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Performance Art

Started: Origins in 1910s, Movement in 1960s

Performance Art Timeline

Quotes

"The history of performance art is integral to the history of art. It has changed the shape and direction of art history over the last 100 years, and it's time that its extensive influence is properly understood. Throughout art history, performance (think Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, early Rauschenberg, or Vito Acconci) has been the starting point for some of the most radical ideas that have changed the way we - artists and audiences - think about art... Whenever a certain school, be it Cubism, Minimalism, or conceptual art, seemed to have reached an impasse, artists have turned to performance as a way of breaking down categories and indicating new directions."
RoseLee Goldberg
"The body is the physical agent of the structures of everyday experience. It is the producer of dreams, the transmitter and receiver of cultural messages, a creature of habits, a desiring machine, a repository of memories, an actor in the theater of power, a tissue of affects and feelings. Because the body is at the boundary between biology and society, between drives and discourse, between the sexual and its categorization in terms of power, biography and history, it is the site par excellence for transgressing the constraints of meaning or what social discourse prescribes as normal."
Nelly Richard
"If you share your life on the performance art stage, you put yourself in a position to be seriously judged as a good person or bad person. At times I was worshiped as a goddess-- art lovers lavished me with gifts, shared their beautiful tears, gave me their blessings, sprinkled me with their love and adoration. At other times I was hated-- protested against, screamed at, threatened with arrest, consistently censored, stalked, and I even had my life threatened. On stage I simply shared who I was, which happens to be a lot of things that a lot of people love to judge and to hate; an ex-prostitute, a pornographer, a witch, a Jew, a lesbian, a feminist, and yes... a performance artist. Interestingly, the people who expressed the most hatred never met me or saw my work."
Annie Sprinkle

KEY ARTISTS

Yves KleinYves Klein
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Marina AbramovićMarina Abramović
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Joseph BeuysJoseph Beuys
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Allan KaprowAllan Kaprow
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Andy KaufmanAndy Kaufman
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Yoko OnoYoko Ono
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"The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."

Allan Kaprow Signature

Synopsis

Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. Indeed, whenever artists have become discontented with conventional forms of art, such as painting and traditional modes of sculpture, they have often turned to performance as a means to rejuvenate their work. The most significant flourishing of performance art took place following the decline of modernism and Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s, and it found exponents across the world. Performance art of this period was particularly focused on the body, and is often referred to as Body art. This reflects the period's so-called "dematerialization of the art object," and the flight from traditional media. It also reflects the political ferment of the time: the rise of feminism, which encouraged thought about the division between the personal and political and anti-war activism, which supplied models for politicized art "actions." Although the concerns of performance artists have changed since the 1960s, the genre has remained a constant presence, and has largely been welcomed into the conventional museums and galleries from which it was once excluded.

Key Ideas

The foremost purpose of performance art has almost always been to challenge the conventions of traditional forms of visual art such as painting and sculpture. When these modes no longer seem to answer artists' needs - when they seem too conservative, or too enmeshed in the traditional art world and too distant from ordinary people - artists have often turned to performance in order to find new audiences and test new ideas.
Performance art borrows styles and ideas from other forms of art, or sometimes from other forms of activity not associated with art, like ritual, or work-like tasks. If cabaret and vaudeville inspired aspects of Dada performance, this reflects Dada's desire to embrace popular art forms and mass cultural modes of address. More recently, performance artists have borrowed from dance, and even sport.
Some varieties of performance from the post-war period are commonly described as "actions." German artists like Joseph Beuys preferred this term because it distinguished art performance from the more conventional kinds of entertainment found in theatre. But the term also reflects a strain of American performance art that could be said to have emerged out of a reinterpretation of "action painting," in which the object of art is no longer paint on canvas, but something else - often the artist's own body.
The focus on the body in so much Performance art of the 1960s has sometimes been seen as a consequence of the abandonment of conventional mediums. Some saw this as a liberation, part of the period's expansion of materials and media. Others wondered if it reflected a more fundamental crisis in the institution of art itself, a sign that art was exhausting its resources.
The performance art of the 1960s can be seen as just one of the many disparate trends that developed in the wake of Minimalism. Seen in this way, it is an aspect of Post-Minimalism, and it could be seen to share qualities of Process art, another tendency central to that umbrella style. If Process art focused attention on the techniques and materials of art production. Process art was also often intrigued by the possibilities of mundane and repetitive actions; similarly, many performance artists were attracted to task-based activities that were very foreign to the highly choreographed and ritualized performances in traditional theatre or dance.

