The Case for Performance Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

The Case for Performance Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

NARRATOR: You’re minding
your own business in an art gallery, when
all of a sudden, a movement occurs out of the
corner of your eye. It couldn’t be. You break into a cold sweat
and look around for the nearest exit, but it’s too late. It’s happening. It’s performance art. Why? Why has my precious
fourth wall been violated? Why must I be forced to endure
this inevitable awkwardness? This is the case
for performance art. Performance art is a
term used to describe art in which the body is
the medium or live action is in some way involved. This is nothing new, of course. Human beings have
always performed in front of each other through
ritual, storytelling, dance, carnival, and on and on. But as art evolved,
the word became known for describing
specific things, mainly objects like painting,
sculpture, and drawing. Live action belonged
to other disciplines like theater and
ballet and opera. But during the course
of the 20th century, artists began to incorporate
live action into works and describe it as art. The Italian Futurists in
the 1910s saw performance as the only way to
reach a mass audience, staging noise
concerts and a kind of disruptive variety
theater aimed at destroying, quote, “the solemn, the
sacred, the serious, and the sublime in
Art” with a capital A. Think artists are kind of nuts? Well, the Futurists
wanted you to think that, arguing “the name of ‘madman’
with which it is attempted to gag all innovators should
be looked upon as a title of honour.” Dada artists embraced
the crazy as well and built off the popularity
of cabaret and post-World War I Germany. Artists Hugo Ball
and Emmy Hennings opened Cafe Voltaire
in 1916 in Zurich, and invited artists
and writers to come give musical performances
and readings of all kinds. No one knew what might
happen on any given night. It could be like this,
or it could be like this. [CHANTING] During the Weimar
years, the Bauhaus was the first institution to
offer a specific performance class, reinforcing it as
a medium in its own right. Avant Garde theater
flourished across Europe, and early surrealist
Antonin Artaud theorized what he called
the theater of cruelty, proposing a direct communication
between the spectator and the spectacle, engulfing
the spectator into the action, writing, “We abolish the
stage and the auditorium and replace them
by a single site, without partition or barrier
of any kind, which will become the theater of the action.” After World War II, Black
Mountain College in the US became a hotbed of experimental,
interdisciplinary practice with Avant Garde
composer John Cage teaching classes and staging
collaborative productions. They put on a version
of Erik Satie’s surreal “The Ruse of Medusa,”
featuring Merce Cunningham as mechanical monkey,
Buckminster Fuller as nonsensical baron,
and sets by Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Cage had shared
with his students his understanding of music as
it relates to Zen Buddhism, that art should not be separate
from life, but in action within life, with all of
the accidents and chaos and occasional beauty
that that entails. Participants in his
productions were given loose scores that left
a lot to interpretation, had unpredictable results, and
were impossible to reproduce. Choreographer and dancer
Merce Cunningham’s revolutionary approach, also
shared at Black Mountain, proposed that such
ordinary movements as walking and standing
could be considered dance. The boom of abstract
expressionist painting in the 1950s emphasized
the body’s involvement in making art. It’s obvious but
easy to forget when you’re looking at,
say, a landscape that every painting is a
document of a series of actions that took place in the past. But with works like
Jackson Pollock’s, it becomes harder to ignore, with
art critic Harold Rosenberg explaining, “The canvas began to
appear to one American painter after another as an
arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was
not a picture, but an event.” The Gutai group in Japan took
these ideas a step further. In front of audiences,
Kazuo Shiraga threw himself naked
into a pile of wet mud. Saburo Murakami crashed
through a row of paper screens. Tanaka Atsuko donned
her electric dress. Back in Europe,
Yves Klein embarked on a series for which
he hired female models to cover themselves in paint and
make imprints of their bodies on paper. Instead of walking
through a room and glimpsing these things
that happened in the past, here it is in the room with
you, happening right now. The godfather of the
happening, Allan Kaprow, staged his first in
1959 at Rubin Gallery, stating on the invitation,
“You will become part of the happenings;
you will simultaneously experience them.” Guests arrived with little
idea of what would happen, both witness to and participant
in loosely structured actions, left to make of it
what they could. Kaprow called it what he
did because it was, quote, “something
spontaneous, something that just happens to happen.” Artists associated with
the Fluxus movement presented ordinary
events as art, considering anyone and
everyone to be an artist. At a 1962 Fluxus
festival, Ben Patterson performed “Variations
for Contrabass” where he agitated
