Dear Tony, I am so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love, Marina.The publication of this email by WikiLeaks set off a wave of hysteria on the right. The Drudge Report headline was "WIKI WICCAN: PODESTA PRACTICES OCCULT MAGIC." John Podesta never actually went to this dinner, and Abramović says it was an ordinary dinner -- but right-wingers seized on the report, making #SpiritCooking the top trending topic on Twitter for a while, all because Abramović has, in fact, done art performances under that name that contains elements you wouldn't see at a typical dinner party:
Abramović’s mention of “Spirit Cooking” appears to refer to her 1996 artwork that consists of a book with recipes “that serve as evocative instructions for actions or thoughts,” according to the Museum of Modern Art’s gallery label describing it. The recipes range from the implausible to the impossible. One calls for “13,000 grams of jealousy.” Another instructs you to stand “on top of a volcano” and open your mouth “until your tongue becomes flame.” Another -- the one that seems to be generating the most interest among conspiracy theorists -- says to “mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk.”To you and me, it's obvious that this stuff isn't actually satanic, a word that's being bandied around quite a bit on the right.
It's nuts, but I get it. Abramović does use the word "spirit," and art is meant to make the viewer feel something that transcends the ordinary, and performance art often has aspects of ritual. Now imagine how all that looks to people who don't really believe that you can engage in non-Christian (or maybe non-Judeo-Christian) religious practices and still be an American. Do these people literally believe that what goes on in Abramović's performances is satanic? I imagine they think any ritual that's not (Judeo-)Christian is satanic, or at least is an open invitation to Satan. I'm sure many of them feel the same way about Buddhist and Hinduism and (obviously) Muslim religious practices.
There's another aspect to this that didn't really surface in the hysteria but is an obvious subtext -- one that a smarter racist demagogue than Donald Trump could exploit. In order to understand what I'm getting at, consider the two-minute ad Trump is putting on the air in the presidential campaign's final days, the one the campaign considers his "closing argument":
The ad's message is Trump vs. the global elites. Well, even if you were to leave Satan and the occult out of your description, that dinner party would sound awfully elitist to Trump voters. Hillary Clinton says she understands ordinary Americans, and meanwhile her campaign chair and his lobbyist brother hang out with some highfalutin European artist and God knows how many other international swells. And that artist smears body fluids and calls that art! And then she calls it cooking! When an ordinary American workingman can't afford three square meals a day!
That's what I imagine you'd hear on the campaign trail from someone like George Wallace in his prime. A few people in the mainstream media would probably even say that there was a grain of truth to that argument. But Trump's not bright enough to pull that off.