The blank slate which has been David Blaine

The event quickly turned into a clash between cyncial London and pompous America
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The Independent Online

Never before, perhaps, would the traditional instruction of the English policeman have been so appropriate: "Move along there now, sir, there's nothing to see."

In this case, there really is nothing to see, or so it seems. There is a man in a box suspended from a crane, doing almost nothing. But then, of course, there is the crowd.

His 44-day suspension has been described by sympathetic obser-vers as a work of art, or merely "art". If this is so, I rather think that excellent conceptual artist, Cornelia Parker, has a rock-solid case against him for plagiarism.

In 1995, as part of an installation at the Serpentine Gallery entitled The Maybe, Miss Parker placed the actress Tilda Swinton in a very similar glass case for extended periods of time, where she could be inspected by the public. It is hard to see how any court could fail to conclude, given the claim that Blaine's stunt amounts to "art", that he has taken an idea by a celebrated London artist and made a great deal of money out of it.

But of course it is not art at all; nor, even, a spectacle to which one might attach the label "magic". I myself haven't been to see it, but there seems no real reason to refrain from writing about it for that reason. The reality of the event is to be found in what is happening around him. The only interest to be found in the Blaine event is as a blank space, a stretch of nothingness, onto which almost anything at all can be projected.

What we are looking at, really, is the behaviour of the crowd, the commentary in the media on Blaine, on the crowd, on its own commentary; at something which illustrates the nature of our society and our ideas of individual worth now.

There is no doubt at all that Blaine and his entourage had absolutely no intention of achieving this. Indeed, when the long-suppressed exuberance of the London mob started to surface, with eggs and paint being thrown, with barbecues being held underneath the cell, with the raucous taunts and mockery, the initial response from the Blaine camp was outrage.

They seemed to believe that this was pure spectacle, to which only one approved response was possible, and tried to enforce it with private security measures, behaving unacceptably like policemen.

I wish the real police would do something to curb these excesses committed by the security staff of American celebrities.

One Blaine agnostic was reported to have been carted off by the private security forces and held down before being pelted with eggs, an action which I rather think constitutes assault. They didn't understand the blankness of their own spectacle; the sense that anything, now, could happen, and it was out of their control.

The event quickly turned into a demonstration of the clash between cynical London and pompous America; despite themselves, into a show about the self-promoting absurdity of global celebrity, with its private police forces and humourless self-regard.

David Blaine describes himself as a magician, but unless, at the last, he suddenly vanishes, it is as hard to see not eating as a trick, any more than you can see it as a work of art. It is almost a demonstration of what it is to be famous for doing nothing; it might almost be a vicious parody of the kind of celebrity emerging from Big Brother and going to film premieres.

The almost mythical figure here is a woman called Charlotte Cutler, who occasionally gets her photograph in the papers. Connoisseurs of nonentity were recently faced with a problem. Formerly, she was the sister of someone (Fran Cutler) who was famous for being a friend of someone (Meg Matthews) who was famous for being married to someone in a rock band. Now, however, she is famous for setting up in business with someone (Patsy Palmer) who long ago used to be in EastEnders, but now isn't. Is that a step up or a step down? Who knows? But it is all very much like David Blaine, famous for sitting in a glass case for a long time and doing nothing at all.

It has, of course, been done before, and not just by Cornelia Parker. In his excellent new novel, Personality, Andrew O'Hagan explains the background to a painting by Otto Dix called The Hunger Artist: "Hunger artists were people who starved themselves as part of a public entertainment. In 1926, when this was painted, there were six hunger artists performing in Berlin. They would be placed inside glass booths while the diners enjoyed their meal. It would be usual for the restaurant owner to write on a board the number of days the hunger artist had gone without food."

For Dix, the sight was interesting not in itself, but in the way it vividly illustrated his society. And Blaine, too, is not interesting, but he makes us interesting, the way we like celebrity more than achievement, the obsession with consumption and visibility which is everywhere now.

You look at Blaine, and you think of two things; the many people who have entered on a hunger strike, not to make money or to advance their celebrity, but for a political cause. And you think of that American actress, who, asked for her opinion on the victims of a famine in Africa, said: "Well, that's terrible - I mean, I'd love to be thin like that, but not with all those flies and stuff."

Bad taste, when exercised with the sincerity of a Blaine, can hardly help but prove revealing.