at strings using a variety of unusual materials. Nam June Paik dipped his
necktie and head in paint and drew a line along a
13-foot roll of paper. Alison Knowles made a
big salad and shared it. Much of it was playful, but for
others, it was dead serious. Joseph Beuts gave lectures
and staged dramatic actions, enacting what he
called social sculpture to try to change consciousness,
believing art can and should transform your everyday life. In Vienna, a group
of artists pursued what they call
actionism, calling it not only a form of
art, but above all, an existential attitude. Hermann Nitsch
enacted ancient rites, which he described as “an
anesthetic way of praying.” And Valie Export
invited the public to reach into a
curtain box to touch her unclothed body, a
humorous but indicting action questioning the objectification
of women’s bodies. Performance came into its own
in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. The Civil Rights Movement
and second-wave feminism underlined the fact that
the body is political, and artists seized
on its potential. Carolee Schneemann
explained, “in 1963, to use my body as an extension
of my painting constructions was to challenge and threaten
the psychic territorial power lines by which women were
admitted to the art stud club.” Through performance,
female bodies and black bodies and
queer bodies and bodies that bring together
multiple identities could be reclaimed,
reasserted, and represented through many lenses, not
just by white men this time, but by the actual
persons in question. The minimalists were
interested in phenomenology, or the study of consciousness
from particular points of view, and so were performance artists. Inserting live
bodies into artworks was an immediate way to
unsettle the delusion that a universal
perspective exists, insisting that everybody is
a self inscribed by events, language, history, and
identity, and is always in perpetual flux. These selves did lots of things. They became part of paintings. They wore paintings. They positioned themselves
in space and in nature. They positioned others in space. They performed tasks, and they
asked others to perform tasks. They made constructions
specifically to hold their bodies. They followed strangers. They took on other identities. They asked questions. They created stores. They subjected
themselves to danger. They tested their endurance. They turned the audience
into the performer. They completely
merged art and life. They explored desire,
androgyny, sexuality, exoticism, and the burden of art
historical representation. Since the ’70s,
performance art has been a relatively constant
fixture in the world of art, used internationally to
examine a wide range of issues. It’s been documented
and exhibited, but is largely resistant
to commercial forces, offering artists a way to
make work outside of the often oppressive market system. Performance today is so
many different things. It’s Kalup Linzy singing
as his alter ego, the melodramatic
[INAUDIBLE], Taiwan, whom he later declared dead. It’s Allora and
Calzadilla’s Olympic gymnast performing
choreographed routines on wooden replicas of airline
seats at the Venice Biennale. It’s Ryan McNamara being
taught to dance in public. It’s Kate Gilmore’s
bright pink house with women in white dresses
swinging from its windows. It’s Bennett Miller’s
“Dachshund UN.” It’s Ragnar
Kjartansson’s “Bliss,” a 12-hour performance of
the last minutes of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”
over and over again. And it’s still the classic stuff
like Marina Abramovic’s wildly popular, “The
Artist is Present,” where the audience was invited
to queue up and eventually face off with the artist. It should come as
no surprise when Jay-Z, inspired by
Abramovic’s work, called his music video
a performance art film, arguing, “Concerts are
pretty much performance art with the venues changed.” Performance art was born of
interdisciplinary thinking, and still thrives in
those spaces in between. Think art’s a scam masterminded
by the rich and ridiculous? Well, so have a lot of artists
who have used performance as a strategy to deliberately
offend, upend tradition, and remake art from the inside. Performance art was
born of a desire to flatten hierarchies inherent
in traditional art forms, so that the artist could
reach an audience directly rather than through coded forms
or the separation of a canvas or frame. It wasn’t so much
that people wanted to make something
called performance art, but more that these
activities seeped out from other disciplines where
they no longer quite fit in. As with any art, it’s up to
you to decide whether or not you think it’s any good. But the way into performance
is to allow yourself to be made uncomfortable
by it, to admit your feelings of
suspicion, fear, dislike, or claustrophobia. Performance art
can give you room to think about who you
are, where you are, and how you relate to
those who are not you. It can allow us to
contemplate the rules, written and unwritten, of any
given space or place. Performance can make
you uncomfortable, because that’s what
it’s supposed to do, it’s designed to do. Don’t leave the room. Stay. Be uncomfortable. Revel in the mystery of
what may or may not occur. Think about why you’re feeling
the way you’re feeling. Invite the discomfort. Invite the unknown. You and artists and art
will be better for it.

