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Performance and its claim to be art

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Britannica defines Performance Art as a time-based art form that typically features a live presentation to an audience or to onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, and painting. It is generally an event rather than an artifact, by nature ephemeral, though it is often recorded on video and by means of still photography. It also says that Performance Art arose in the 1970’s as a general term for a multitude of activities including Happenings, body art, actions, events and guerrilla theatre. Performance Art is believed to have originated in the early 20th century and bears a close relation with futurism. Performance art became accepted as a medium of artistic expression in its own right in the 1970’s. At that time conceptual art which insisted on an art of ideas over product, and on an art that could not be bought or sold – was in its heyday and performance was often a demonstration or execution of those ideas. Performance art thus became the most tangible art-form of the period. Performance art by its very nature defies a precise or easy definition beyond the simple declaration that it is live art by artists. As any stricter definition would negate any possibility of performance itself.1 Therefore we shall henceforth take a view of Performance Art as an umbrella term for the aforementioned practices. Going forward we must consider a few illustrations of performance art, not for arriving at a definition but to understand its nature and character.

A famous and notable artist in the practice of Performance Art is Mariana Abramovic, a Serbian conceptual artist, who famously refers to herself as the grandmother of Performance art. She is particularly known for her performance called Rhythm 0 performed in the year 1974. In the particular performance Marina put 72 objects on a table that the audience could use any ways they pleased while she remained passive. Some of the objects could give pleasure, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet. A sign was placed in the performance venue to inform the audience that they had no responsibility for their actions. For exactly six hours the audience were allowed to do with her body as they pleased and they did just that. Marina Abramovic elaborates the difference between theatre and performance art in the following manner “in theatre you can cut with a knife, the blood is not real, the knife is not real” while explaining the difference between the theatre and performance. These words are sufficient to explain what performance art is broadly or at least in what sense it differs from theatre. To be real it has to be transparent or appear to be in the sense that it cannot willingly deceive its audience and the audience taking part in the performance can be seen as the very proof of its honesty and transparency. The relation between life, art and theatre can also be deduced from the above difference famously suggested by Marina Abramovic. The point being that theatre is separate from life as the blood is not real and performance is not as the blood is real.

Let us examine in what sense life is performance art and in what sense it is not. Performance pieces like Ana Mandieta’s Untitled (Death of a Chicken)1972 where the artist held a decapitated chicken by the feet in front of her naked body, its blood spattering on her flesh and the wall behind her to create an effect that recalled the messy painterly expressionism of the Actionists . Here the life art separation is dissolved to create a shock in the mind of a viewer or the viewer is shocked unintentionally. I do not intend to state or downplay the symbolism in the performance, if there is any, but in my view it is quite irrelevant to the subject at hand. What is important here is that the viewer is shocked by the use of real blood in the performance, however there is another reason why he is shocked, that being that the viewer is experiencing the performance art as a passive observer as in any traditional art forms and the decapitated chicken is nothing but the intrusion of reality in his/her safe space of passive viewing. This intrusion within the safe space is of our shared reality itself and the performer can just as easily toss the decapitated chicken to the viewer/audience to fully complete the sense of shock with more reality if it were possible to heighten that shock of the said viewer. In a sense the art life definition is dissolved. As this version does not come with a disclaimer like in the movies that says “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie” the audience knows it’s real with real life implications. Though a performance piece may not involve the audience in the sense of requiring its participation, the immediacy of the performance artwork overrides the natural response of contemplation.

Now to understand and connect this dissolution with the more traditional distinction of art and life let us consider what Picasso famously said “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” what he meant and people at the time understood by the statement was what Magritte states in this painting named the ‘treachery of images’ wherein he writes under the painting of a pipe “this is not a pipe”. Art has been separated from reality or life from the moment of its inception. Art was understood as a separate activity as any other activity with a special quality i.e. it was deceptive. It only appeared to be real and this appearance of being real was its deception of its audience for example: a realist would paint something closely resembling reality or a theatre artist would enact a believable death. Although Performance art is a fundamental shift here from what Picasso and Magritte understood to be art, Performance art is a deception in itself. The Performance artist’s claim of being honest and transparent cannot withstand the reality in its totality. The version of reality presented to the audience or even audience-participant is calculated, planned and isolated form the general flow of the macro reality.

