What is Performance Art?
Performance Art is an experimental act of visual art that is meant to be experienced as a live event. Performance artworks are created on the basis of actions performed by the artist and sometimes other participants. The term “Performance Art” emerged in the 1970s and is closely related to the “Happenings” of the 1950s. Drawing on combined elements of painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance and theater, Performance Art can be spontaneous or scripted.
Examples of Performance Art
Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes me, 1974, MoMa, New York
Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, MoMa, New York
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964, MoMa, New York
Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Guggenheim, New York
Guerilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, 1989, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
History of Performance Art
The term “Performance Art” became popular in the 1970s but performance art itself can be traced back to the avant garde art that emerged around the time of the first World War. Early performance pieces, such as the Dadaist cabarets and the productions staged by Futurist artists, established the core purpose and values of Performance Art within art history. Dadaist and Futurist ideologies rejected everything that the art world valued, including its standards of beauty, its principles and many of its methods. Dada rejected the notion of art itself and sought to provoke the status quo. Dada art was often ironic and satirical, rejecting the so-called stylistic perfection required by previous movements. This, along with the multitude of rebellious art movements to follow, would influence the beginnings of Performance Art.
After World War II, the Happenings of the 1950s and Conceptual Art of the 1960s became closely related to early Performance Art for their action-based and immaterial nature. Incorporating the artist’s body in the creative process brought new meaning to the art movements existing parallel to, and ultimately intertwining with, Performance Art. Artists frequently transitioned between the stylistic conventions of various movements in order to express themselves and achieve the dissolution of high art conventions.
Performance Art relied on physical movement and action that involved the artist’s body performing for, or interacting with, an audience. During the post-war period, Performance Art gave artists a platform to explore the depths of human existence by using the body itself. After witnessing the unimaginable violence of the first World War and second World War, visual artists began using the body as a medium, where Performance Art brought the viewer deeper into instances of shared human experience. Works like Performance Artist Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece demonstrate an instance of the artist allowing the audience to intervene with her body, ultimately leaving her naked in an art gallery. Radical ideas, invitations of chance and chaos, as well as generally unstructured expression central to Performance Art challenged human nature and questioned human relationships in a modern world.
Being an event rather than an artifact, Performance Art reversed the dynamic between the artist’s creative process and the final product. Initially, Western art saw the final product as the most significant part of art-making. Through Performance Art, the artist’s act of creation became equally important and often overshadowed the artwork produced by this active process.
Performance Art also embraced an aspect of political agitation and quickly became a preferred strategy of Feminist artists. Performance Art was often shocking and unexpected, lending itself well to the exposure of racism, sexism and corruption across institutions, especially in the art world. Many famous Performance Art pieces occurred in New York City, whose metropolitain quality garnered international attention.
The first half of the twentieth century saw many now-prolific artists experimenting with performance-based approaches to art-making. The creative gestures associated with Performance Art ranged from Performance artists using their bodies to apply paint to a surface, artists violently throwing materials at canvases, to artists using bodily fluids to paint themselves. Throughout modern art, artists like Jackson Pollock turned to action art from Abstract Expressionism as a means to communicate the inherently performative process of action painting. In 1974, German Performance Artist Joseph Beuys locked himself in a room of a New York City art gallery with a live coyote in the controversial piece I Like America and America Likes Me. Many visual artists began to blur the boundaries between styles and movements, focusing less so on the material output of their creative processes and embodying a conceptual focus instead. Performance Art blurred the boundary between art and life and intentionally disrupted the art world.
From Private Ritual to Public Performance
Unlike traditional theater performances, Performance Art rejected scripted narratives used in the performing arts. Instead, Performance Art welcomed random interventions, chance outcomes and audience participation. Performance Artists would often bring mundane, everyday rituals into fine art galleries and other public spaces. Various Performance artists like Carolee Schneemann would perform fully nude and interact with their own bodily fluids, while others, like Yoko Ono, would stay in bed for prolonged periods of peaceful protest. Works like American visual artist Carolee Schneemann’s Performance Art piece Interior Scroll and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In, in collaboration with musician John Lennon, turn regular human activity into public spectacle by allowing the audience to gain access to a typically private space. Unlike painting or sculpture, much Performance Art demanded live performances and interaction with the audience. In turn, various artists valued how Performance Art brought greater awareness to current social, political and cultural issues and embraced it as part of their artistic practices.
Performance Art embraced a wide variety of artistic styles within the visual arts and disrupted the boundaries between artist and audience, artistic representation and everyday life, as well as private ritual and public decorum. Performance artists’ foregrounding of bodily experience and radical ideas made Performance Art a perfect medium for challenging societal norms while shattering the traditional modes and core artistic values of Western visual arts. As a result, Performance Art became highly significant to the Feminist movement.
Performance Art and Feminist Art
The 1960s was a highly politicized time where many artists relied on Performance Art to address emerging social concerns. Female artists and Feminist art embraced the use of the artist’s own body to challenge historical representations of women by male artists where they are traditionally portrayed as objects of desire and consumption. Many Performance Art pieces emerged as a blend of Body Art, Earth Art and Conceptual Art, where new forms of experimental works, conceptual pieces and performance pieces often inhabited real space with live art performances.
Female artists creating within the Performance Art movement rejected the notion of the female body as a passive object by confronting audiences with the often censored aspects of female experience. As a result, much of this work included acts relating to representation, childbearing, menstruation, physical appearance, gender, race, sexual identity and economics.
Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s Performance Art pieces, such as Silueta, did not invite audience members for live observation. Rather, the Performance artist uses herself as her subject matter, burying herself in mounds of dirt, tall grasses, sand and other natural materials that worked to mirror her body’s interaction with the landscape. Mendieta’s live performances were intimately ritualistic works of art that were documented using mainly photographs. Much like the performance itself, the landscapes and organic materials that Mendieta briefly inhabited were largely ephemeral and could not be brought into a museum or gallery like a sculpture or painting. Only photographs or video documentation could be witnessed after the performance ended.
The Influence of Performance Art on Contemporary Art
Originally, Performance Art could not be bought or sold and resisted commodification and traditional forms of exhibition. Video and photographic documentation offered a secondary avenue for artists to document and potentially distribute this work to galleries, museums and collectors. Ironically, the archives of these performative artworks became more significant to mainstream art collection and art history than the original performance itself. To counter this return to the art object, many artists hold retrospective exhibitions where they recreate the performance piece while accompanied by its original documentation.
Performance Art influenced many of the performative and time-based approaches to visual art production that exist to this day. Artists like Guerilla Girls, Martha Rosler, John Cage and Naim June Pak heavily influenced the evolution of Performance Art in the decades that followed.
Much like the Performance Art of the 1960s and 1970s, the Body Art and Performance Art approaches of the 1980s and 1990s and the new-media Performance Art of the 2000s continue to engage the viewer in the significance or the creative act of visual art production while exploring notions of cultural exchange, identity and systemic issues, often foregoing art history’s tradition of the art object altogether.
Notable Performance Artists
- Ana Mendieta, 1948-1985, Cuban
- Adrian Piper, b. 1948, American
- Joan Jonas, b. 1936, American
- Carolee Schneemann, 1939-2019, American
- Marina Abramović, b. 1946, Serbian
- Joseph Beuys, 1921-1986, German
- Yoko Ono, b. 1933, Japanese