trojans, he is pleading for mercy on the altar of Zeus after the city of Troy has already fallen. He hacks off Priam’s head on the sacred marble, leaving it in a pool of blood and sputum, windpipe gaping, eyes still rolling back. This, too, is what a hero looks like. Similar descriptive lines are given to Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade, detailing the shuddering body still alive after the head is severed on the guillotine.
We keep guillotining heads on the leftist internet. Marat/Sade addresses this at its close: on and on after Marat’s assassination, the executions keep coming. Corday herself. Robespierre. Dantot. To what end? No one is pure enough to save the revolution from itself. Jean-Paul Marat, whose faction executed plenty, is seen as the hero of the Revolution rather than Sade or Jacques Roux, mostly because of another work of art: David’s painting “The Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.” Marat sits in the tub afflicted by skin disease, a Neoclassical towel-turbaned hero who is at once Roman or Greek and completely modern. The incision of his wound dribbles blood as his torso keels over. The white-handled knife gleams on the floor. In his martyr’s death he is perfection, and David signs the painting with his name and the title on the trompe l’oeil surface of Marat’s wooden writing desk.
In a comment piece for the The Art Newspaper on “The Hero 25FPS” Abramović says:
My favourite philosopher, Noam Chomsky, once said: “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.” Right now, I think we need both. First, we must ask who can bring the solutions we need. The heroes — the ones who sacrifice everything — can bring new light to illuminate this world. These new heroes are the ones I have set out to support, starting today. It’s really about finding solutions to these catastrophes.
Marat sacrificed everything for his good ideas. Yet, in 1804, Napoleon became emperor anyway. The play Marat/Sade is set in 1808. By then, Sade is tired of life and suspicious of revolution. Marat wants to quash the flames of the oppressor no matter how much ire it takes. As a younger person, I empathized mostly with Marat; I saw in David’s dead hero an endless political will I admired. But the older I get, the more weeks like July 25, 2022, I spend on the internet, the more I question our capacity — and by this I mean humanity’s and not just the left’s — to do collective good through the acts of symbolic standard bearers. Maybe I don’t want the Age of Heroes back.
What does the art of someone who gets off the white horse look like? Who doesn’t want Hector, breaker of horses, to die in the end? I don’t know which ideas are good, or if there is a “good” to serve. I know Sade probably ultimately didn’t think so, or thought in any event that such a good was always subject to human tendencies. What I had hoped from Abramović was not a canonization of heroes, but a questioning — not light to illuminate a fixed world, but one in which the pinpoints of the stars wheel and have no set position. If this is the Age of Iron, I want artists and ideas who can give me something less pure and inflexible than heroes as a response to it. Xenia is dead. We are beating each other with sticks. We remember all the failed revolutions, our failed pieties. I am sick of this story. Show me something different or bring the blade down on my neck. I say harmful things; I am impure; I am guilty and live on an equally tarnished internet that needs to see and speak about these things in its own tongues. I have seen Abramović flourish in the tarnished aftermath before, and I admire her daring to try to make new forms of digital response, but “The Hero 25FPS” does not unfurl any paradoxes of saviors and mutilations. The internet can be a crucible for both cruelty and the complexities of trying to counter it. Where is the new art for that? What if we let the heroes stay dead?