The performance art that includes the audience as participants whose contribution is necessary to complete the performance, it’s this dependence on the audience which makes it unpredictable. While at its inception the rules are carefully planned and the environment of the performance venue structured accordingly lending some predictability to the outcomes nay the happening of performance. This mix of unpredictability and predictability is the space presented to its audience to act while operating under the illusion of free choice and freedom of possibilities. In this specific way the performances or certain types thereof are more akin to social experiments than some kind of art on the edges of life and art.

For example Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 wherein a finite number of objects are placed on a table thereby restricting the scope of possibilities to a finite number. It does not require much effort for one to imagine what will happen if the said number of people were placed in the context of her said performance. There are two broad possibilities, one in which the people avoid the experience of exploiting and manipulating her own body offered by the performance artist and another one in which they ignore her invitation and go about doing something else. At another level the possibility of the people accepting the invitation of the performance artist creates a new possibility with the use of every object. Thereafter the choice of each object creates newer possibilities depending upon the object in question. And finally the permutation and combination of objects creates even more possibilities.

This view appears dry and totally irrelevant to the Performance Art of the experimenting type and its objects. There seems to be little to no interest in exploring the possibilities after the first level of possibilities as that would make it appear like an objective experiment. Then there is the obsession with the acts of the audience, its brutality and inhumanity. It becomes apparent here that there is a purposely distorting the objectivity and mystifying of the actual to pretend to be giving some kind of an experience and on the part of the audience to be experiencing something of value because nobody had the guts to say, “The king is naked”. This kind of performance art is predictable and the scope for spontaneity is limited as spontaneity reaches its natural limitations in the context of a performance art piece as soon as it is planned. Similarly each new performance will impose its own limitations on spontaneity. The performance art of this experimenting type reminds me of the experiments I did as a child, totally un-objective and without purpose like inserting small objects in a piece of clay while hoping to create something, not knowing what that something is, as if by a miracle something would manifest. While this endless process accomplishes nothing, the process of inserting objects in the clay itself becomes pleasurable almost like Kazou Shiraga’s practice of prioritizing the process over outcome. The performance art of the experimenting type is very similar to this hoping for a miracle, the only difference being that it requires an audience. It is as if it were the mixture of an experiment and a ritual in some kind of a primitive society that had only partly learned the causal links between acts and what they can lead to.

The traditional arts were aesthetic responses to the world. As a result however disgusting or repelling the subject was, it was ordered balanced and composed. Thus art in general contained a utopian view of the world. In contrast to the traditional arts, performance art in general there is a reduction to the body, to the concrete and the verifiable and in the sense it is dystopian. performance art is to science what the traditional arts were to philosophy.

To view the performance art from another angle, it is more akin to a social experiment without its rigorous analysis or sophisticated and accurate method than art itself. However it is often a flat, dead experience full of satisfying the most basic human drives that are easily satisfied such as in Amramovic’s Rhythm 0 or Ana Mandieta’s Untitled (Death of a Chicken)1972. In case of Rhythm 0 it is as if art has regressed to some kind of prehistoric rituals whereby the public is invited to partake in absurdities of public domination, humiliation and sado-masochism in a consequence free environment and as if art needs to shock its audience to register itself as noteworthy in the case of Untitled (Death of a Chicken)1972. It is in the above instances the invitation to be a part of the mob either in the act seeking some kind of primitive, repressed pleasure as a participant inflicting pain or as a viewer watching from a distance who is complicit nonetheless by his viewing the happening.