Most Important Art

Performance Art Famous Art

Cut Piece (1964)

Artist: Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, was a direct invitation to an audience to participate in an unveiling of the female body much as artists had been doing throughout history. By creating this piece as a live experience, Ono hoped to erase the neutrality and anonymity typically associated with society’s objectification of women in art. For the work, Ono sat silent upon a stage as viewers walked up to her and cut away her clothing with a pair of scissors. This forced people to take responsibility for their voyeurism and to reflect upon how even passive witnessing could potentially harm the subject of perception. It was not only a strong feminist statement about the dangers of objectification, but became an opportunity for both artist and audience members to fill roles as both creator and artwork.
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Performance Art Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Early Avant-Gardes Utilize Performance

Twentieth century performance art has its roots in early avant-gardes such as Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. Before the Italian Futurists ever exhibited any paintings they held a series of evening performances during which they read their manifestoes. And, similarly, the Dada movement was ushered into existence by a series of events at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. These movements often orchestrated events in theatres that borrowed from the styles and conventions of vaudeville and political rallies. However, they generally did so in order to address themes that were current in the sphere of visual art; for instance, the very humorous performances of the Dada group served to express their distaste for rationalism, a current of thought that had recently surged from the Cubism movement.

Post-war Performance Art

The origins of the post-war performance art movement can be traced to several places. The presence of composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham at North Carolina's Black Mountain College did much to foster performance at this most unconventional art institution. It also inspired Robert Rauschenberg, who would become heavily involved with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cage's teaching in New York also shaped the work of artists such as George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Allan Kaprow, who formed part of the impetus behind the Fluxus movement and the birth of "happenings," both of which placed performance at the heart of their activities.

In the late 1950s, performance art in Europe began to develop alongside the work being done in the United States. Still affected by the fallout from World War II, many European artists were frustrated by the apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism, the prevalent movement of the time. They looked for new styles of art that were bold and challenging. Fluxus provided one important focus for Performance art in Europe, attracting artists such as Joseph Beuys. In the next few years, major European cities such as Amsterdam, Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Paris were the sites of ambitious performance gatherings.

Actionism, Gutai, Art Corporel, and Auto-Destructive Art

Other manifestations included the work of collectives bound together by similar philosophes like the Viennese Actionists, who characterized the movement as "not only a form of art, but above all an existential attitude." The Actionists' work borrowed some ideas from American action painting, but transformed them into a highly ritualistic theatre that sought to challenge the perceived historical amnesia and return to normalcy in a country that had so recently been an ally of Adolph Hitler. The Actionists also protested governmental surveillance and restrictions of movement and speech, and their extreme performances led to their arrest several times.

In France, art corporel, or body art, compiled an avant-garde set of practices that brought body language to the center of artistic practice.

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Performance Art Overview Continues

In Japan, the Gutai became the first post-war artistic group to reject traditional art styles and adopt performative immediacy as a rule. They staged large-scale multimedia environments and theatrical productions that focused on the relationship between body and matter.

In Britain, artists such as Gustav Metzger pioneered an approach described as "Auto-Destructive art," in which objects were violently destroyed in public performances that reflected on the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction.

The Emergence of Feminist and Performance Art in the U.S.

American Performance art in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism. Women artists turned to performance as a confrontational new medium that encouraged the release of frustrations at social injustice and the ownership of discussion about women's sexuality. This permitted rage, lust, and self-expression in art by women, allowing them to speak and be heard as never before. Women performers seized an opportune moment to build performance art for themselves, rather than breaking into other already established, male-dominated forms. They frequently dealt with issues that had not yet been undertaken by their male counterparts, bringing fresh perspectives to art. For example, Hannah Wilke criticized Christianity's traditional suppression of women in Super-t-art (1974), where she represented herself as a female Christ. During and since the beginning of the movement, women have made up a large percentage of performance artists.

The Vietnam War also provided significant material for performance artists during this era. Artists such as Chris Burden and Joseph Beuys, both of whom made work in the early 1970s, rejected US imperialism and questioned political motivations. Performance art also developed a major presence in Latin America, where it played a role in the Neoconcretist movement.

Concepts and Styles

Instead of seeking entertainment, the audience for performance art often expects to be challenged and provoked. Viewers may be asked to question their own definitions of art, and not always in a comfortable or pleasant manner. As regards style, many performance artists do not easily fall into any identified stylistic category, and many more still refuse their work to be categorized into any specific sub-style. The movement produced a variety of common and overlapping approaches, which might be identified as actions, Body art, happenings, Endurance art, and ritual. Although all these can be described and generalized, their definitions, like the constituents of performance art as a movement, are continuously evolving. And some artists have made work that falls into different categories. Yves Klein, for instance, staged some performances that relate to the Fluxus movement, and have qualities of rituals and happenings, yet his Anthropometries (1958) also relate to Body art.

Action

The term "action" constitutes one of the earliest styles within modern performance art. In part, it serves to distinguish the performance from traditional forms of entertainment, but it also highlights an aspect of the way performers viewed their activities. Some saw their performances as related to the kind of dramatic encounter between painter and painting that critic Harold Rosenberg talked of in his essay 'The American Action Painters' (1952). Others liked the word action for its open-endedness, its suggestion than any kind of activity could constitute a performance. For example, early conceptual actions by Yoko Ono consisted of a set of proposals that the participant could undertake, such as, "draw an imaginary map...go walking on an actual street according to the map..."

