Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts 1999 Grants Booklet
Is "performance art" the art of performance or the performance of art?
Up to us. If we decide for the art of performance, any discussion of the subject will have to consider the performing artist and not just the art being performed. It's impossible to separate one from the other. Art can perform without the artist as long as it has a viewer in its presence. A performer, on the other hand, is just a bystander unless there's something to perform - a text, a task, a score, a set of directions. That probably goes without saying.
But it's complicated. Take a painting or sculpture, which documents a private performance by an artist in his or her studio. All we see is the end result of a richly appointed process that may include shouting, sweating, the throwing of blunt instruments, note-taking, pacing and foot-tapping in addition to a good deal of maneuvering among various materials, some of which can be toxic or grotesque or otherwise unstable. What we see comes after the hair-pulling and false starts and hard choices have been made and the artist's attentions have been repaid by the finished piece. In other words, we miss all the fun.
Not so with performance art, which gives us a way in - many ways, in fact, for it takes many forms and can involve anywhere from one to a one hundred performers who may force any number of objects (including themselves) through a space; project words or images from a variety of angles onto a variety of surfaces; slice the air with alternating sounds and silences; arrange tableaux; mix media. It's something to see, I'll tell you, though it's not always polished or pretty. This is a get-your-hands-dirty kind of art, a get-your-feet-wet thing, if you know what I mean. A hybrid. You never know what to expect from it, which is both the up and the downside of this kind of work.
From this we can conclude that the art of performance is the performance of art - an art predicated on the direct confrontation of an artist with an audience. It's a live act of esthetic investigation performed in a public place, a public art. In other words, performing artists are artists who realize their work in public.
Then are performance artists just actors playing a particular role? Or artists performing a particular art?
The latter – not that performance artists don't put on an act; there cannot be a performance without an action being taken by someone (usually the performing artist or someone at the artist's behest), which isn't to say that the performance artist is strictly an actor, in theatrical terms, especially if that artist is a musician or composer, a poet, a dancer or a painter or what have you. In fact, what the performance artist does is not necessarily theater, not that theater isn't an art or that performance has no artifice, but theater by itself is primarily a literary art. It's about language, even if, like performance art, it involves gesture (which is also a language), constructed sets, objects and light forms, and includes music or dance as well as video or film.
Some performance artists work with language, though they are likely to be drawing portraits with it. But essentially, theater is an art of argument, which involves emotion as well as thought. Actors, therefore, emote. Actors wear the mask of character and emote through it, whereas performance artists might just stand there in their naked selves and declaim while other things happen around them. In this way, performance art incorporates elements of theater while undermining its drama. In fact, it's just another form of presentation. Clear?
How did we get to this point?
Well, we could look back to the Dada cabarets, I suppose, but performance art as we think of it now seems to have evolved out of those colorful stagings we called "Happenings" in the 1960s, when, on any given occasion, one might find a whole assortment of slowly evolving, often raucous, activities taking place all at once, in clear opposition to each other. For example, in his introduction to Silence, an anthology of his lectures, John Cage – a pioneer of this medium – recalled an event he organized at Black Mountain College way back in 1952. The evening, he wrote, "involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, the poetries of Charles Olson and M.C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Julliard lecture, which ends: 'A piece of string, a sunset, each acts.'"
The point is that this and other works produced by succeeding generations of performance artists who have challenged the medium by adding or paring elements to or from the mix, took place in real time and didn't describe any other time, as does, say, a conventional drama. A performance piece was about the here and now, with artists carrying out preordained tasks while leaving themselves open to improvisation and accident, trial and error. This gave the live, or should I say lived, experience a certain tension and immediacy that set the form apart. The emphasis was on process, on the elaboration of ideas which took shape before our eyes, with discrete visual and aural elements equal to or greater than the representation of human behavior. In the course of events, this practice significantly altered, or broadened, our approach to all the arts: dance became "movement" and musical composition, "soundscape;" writing became "text" while visual art, once married to illusion and gesture, adopted "concept" and theater took up the mantle of, well, "performance."
The whole thing paralleled developments in the plastic arts, which at one point – Post-Pop, let us say – liberated itself from content to concentrate on a stripped-down, bare-bones formalism, with artists in some corners dispensing with object-making altogether in favor of the expression of pure ideas and the making of myth – that is, the public transport of culture itself. As a result, visual artists played a critical role in the proliferation of performance art by returning the human figure, the performer – themselves – to center stage. By collaborating with artists of other disciplines to expand the possibilities of their work, they not so coincidentally exposed it to greater numbers of people. In other words, they created a monster.
More recently, much that we call performance art has become the province of monologists who, sometimes supported by an armature of video and music, adhere to prepared, highly personalized, often politically or sexually charged texts driven more by character than concept. These performance artists don't seem to feel a need for the penetrable narrative of the theater artist in order to exhibit their affection for what we sweetly term reality, or the known. Instead, they choose a thematic trajectory and propel themselves through it, into the unknown, taking those of us in the audience along for the ride.
But who is the audience for this performance art?
The medium quite naturally lends itself to experimentation, tests the limits of perception, endurance, materials, and form and so it likes open, angry, critical minds. Which is why the initial audience for experimental art is generally made up of other artists – because the creative process is similar for all artists, no matter what they do. So performance art, the testing ground, finds its audience in the shared experience of artists.
Experimental work – not just the so-new-it-doesn't-have-a-name variety but also the strangely attractive notions likely to influence the course of things to come – defies understanding outside its own realm and has no commercial value. It tries the patience, even offends. Even when witty, it isn't popular. Nevertheless, it's necessary to the development of any form whether anyone gets it straightaway or not and, you know, someone has to do it. Certainly nothing new comes from working over the same old things the same ways simply with the substitution of new faces to fall on.
In performance, artists have welcomed not just the testimony but the participation of their audiences, seating them either within the performance area or at very close range to it, in the absence of a fourth wall or even any wall at all. In this way, performance art has become a collective bargain, a group experience of what happens in artists' studios, behind closed doors. Once you hear artists speak in their own voices or watch them in action with their chosen materials, it tends to stay in the mind. You can form a personal relationship to it. Thus can performance produce audiences that grow increasingly receptive to new ideas in art. It's a collaboration that defines a community. And you are there.
For 37 years, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art has been giving grants to visual artists, poets, dancers/choreographers, composers and theater/performance artists to support what it judges to be exemplary work of an experimental or innovative sort, assuming the artists involve themselves in the presentation of their work, by which I mean they exhibit it in public, though it might be that they simply invite the public into the studio (or gallery) to watch them think out loud. Artists are generally thought to be safe in their studios but when they work in front of an audience they not only put themselves at risk but also the audience, which takes a chance on them, even if the performers pretend to ignore the audience and the audience pretends the performers are independent of them. It's still a collaboration, art in the making, and you can't stop it. You just can't stop it. Try to stop it! You can't.
Linda Yablonsky is the author of The Story of Junk, a novel, and the creator and host of NightLight Readings, a monthly writers-in-performance series that ran in New York from 1991-1998. She has also written extensively about arts and artists, and is currently at work on a new novel.