Another quality of the performance art is the demystification of the classical nudes and bodies. It is apparent from the description itself that performance art principally tries to be real by its use of the actual. The experience therefore of any audience is less idealized as is in the case of the traditional forms of art. As in the case of Annie Sprinkle’s “post-porn modernist, 1989-96 performance wherein the performance artist invited the audience to view her body while shining a flashlight at her cervix. While another artist Dorotha Sadvska’s “Corporalities” shows the desexualized abstraction of the woman’s breasts resulting from their distortion by her own hands. Mark Wallinger in his “Ecce Homo,1999” performed the Christ as a small and vulnerable man as opposed to the monumental and idealized images we come across in the classical painting and sculpture. It is the artification of reality as it were.

Furthermore to dissolve the life and art distinction it becomes necessary that the ultimate proof of this unity is offered to establish this fundamental shift in the history of art, which proof is life itself. It is only when a performer can be touched, beaten or stabbed or the performer cuts off a chicken head that one knows that it is real experientially. We are discounting here the sudden reaction that an audience can have to 3d cinema as the reaction is less from knowing and more a reflex even though this kind of immediacy may also be a part of Performance art. Therefore most performance art performances that register on our mind are those which involve such acts of brutality towards oneself or an animal. These acts also work at another level which is by shocking the viewers such that the sudden rush of adrenaline felt by them becomes a part of experience of the performance art work. The audience therefore cannot have any meaningful experience with or without participation as active participation vacates permanently the proper distance required for contemplation and even without participation the audiences are complicit as taking pleasure in the brutal acts by virtue of being spectators.

Immanuel Kant writes in his Critique of Judgment “delight in beautiful art does not, in the pure judgement of taste, involve an immediate interest” and that “it is not the object that is of immediate interest, but rather the inherent character of the beauty qualifying it for such a partnership-a character, therefore, that belongs to the very essence of beauty.” What Kant means here is that an aesthetic distance is necessary from the work of art proper and this distance is violated from what is stated herein before. This distance is necessary according to Kant so as to be able to experience the inherent character of beauty in the object of art. This results in a kind of gulping down without tasting in performance art.

To elaborate I present the following argument as deduced from Slavoj Zizek’s “Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway”. In the book Zizek gives the example of a scene in the movie Casablanca where there is ambiguity as to whether the actors had sexual intercourse. To interpret the true meaning of the scene Zizek first quotes Richard Maltby’s solution on how to view the said scene, which is to imagine two audience members both picking up different ques from the scene. One audience member imagines that the actors had intercourse and another imagines that they didn’t and they both are satisfied with the scene as there are symbols to suggest both possibilities. Zizek’s ingenious solution is to merge the two audience members such that the audience can pretend to believe that there is no intercourse at the same time enjoying the fantasy of them having intercourse. This he writes is the inherent transgression.

This I think is only possible in the popular works of arts that can be reduced to catharsis as they do not adhere to the aesthetic distance in general, in the sense that they are more concerned with the immediacy. I think by a similar violation of the aesthetic distance the performance art possesses this character of the popular art. For example when viewing the performance involving nakedness the audience can experience the basic pleasure of the nakedness and at the same time disregard this experience as being part of the performance. However the inherent transgression is a high point of popular art as it not only defeats censorship by subversion but also transcends the coordinates of the plot itself and makes multiple interpretations possible. The Performance art does not engage with censorship and hence the point of violating this distance is lost, there is no transcendence and no subversion here.

There is also a difference between the nude and the naked. The nude is a refined figure to present the essence and the element of beauty inherently possessed by the model whereas the naked is in the immediacy of basic pleasure. The performance artist is in this sense naked and not nude.

A similar thing happens while viewing a performance artwork and the brutal acts in a performance art work, they view it by being complicit in the enjoyment of the acts. The immediacy of the performance only does not grant enough distance from the performance for the audience but it is rather traumatic as compared to the careful conscious unfolding of the thing to be experienced. It is more like a tequila shot than a wine tasting. It may be an experience nonetheless but the immediacy destroys any possibility of the experience being a conscious one and consequently the experience of the audience appears inarticulate or missing.

