Introduction to Performance art

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A performance artist in Tokyo


Read the sections below, then take the quiz. If you get anything wrong, review the relevant sections and retake the test until you can answer all of the questions correctly. If you want to, you can record questions or comments on the discussion page (see tab above).

Performance Art Is Innovative[edit | edit source]

The term performance art should not be confused with the more general term performing arts. However, performance theater, experimental theater, avant-garde theater, and live art are often used interchangeably with performance art.

Performance art covers a broad spectrum of artists and styles, but performance artists in general share the ideal of producing art which challenges traditional understandings of theater, and which also seeks to challenge our preconceived ideas about moral and political issues, as well as how we view ourselves and the world around us. By definition, performance art seeks to be innovative rather than commercial, and is therefore not what we typically see in a Broadway show.

Author and theater expert, Marvin Carlson, says that practitioners of performance art “do not base their work upon characters previously created by other artists, but upon their own bodies, their own autobiographies, their own specific experiences in a culture or in the world, made performative by their consciousness of them and the process of displaying them for audiences.”[1] Such a definition clearly represents a considerable shift toward the performers in terms of the responsibility for interpretation and expression. It also indicates a self-consciousness in the act of performance. No attempt is made to disguise the fact that it is a performance, and the identities of the performers are consciously and deliberately brought to bear upon it.

A Happening in Occidental Park, Seattle, 2008

The idea of integrating the personality of the performer into the performance goes back to Brecht, who advocated a style of acting in which the personality of the actor is retained in the portrayal of the character: “the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing.”[2] Performance art frequently goes a step farther, removing the character altogether and allowing the performers themselves to literally become the artwork. Performance art also differs from conventional theater in that it often does not enact a story, with a series of cause-and-effect events leading to an ultimate conclusion, as with conventional plot. The production is more likely to be a visual and conceptual experience in the way of a sculpture, painting, or abstract dance.

Background of Performance Art[edit | edit source]

The Longman Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Drama notes that performance art “earned notoriety during the culture wars of the 1980s and the political battle over funding the National Endowment for the Arts during the 1990s, but its antecedents stretch back to the Dadaists with their visual paradoxes and chance approach to making art….”[3] The term “performance art” itself, however, came into general use in the 1960s as a way to refer to the alternative performance trends which were taking place at that time. During the fifties, the arts department at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, inspired by the experiments of the Bauhaus School in Germany, helped lay the groundwork. John Cage, an experimental composer and former student at Black Mountain, became an influential figure in the fledgling performance art movement. He was directly involved with such experimental trends as the Happenings of the sixties, and Fluxus, during the same period. It is worth taking a brief look at these trends because in many respects they were foundational to today’s experimental theater.

Happenings[edit | edit source]

Happenings were semi-impromptu events which sought to eliminate both the distance between performer and spectator, and between performance and life. Allan Kaprow, who first coined the term “Happenings” and who wrote a treatise with a list of suggested guidelines for them, gives as the first principle that the “line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.”[4] To this end, Happenings did not take place in theaters, but in places where people were going about their normal daily activities, such as parks, streets, and subways, and the performers took as their materials such things as were natural to the location or came readily to hand. While objects and locales were sometimes carefully chosen, it was left to the performers to form conceptual relationships between these things, and to express their conceptualizations in such ways as were suggested to them ahead of time or even in the moment of performance. Ideally, each performance took place only once and no attempt was made to repeat it, though in practice some performances were repeated. Poetry readings or other art forms were sometimes included in what was essentially a “collage of events."[5]

A Body Art performance in Cologne by Angie Hiesl, August 2008

Kaprow says that, in Happenings, “composition is understood as an operation dependent upon the materials (including people and nature) and phenomenally indistinct from them. Such materials and their associations and meanings… generate the relationships and the movements of the Happening, instead of the reverse."[6] By allowing the situation to dictate the performance rather than the other way around, Happenings turned the conventional approach to theatrical performance on its head. The goal was to enter into an artistic involvement with the natural flow of life in a given time and place, rather than to artificially craft a series of events into a story which takes place external to the lives of the people who come to see it. The Happening ideally integrated itself into the situation and into the lives of the people who were present within that situation. For this reason, the ideal Happening is one in which there is no audience, only participants.

