What is "good" performance art?
Performance art is a complex activity. As with all complex activities, it resists the type of reductive, qualitative analysis that employs a numerical rating scale to simplify and standardize its assessment. The type that plays out with: 1 = good; 10 = bad; 5 = half good & half bad. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be defined or that curators, practitioners, and audience members can’t pass judgement on a performance or come to an agreement as to whether it’s good or bad. It indicates that there is an undefined amount of quantum uncertainty in performance art that allows it to expand, contract, and/or completely redefine itself at any moment. It means that lurking in the shadows of every performance is the possibility that any performance artist at any time may perform an act that redefines all of performance art before and after it, forever.
The history of performance art bears witness to that possibility. Previous performances have included artists breaking into a church and performing punk rock songs at the altar (Pussy Riot) or as the Russian state apparatus defines it, hooliganism, a 5 hour opera about Einstein (Phillip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs), crucifixions on the hood of a car (Chris Burden), a coup and a ritual suicide (Yukio Mishima), punching a time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year, (Tehching Hsieh), a game of tennis with microphoned rackets and synchronized spotlights (Robert Rauschenberg), and audience members crawling over and through tires (Allan Kaprow). Some pieces have been as sedate as a blog about the thin line between art and life (Ai Weiwei) and as social as a 5 month makeover live on digital media. (Amalia Ulman). One performance altered the geology of the landscape (Francis Alÿs), and another featured a feminist manifesto being extracted from the artist's vagina (Carolee Schneemann). Performance art has spawned songs about Superman (Laurie Anderson) that pushed into pop culture. During one legendary performance, an artist chilled with a wild coyote for three days after a free ride from the airport in an ambulance (Joseph Beuys). Performance art has even witnessed two individuals use physical alterations (plastic surgery) in an attempt to become a single entity (Genesis Breyer P-Orridge).
As its history implies, the good performance art pushes boundaries and makes you question your assumptions of what you thought you knew or could do. Many of the remarkable performances simply try something new. They question a convention or a ritual or a rule. They demand to know why. Bad performance art is the same as bad art in any genre or medium anywhere. It makes assumptions. It asserts answers without even asking questions. It's performance is over before it's begun.
Watching performance art is like following the the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. You do it because you've never seen a rabbit with a watch or with a waist coat pocket to take it out of. It intrigues, delights, horrifies, puzzles.
Here are three links to get you started down the on Performance Art rabbit hole. Whether you take the red pill, the blue pill or the rainbow colored pill is up to you. Just remember, the one that mother gives you doesn’t do anything at all.
For a contemporary reprisal of performance art and what it’s become in 2018, read Alice Bucknell’s article “Can Performance Art be anything?”
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