Of course the argument can be made that the proper time of contemplation is after the ending of the performance and not during and also that then there is no room for contemplation in paintings of nudes as there will be complicit enjoyment. In answer to the first question it may be possible but it is difficult that a performance will register honestly for later contemplation like a story does for most of the performances resist articulation. The fact that stories are easier to recall has been known for a long time. The Performance most times does not have a narrative, plot or logical sequence. Generally, it is safe to say that the Performance Art resists articulation and recollection. While it may be possible to recollect the highlights and some acts it is totally divorced from the sequence as the sequence is unimportant and irrelevant. To introduce here a possibility of the video playback is to cheat in this construction as this mediation changes the form to video which is not the subject of this thesis.

In answer to the latter question, the nudes observe the life/art distinction, an object is therefore subjectified for the sake of experience and in the act of experiencing whereas in performance the subject is objectified for the sake of experience or at least in video recordings of the performances. The liveliness rather than providing an experience that is spontaneous, makes it necessary to alienate and objectify the performance artist and his acts to make the complicit enjoyment possible and keep the trauma of the experience at bay. It is as it were that the performance artist and the audience enter into an unspoken understanding that the performer is to be objectified but in the manner of his choosing. To explain with an illustration, the performance artist can himself be taken for a bunch of lines and abstract shapes for the sake of interpretation of the performance OR the performance artist is objectified like in Rhythm 0 as it is difficult to do the things done to her had she expressed how she was feeling, however in the case of the nude a bunch of lines and abstract shapes make the nude. The mental process of their experience may be spontaneous but they are at the same time opposite and is possible with the nude and the video of a performance piece.

In “Transfiguration” by Oliver de Sagazan, where the artist with the aid of mud or clay and paint creates and recreates distorted faces deserves a special mention after the aforesaid. In the said performance therefore the artist is objectified and re-subjectified over and over again with the application of each new face-mask. But subjectification or objectification is not the same as keeping an aesthetic distance and therefore the preceding observations apply to this performance also.

To make another point I ask the question, does planning a performance not remove itself from the sphere of life? The counter question that one can ask here is, Is life not planned then? Yes it is true that life is also planned, then everything boils down to intention, does it?

The answer is no, the performance art performed in public view and outside the performance art venues may have real life consequences. Therefore the separation still exists between life and art whether it be planned or not and it is inherent to something being considered as art.

Life happens without an audience, without it being recorded and has its own rhythm, the moment the spontaneity is taken over by necessity of the audience it becomes a separate activity.

On the question of intention, it is as necessary an ingredient of art as it is in criminal law along with motive, preparation and act. As in criminal law the motive and intention are many a times inferred retrospectively from the preparation and the act in question, so too in performance the intention and motive can be inferred similarly if not apparent. The question however is if intention is sufficient to denote something as art. No, there are inalienable features derived from the preceding like being separate from the flow of macro life, immediacy and inarticulate experience, need for an audience, preparation and act that are equally important to note.

Art has the tendency towards novelty to register more deeply on the mind of the audience. The repeated shocking acts are no more shocking and simply do not register after its repetition a few times, such is the human mind. Who is to say that the modern forms and styles have nothing more to offer and they have just become obsolete because of the curse of novelty nay significant novelty? After having stated the preceding the Performance art appears to have reached a dead end. And having reached a dead end what is to say that the next step may not involve the artist as the designer of someone else’s performance as some artists have deputed their paintings, sculptures and installations to their apprentices? Will performance art not enter a dangerous moral territory where the artist is in control of someone else’s performance and what is to say that the participant will always be willing for every act? A waiver of rights signed by the performer waving his rights and the liabilities of the artist prior to the performance may hold legally as consent but may not ethically and morally. Here I have assumed that the performance is going to be of a certain kind and involving brutality and harshness to oneself. But does the art form not have a tendency to shock and will an unwilling participant not provide a heightened sense of reality? Something to aspire for in a novelty driven artworld.

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