What Is Performance Art?: We Explain It with Video Introductions and Classic Performances

If you asked me to define per­for­mance art, I’d prob­a­bly stum­ble into a cou­ple of clichés—you know it when you see it, you kind of have to be there, etc. Such vague cri­te­ria could mean vir­tu­al­ly any event can be called per­for­mance art, and maybe it can. But the prece­dents set in the art world over the course of the 20th cen­tu­ry nar­row things a bit. PBS’s The Art Assign­ment primer above tells us that per­for­mance art is “a term used to describe art in which the body is the medi­um or live action is in some way involved.”

Still, this is mighty broad, encom­pass­ing all the­ater, dance, musi­cal, and rit­u­al per­for­mance through­out human his­to­ry. And that’s kind of the point. Per­for­mance art is some­times seen as an intru­sion of a for­eign body into the art world.

But the his­to­ry above implies that the real anom­aly is the recent ten­den­cy to think of art pri­mar­i­ly as a sta­t­ic visu­al medi­um that excludes the body. The term “per­for­mance art” only took on mean­ing when it had an antag­o­nist to rebel against. Some of those ear­ly rebels includ­ed the Ital­ian Futur­ists, who staged noise con­certs and chaot­ic the­ater pieces to shake things up.

Dada, Bauhaus, Antonin Artaud’s The­ater of Cru­el­ty, the work of John Cage, Mer­ce Cun­ning­ham, ambi­tious Japan­ese per­for­mance pieces, action paint­ing, hap­pen­ings, Fluxus…. In just its first half, The Art Assign­ment video cov­ers the key move­ments using per­for­mance to con­fuse, amuse, offend, and chal­lenge audi­ences. In the 60s and 70s, per­for­mance art became more explic­it­ly polit­i­cal, and more direct­ly con­fronta­tion­al. It also became far more dan­ger­ous for the artist.

In Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece, for exam­ple, the artist sits motion­less and expres­sion­less on stage, as audi­ence mem­bers are invit­ed to come up one by one, pick up a pair of scis­sors, and cut away any part of her cloth­ing that they want­ed. Most par­tic­i­pants were well-behaved, but one man made men­ac­ing ges­tures with the scis­sors before cut­ting away his piece.

Oth­er artists have gone much further—performing death-defy­ing stunts and real acts of rit­u­al or sym­bol­ic vio­lence on them­selves. (Watch Chris Bur­den get shot for the sake of art below.) Per­for­mance artists “want­ed to make art that could not eas­i­ly be bought or sold,” says the nar­ra­tor of the short intro­duc­tion from the Tate, fur­ther up. “The term per­for­mance came to define art that had a live ele­ment and was wit­nessed by an audi­ence.”

Although we have hours of footage doc­u­ment­ing per­for­mance art pieces through­out the 20th and 21st cen­turies, we real­ly do have to be there, because as part of the audi­ence, we are part of the piece. In some way, if you’ve nev­er par­tic­i­pat­ed in per­for­mance art, you’ve also nev­er real­ly seen it.

This vagary might bring us back to the ques­tion that inevitably arose when per­for­mance was no longer avant-garde: “What isn’t per­for­mance?” The adjec­tive “per­for­ma­tive” cov­ers broad­er ter­ri­to­ry, nam­ing aspects, for exam­ple, of pho­tog­ra­phy, film, sculp­ture, or oth­er media that sim­u­late or stim­u­late action with­out actu­al­ly being live per­for­mance them­selves.

But we should not get lost in abstrac­tions when talk­ing about a type of art—or a way of doing art—that relies on the utmost speci­fici­ty: the irre­ducible con­crete­ness of moments nev­er to be repeat­ed again. This is the nature of work from the most well-known per­for­mance artists, among them Mari­na Abramović—who end­ed up per­form­ing her famous “The Artist is Present” in a pro­found, unex­pect­ed reunion with her for­mer part­ner Ulay in 2010 (fur­ther up).

Ger­man artist Joseph Beuys test­ed his audi­ences’ resolve in absur­dist actions like 1965’s How to Explain Pic­tures to a Dead Hare, in which the artist lit­er­al­ly walks around a gallery with a dead rab­bit, his head cov­ered in hon­ey and gold foil, whis­per­ing to the ani­mal’s corpse while doing a sort of tor­tured dance. The audi­ence watched this through the win­dows of the gallery for three hours. Then they were let in to watch Beuys hold the dead hare with his back to them. Not only do we get but a tiny frac­tion of the per­for­mance, less than a minute in the clip above, but we also see it in a way we nev­er could have if we were there.

A less dis­cussed, but crit­i­cal, aspect of per­for­mance art is the stag­ing. The block­ing and chore­og­ra­phy of live per­for­mance pieces not only induce effects in the audience—discomfort, anger, anx­i­ety, dis­gust, or sheer bewilderment—but are also, in a sense, the very mate­r­i­al of the piece. Per­for­mance pieces aim to shock and con­found expectations—they are nev­er coy about it. But to see them only as out­landish ploys for atten­tion or elab­o­rate pranks, though they can be both, is to lose sight of how they go about upset­ting or oth­er­wise mov­ing peo­ple.

Jen­nifer Hartley’s Last Sup­per uses high­ly expres­sive, the­atri­cal move­ment in a piece designed, the artist her­self writes, as “a dis­cus­sion on opu­lence and the giv­ing of one­self as an act of auto can­ni­bal­ism.” If we take a cue from this descrip­tion about how we might expe­ri­ence the per­for­mance, we could ask, what is the vocab­u­lary of this dis­cus­sion? What are its key phras­es and recur­ring themes, enact­ed through the move­ments of the artist’s body? Or would we even know them if we saw them? Can we rec­og­nize and appre­ci­ate art that doesn’t look the way we are taught art is sup­posed to look?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mari­na Abramović and Ulay’s Adven­tur­ous 1970s Per­for­mance Art Pieces

Per­for­mance Artist Mari­na Abramović Describes Her “Real­ly Good Plan” to Lose Her Vir­gin­i­ty

Watch Chris Bur­den Get Shot for the Sake of Art (1971)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.