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

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