Fluxus[edit | edit source]

Fluxus came on the scene at about the same time and had much in common with Happenings. The proponents of Fluxus were interested in simplicity, and consequently, Fluxus productions were minimalist in nature. Like Happenings, Fluxus made use of objects which were readily available or could be easily and cheaply created by the participants. It was a precursor to much of today’s experimental theater (and multimedia art in general) in that it was noted for its deliberate use of various media in an effort to explore the effects of combining sounds, images, and texts in new and experimental ways. For this reason, Fluxus is sometimes known as Intermedia, a term which was coined by Dick Higgins, whose Graphis series was “the result of a feeling that conventional theatre notation in which one action follows another leaves untried an enormous variety of techniques that could enrich our experience.”[7] His use of the word “notation” stems from the fact that he, like Cage, was influenced by experimental composers, such as Schoenberg and Stockhausen, who had rejected conventional harmonies and key structures in an effort to find new ways of experiencing music.

Japanese performance theater

Body Art[edit | edit source]

Body Art (not in the sense of body painting, but as a type of performance) also developed during this period. The idea behind it is that the body itself becomes the painting, the sculpture, or the poem. Its practitioners go to sometimes painful or dangerous lengths in the expression of their art. Marina Abramovic, for example, wanted to explore the limits of the relationship between audience and artist in her 1974 work, Rhythm 0, so she surrounded herself with numerous objects which members of the audience could use on her body in any way they wished while she lay for six hours, completely passive. The members of the audience, shy at first, gradually grew bolder, cutting her clothes with scissors, sticking thorns in her stomach, etc. At the end of the six hours, she suddenly stood up and faced the audience members. They, in turn, backed away quickly, as if afraid to be confronted with their cruelty. Much performance art seeks to accomplish what Abramovic did in this work, which is to involve the audience directly in the performance with the ultimate goal of enabling an insight of some kind.

Performance Theater[edit | edit source]

Kaprow, in his quest for innovation, recommended that performers not use any sources “from the arts, their derivatives, and their milieu,” fearing that, in order to gain a degree of legitimacy, performers might hold on to such things and thereby be lured back into more comfortable, but less innovative, forms.[8] He foresaw a time, however, when performance art would mature to a point where such strictness would no longer be required, and it is true that performance art has evolved over the years. The ideals of integrating life with art and performers with spectators have remained, but performance art has facilitated artistic development by moving into dedicated theater spaces. By doing so, it has eliminated the limitations of impromptu outdoor performances.

These theater spaces are often rented for a specific performance or series of performances, but there are some permanent spaces also. The Performing Garage, now occupied by the Wooster Group under the direction of Elizabeth LaCompte, was created in the late sixties by Richard Schechner from a small disused warehouse in the SoHo area of Manhattan: “Wooster Group theatre pieces are constructed as assemblages of juxtaposed elements: radical staging of both modern and classic texts, found materials, films and videos, dance and movement, multi-track scoring, and an architectonic approach to theatre design.”[9] Another permanent establishment is Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which was initially created in a New York loft “with the aim of stripping the theater bare of everything but the singular and essential impulse to stage the static tension of interpersonal relations in space.”[10] Later on, in the nineties, playwright Mac Wellman got together with director Jim Simpson and designer Kyle Chepulis to found The Flea Theater: “Noninstitutional and resolutely noncommercial, The Flea embodies the spirit of adventure and experiment that has defined Off-Off-Broadway since its inception.”[11]

Julie Atlas Muz, from You Don't Own Me, Seattle, 2008

In these and other settings, performance art’s techniques of execution have become more sophisticated. Theater scholar David Savran says that the new theater artists “redefined the performer’s responsibilities and redefined the traditional relationship between actor and role,” with the result that their productions were “more closely allied to developments in dance, music or the visual arts than those on the commercial stage….” Like the performance artists of the sixties, they “questioned the notion that the mise-en-scène must be subordinate to a previously written script and gave more or less equal importance to movement, text, design, and music.”[12] This constitutes a large departure from traditional theater where the dialogue is the heart of the drama. Visual elements, auditory elements, and movement often take on a level of importance equal to, or greater than, that of the dialogue. The production is conceived, not so much as a drama in the conventional sense, but as a living, moving piece of visual art.