Body Art

Body art diffused the veil between artist and artwork by placing the body front and center as actor, medium, performance, and canvas amplifying the idea of authentic first person perspective. In the post-1960's atmosphere of changing social mores and thawed attitudes toward nudity, the body became a perfect tool to make the political personal. Feminist art burgeoned in this realm as artists such as Carolee Schneemann, VALIE EXPORT, and Hannah Wilke turned their bodies into tools for bashing the disconnect between historical portrayals of the female experience and a newly empowered reality. Some artists like Ana Mendieta and Rebecca Horn questioned the body’s relationship to the world at large, including its limitations. Other artists, like Marina Abramović, Chris Burden and Gina Pane, performed shocking acts of violence toward their own bodies, which provoked audiences to question their own participation, in all its permutations, as voyeurs.

Happenings

Happenings were a popular mode of performance that arose in the 1960s, and which took place in all kinds of unconventional venues. Heavily influenced by Dada, they required a more active participation from viewers/spectators, and were often characterized by an improvisational attitude. While certain aspects of the performance were generally planned, the transitory and improvisational nature of the event attempted to stimulate a critical consciousness in the viewer and to challenge the notion that art must reside in a static object.

Endurance

A number of prominent performance artists have made endurance an important part of their practice. They may involve themselves in rituals that border on torture or abuse, yet the purpose is less to test what the artist can survive than to explore such issues as human tenacity, determination, and patience. Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh has been one important exponent of this approach; Marina Abramović offers other examples. Allan Kaprow was perhaps the most influential figure in the happenings movement, though others who were involved include Claes Oldenburg, who would later be associated with Pop art.

Ritual

Ritual has often been an important part of some performance artists' work. For example, Marina Abramović has used ritual in much of her work, making her performances seem quasi-religious. This demonstrates that while some aspects of the performance art movement have been aimed at demystifying art, bringing it closer to the realms of everyday life, some elements in the movement have sought to use it as a vehicle for re-mystifying art, returning to it some sense of the sacred that art has lost in modern times.

Later Developments

After the success performance art experienced in the 1970s, it seemed that this new and exciting movement would continue in popularity. However, the market boom of the 1980s, and the return of painting, represented a significant challenge. Galleries and collectors now wanted something material that could be physically bought and sold. As a result, performance fell from favor, but it did not disappear entirely. Indeed, the American performer Laurie Anderson rose to considerable prominence in this period with dramatic stage shows that engaged new media and directly addressed the period's changing issues.

Women performance artists were particularly unwilling to give up their newfound forms of expression, and continued to be prolific. In 1980, there was enough material to produce the exhibition A Decade of Women's Performance Art, at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Organized by Mary Jane Jacob, Moira Roth, and Lucy R. Lippard, the exhibition was a broad survey of works done in the United States during the 1970s, and included documentations of performances in photographs and texts.

And in Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s, performance art was frequently used to express social dissent.

Moving into the 1990s, Western countries began to embrace multiculturalism, helping to propel Latin American performance artists to new fame. Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Tania Bruguera were two such artists who took advantage of the new possibilities afforded by large biennials with international reach, and they presented work about oppression, poverty, and immigration in Cuba and Mexico. In 1991 and 1992, Next Wave festivals at the Brooklyn Academy of Music reflected these trends with works from the American-Indian group Spider Woman Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and Urban Bush Women dance company.

Performance art is a movement that thrives in moments of social strife and political unrest. At the beginning of the 1990s, performance art once again grew in popularity, this time fueled by new artists and audiences; issues of race, immigration, queer identities, and the AIDS crisis began to be addressed. However, this work often caused controversy, indeed it came to be at the center of the so-called Culture Wars of the 1990s, when artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes passed a peer review board to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, only to have it withdrawn by the NEA on the basis of its content, which related to sexuality.

Today's performance artists continue to employ a wide variety of mediums and styles, from installation to painting and sculpture. British artist Tris Vonna-Michell mixes narrative, performance and installation. Tino Seghal blends ideas borrowed from dance and politics in performances that sometimes take the form of conversations engaged in by the audience themselves; no conventional staged performance takes place, and no documentation remains of the events. Seghal's solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010 is a sign of how close the genre has now come to being accepted by mainstream art institutions.


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Content compiled and written by Anne Marie Butler

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anne Marie Butler
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Performance Art

Books

Websites

Articles

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Performance Art: From Futurism to Present Recomended resource

By Roselee Goldberg

Performance: Live Art Since the '60s Recomended resource

By Roselee Goldberg, Laurie Anderson

Body Art/Performing the Subject

By Amelia Jones

The Amazing Decade: Women and Performance Art in America, 1970-1980

By Moira Roth

More Interesting Books about Performance Art
Performa 11 - Visual Art Performance Biennial

Information on previous 2011 exhibition, and future events

In the Naked Museum: Talking, Thinking, Encountering

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
January 31, 2010

Marina Abramović: An Interview

By David Ebony
Art in America
May 5, 2009

Performance Art Gets Its Biennial

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
November 4, 2005

Preserve Performance Art? Can You Preserve the Wind?

By John Rockwell
The New York Times
April 30, 2004

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