100 thoughts on “The Case for Performance Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. When I first saw the title to this,  I was planning to write that this series is mislabeled–the videos are more of an art history of various topics than a justification. But this episode had some arguments mixed in, I'm just trying to wrap my head around them. I think you saved the best for last, "It helps teach you who you are and how you relate to people who are different, by making you uncomfortable and questioning rules of any place or space." I can see the value in this, although, I see the importance as overblown in the art world. I mean, sure it makes you question norms and conventions, but so did Fight Club. Doesn't mean it's a good idea. A lot of times, norms and conventions exist for a reason – it's called being civilized. A bunch of art students sitting on the stairs, preventing anyone from passing, that doesn't make me question norms so much as why you'd ever want to deviate from them? And, dare I say it, most people have a pretty good idea of who they are, and don't want to change, as much as we'd like them to. So far as "flattening the hierarchy of traditional art" what hierarchy? That too many famous artists were old white men? That too much of it is rated based on skill? That only certain works get in museums? That all seems like you could fix it by changing the museums, without getting ink in your hair, or paint up your nose. "It reaches viewers directly, without any coding or the separation of a canvas and frame." I don't know, I think a framed canvas is pretty direct and immediate, while performance art all seems heavily coded. "It’s outside of the art market system." God forbid an artist makes money from all the hard work involved in making art. And finally, this one,

    “Inserting live bodies into artworks was an immediate way to unsettle the delusion that a universal perspective exists, insisting that every body is a self, inscribed by events, language, history, and identity, and it always in perpetual flux.”
    Every body is a self? Inscribed by language, identity, etc? Isn't this obvious? It's like insisting that grass is green, and it does not preclude a shared, universal experience or perspective, as many different and varied people still share many things in common. And I don't see how inserting people into the art impacts this. It all seems like a string of non-sequiturs.

  2. Ok, but how do you differentiate between sticking around through discomforting Performance Art, and sticking around through,say, a bad film, or bad music?

    Sometimes things are discomforting because they are a waste of your time.

    Related: How about an Art Assignment on Bad Art?

  3. I love this video. Almost 4 years ago, I stumbled spoken word poet Sarah Kay's Tedx talk and fell in love! Having been a writer and musician for over 10 years at that point, I couldn't resist delving into this beautiful new world I'd found. Within a week of finding those first new poems, I'd written 6 new works of my own.

  4. "Art should not be separate from life, but an action within life, with all of the accidents and chaos and occasional beauty that that entails". YES YES YES YES.

  5. I love this channel! Instead of just saying "I don't get it" or "That's ugly" or "That's weird" I will now think twice about artists and how their art is presented and why.

  6. When I was in London in May I visited Tate Britain. There were dancers in matching outfits and it was my first experience with performance art. Since then it has interested me and this video was really insightful!

  7. Excellent interpretation/summation of this niche of the academic art world! Thanks for reminding us it's okay to be humble and insecure around it.

  8. nice to see and read the comments below…..for some people begun to quite understand performance art and art in general…. especially to where are is right now and where it is leading to in future……… performance art for me like any other medium of art is a sort of like mystical and unearthly manner of communicating through codes, spaces, or through total interaction or giving an idea through a secret language or slamming it right on the face for people to know…… art now is more about questioning and experimenting our emotions, comfortability, security as person, our ideals and beliefs, and our very being of rational thinkers who loves to ask and question our world and wonder of the beauty around us…………………… ……………. hope more people will try to do art even just one time in their life…… study history of art, appreciate and learn from masters of the past and present, learn some traditions and rules….. but after knowing and immersing in the art of yesterday and today and after reflecting and appreciating the very art itself of human development over time in history, is the time to ask for yourself what art is, to begin questioning your own existence and experiences, experimenting your resources, and touching your emotions, to create your own art a bit different from those of today and yesterday, and to break all the rules and traditions you already knew from studying…..but do it for art and experimentation and not to offend and intentionally nonsense or unconscious thinking of doing art….but after all art is generally accepted as who knows what art really is….for it's impulse, spontaneous, like a snap or a blink….ever changing, ever asking, ever experimenting, ever making us feel and experience a bit of freedom under our own control and capacity…but it has reason…it has something asking for..or something experiencing for…maybe a still subject of a painting…or the subject of emotion and interactive concept like in performance art… 🙂 just my opinions….and just sharing. peace.