Art for the Sake of Art[edit | edit source]

The reality of contemporary performance art is complex and diverse, but performance art in general differs from mainstream theater in several ways. Firstly, the emphasis on character and plot is diminished in favor of the richness of the dramatic texture in the present moment. In fact, there is frequently no clear development of events from start to finish, as in conventional plot. Secondly, no attempt is made to hide the fact that what we are seeing is a performance, because the production is not intended to be an escape from life, but a new way of looking at it. Thirdly, the goal of performance art is to produce great art, not a great profit, which is why it is more commonly seen in converted warehouses and college campuses than in the theaters of Broadway. Lastly, performance art constantly strives both to challenge and to innovate, and it is this, more than anything else, that sets it apart from the mainstream.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Which of the following are sometimes used interchangeably with “performance art”?

Performing arts
Experimental theater
Performance theater
b and c

2 Performance art in general does which of the following?

It challenges traditional understandings of theater
It challenges our preconceived ideas about moral and political issues
It challenges our views of ourselves and the world around us
All of the above

3 By definition, performance art is:

Commercially successful
Popular on Broadway
All of the above

4 Performance art frequently does not make use of which of the following?

b and c

5 Which of the following is true of performance art in general?

It follows a clearly defined method
It allows the performers a great deal of freedom in interpretation and expression
The director controls every aspect of the performance
a and c

6 Although its roots go back to the early twentieth century, today’s performance art movement began in the:


7 Which of the following was an early form of performance art?

a and b

8 Who first coined the term “Happenings”?

Dick Higgins
Allan Kaprow
John Cage
Marina Abramovic

9 Which of the following was a primary goal of Happenings?

To create a profound emotional effect
To present Renaissance plays in parks and subways
To diminish the boundary between the performance and real life
a and b

10 Fluxus and Happenings were known for:

Minimalist presentations which used props which came easily to hand
Elaborate stage settings
Innovative orchestral scores
Elaborate costumes

11 The following is true of Fluxus:

It is also known as “Intermedia”
It deliberately explored combinations of different media
It is a precursor to much of today’s experimental theater, and multimedia art in general
All of the above

12 Which of the following is true of Body Art?

Paint is applied to the body, rather than a canvas
The body itself becomes the artwork, like a living, moving piece of sculpture
Body artists generally perform in the nude
b and c

13 Performance Art in general:

Sees the performance as a cooperative effort of both performers and spectators
Seeks an insight or revelation of some kind (epiphany)
Maintains a strict boundary line between performers and spectators
a and b

14 Experimental New York theater groups and other groups which operate in small and not very well-known theaters are sometimes referred to collectively as:


15 The following is generally true of performance theater:

More or less equal importance is given to movement, text, stage design, and music
Dialogue is the heart of the drama
The drama is conceived as a living, moving piece of visual art
a and c

16 Performance theater productions are different from those of Broadway because:

There is frequently no clear development of events from start to finish
The goal is to produce great art, not a great profit
Performance theater constantly strives to challenge and to innovate
All of the above

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Marvin Carlson. Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. p5.
  2. Bertolt Brecht. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. John Willett, ed. and trans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964: p194.
  3. Michael Greenwald, et al. The Longman Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Drama. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004: p501.
  4. Allan Kaprow. “Excerpts from 'Assemblages, Environments & Happenings.'” Happenings and Other Acts. Mariellen R. Sandford, ed. New York: Routledge, 1995: p235.
  5. Allan Kaprow, 241.
  6. Allan Kaprow, 242.
  7. Dick Higgins and Letty Eisenhauer. “Graphis.” Happenings and Other Acts. Mariellen R. Sandford, ed. New York: Routledge, 1995: p123.
  8. Allan Kaprow, 236.
  9. Elizabeth LeCompte, dir. The Wooster Group. June 4, 2009, <>.
  10. Richard Foreman, artistic dir. Ontological-Hysteric Theater. April 23, 2009, < /info/index.html>.
  11. Jim Simpson, artistic dir. The Flea. May 1, 2009, <>.
  12. David Savran. Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988: p2.

See also[edit | edit source]