  9. This is fantastic. As someone who loves performance art and does alot of work to promote it, facilitate it and share it, it is so validating to find such a well made and positive video that honors this important medium. Featuring this on my website for performance art in Houston, thank you!

  10. Editing tip : Since this video is loaded with information, I'd suggest to take pauses to let the information set in in the viewers brain.

  11. I don't know much about art. In fact, I don't get art most of the time. But I've always loved learning. I just found this channel and it's so cool. I'd love more videos on performance art

  12. Addison DeWitt would have had a field day with this. "Break into a sweat when it is about to begin?" Hardly. To feel discomfort is to fall into the pretension. It is there, it is occuring. It is interesting or it is not. It is amusing or it is not. It is not a source of discomfort and and in the end it challenges nothing except in the imagination of the artist who somehow thinks that it is. It is just another piece in the game we have created to deal with the fact that the future has become boring.
    Recognize it for what it is. Appreciate it for what it is, sculpture with living marble, but do not attempt to read into the work something that is not there.

  13. I dunno, this became sort of difficult for me to rationalize when the video discussed the performance art schools, and then went on to say performance art was a comment against the commercialization of art because it offered artists "a way to make art outside of the often-oppressive market system." This seems like an extremely unaware thing to say when we talk about economic privilege. Like, how well-off would one had to have been in order to attend one of those schools for performance art? And just because the art isn't able to be commodified in a way that one can buy it doesn't mean it operations outside of the market system—it costs something like $30 to get into MoMA, which might not be a lot for for some, but is absolutely restricting to others. And how well-off do one of these artists need to be in order to practice performance art in lieu of having a job? When discussing stuff like market forces and art, I think it pays to be aware of the artist's relative privilege. So, yeah, I guess I "buy" performance art, but only because it's not really free.

  14. I am 100% confused how pretty much ANYTHING considered art or performance art can be considered so highly and worth so much time and money. I have tried to be able to see/understand the draw but absolutely nothing makes sense to me. Possibly my brain is broken because I have NEVER really been passionate about anything and have even quit sports I enjoy because I can never match everyone else's enthusiasm I am at constant content level only mode. Wish I could fix it but not even meds/psych dr's have worked.

  15. Can a performance also count when it's only for a photograph? I know they often are just a trace of the event but I feel that performing or being "out of character" simply for a photograph feels like it's more than photography.

  16. I enjoyed Erykah Badu explaining her Window Seat video as Performance Art. She striped naked at the site of JFK's assassination site to bring focus to group think. She cited Yoko Ono and Nina Simone as inspiration. Look it up, it's great!

  17. There was a long-term performance piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. There were 5 women who would take turns throughout the day on a revolving platform, slowly playing an electric guitar in a large, circular space created by a curtain of gold streamers.

    I felt like I was intruding on her space when I walked through the curtain. I was walking into something private and contemplative.

  18. If you are interested in performance art, check out our Channel and Facebook page! We run an international performance art festival in Wellington New Zealand.

  19. I understand that a lot of the time the purpose is to strip away all meaning, and replace it with shock value, or propose some abstract new order; but even with that in mind i don't see much value. Traditionally the arts were about rationalism, storytelling, and using a finely tuned structure to project a message or deeper meaning, or even make a political statement using a common language. A painting or sculpture was akin to a finely crafted novel or a masterfully engineered watch.
    I'm nostalgic for craftsmanship.

  20. first of all, great video!
    does anybody know the title of the performance shown in the thumbnail? And also in 0:18? (the two people having some sort of linen around their heads that connects them)
    thanks! 🙂

  21. It should be mandatory that all art galleries should have random performance art…for the mental health of the people!!

  22. Cool fact about my life: I was a part of Tino Sehgal's "This Progress" in Paris last october to december. Best experience of my life by far.

  23. There's so much info on these videos that i spend hours pausing them so i can investigate all pieces and artists, i wanna go to sleep but i can't. I thank you for the existance of this channel

  24. Hugo Ball was so influential, the Talking Heads made a song using his poetry which laid the groundwork for their album Remain in Light

  25. So, what's the difference between Performance Art and Street Theater? I think the reason people are mad is because of a feeling towards mislabeling.

  26. You have got to slow the down the tempo of the video presentation it's too fast slow down seriously

  27. Performance art, in many people’s consciousness, collapses the concept of art and is thus anti-art and should thus not be called performance art but performance protestation. THAT is the problem with a lot of contemporary art, it is more visual philosophy than art.

    Love these vids 👌🏿

  28. Sin embargo existe una falencia en sostener que una 'performance' pueda hacerse sin una estructura o una gramática visual. El "discurso" en el que se basa una obra es signo de que la obra es insuficiente para exponer una experiencia o comunicar algo.

  29. i agree with kyle can gogh's comment especially in reference to the commercialisation of art. i also enjoyed the conclusion at the end of the video

  30. For me it comes down to consent. Especially if you are living with mental illness you need the option to opt out or choose not to be put in a triggering situation at all. I feel that performance art sometimes violates audiences trust in the name of art. Scaring away those for whom leaving the house and engaging with the world was enough of a challenge.
    I don’t think performance art is alone in doing this at all but I think it’s more frequent than in some other more “passive” art-forms. I’m not saying you can’t make uncomfortable performance art but put out warnings about it just like you would if a light art peace could provoke epidemic fits or if a smoke machine could cause asthma.

  31. another underrated performance art in music is when bands such as The Who ended their concerts by destroying their instruments .

  32. missed the circus .. that too is art and way ahead {now deemed by hipsters as cruel and old fashioned} of performance art… Check out Charlotte Moorman for performance art breaking barriers …

  33. For people who are part of a belief tradition that teach modesty where the human body is concerned, watching performance art that contained nudity would be uncomfortable. I'm part of a religious organization that teaches that modesty is a way of honoring the sacredness of the physical body. It isn't just a matter of feeling uncomfortable by nudity, it's that nudity in the public place is against one's religious beliefs.

  34. wonderful channel! My opinion…since I studied at in my country I had a point of view on performance concepts I think after watched this well done video remains the same I only see: Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing") is the purification and purgation of emotions—particularly pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics, comparing the effects of tragedy on the mind of a spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body.

  35. Feminism by definition divides humanity into separate groups, which is bad for society and bad for art. Art is about expressing individual feelings and emotions. When the artist see themselves as representing a group it becomes political, intellectualizing the message, narrowing the audience. Making art should be encouraged by everyone for everyone.

  36. "A performance art video" isn't a thing, you jackass. A video can be art, but performance art is inherently ephemeral, and it's the point.

  37. You forgot to show the pooping experience where people poop in public with see-through mirrors that only they could see out

  38. Art should not be like flying through an asteroid belt. Which supreme commander in chief selects space cadets among us to perform (or guide us though) these treacherous missions, and why? The skeptical and paranoid among us may suspect it is for no more than clearing out the main decks of the more reckless in our midst. What better role for those with such natural dispositions, than jobs as crash test dummy and guinea pigs? And as to those stuck in the back seat or worse stuffed among the cargo and baggage, surely one thing that repeatedly comes to our mind is "are we there yet?"

  39. A SUPER interesting summary and critique – Performance art is the future. CHeck out my performance art videos on my channel if you love performance as much as me ^.^

  40. No. the word "Performance art" is just an excuse for those bunch of untalented weirdo to do something weird. Those crap are not Art.

    1-Ask your child/nephew to do a painting.
    2- Invent and write a story that sounds intellectual.
    3-Find an art gallery that believes in your absurdity.

  42. You seem to generalize that performance art is uncomfortable in your closing statements. That is not always true

  43. You know, it still appears pretentious, with that "you don't understand how deep I am dad!" attitude that I find repulsive, as if other people's experience is shallow and needs basic attenuation. I cannot think of a single advantage this medium has over painting or theatre, writing or music. Honestly it feels like more of the opiod-infused attitude of Bauhaus, that nihilistic "fuck it, there are no hard answers so let's just do some abrasive nonsense." I have never been made to feel anything more than mildy impressed or mildly uncomfortable by artists who think messy laziness is somehow a Budhist holiness, as I can bet they've never actually been to a pristene temple of theirs.

    If art is just the "messiness of life," then stop trying to interject yourself onto the rest of it. If art is something more, than carry on with other, better mediums.

  44. Good performances don't make you uncomfortable. Unless is the specific intention of the piece. the treatment of the spectator, as a moving part it self, is an intricate and complex subject. Needs a life to learn and least understatement due to the new ways of contemporary art (conceptual for example)

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