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Performance Art  
 
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With an emphasis on action and time over object production, performance art is an enigmatic and controversial art form. Difficult to define and ever-evolving in scope, it is a forum where elements of many different artistic disciplines, such as music, dance, theater, literature, and the visual arts, may be melded.

Performance art has become an important site for the articulation of theoretical questions and issues in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century culture. Ephemeral in nature, performance art has been embraced by artists as a means of challenging the very idea of traditional in the arts and in the greater social and political sphere.

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The fluid nature of performance art makes exact description impossible, but it is possible to discuss very broad characteristics and to describe its relation to other disciplines.

Characteristics of Performance Art

Performance art seeks to generate meaning from time and action. Rather than producing an object, the artist generates an event that may last anywhere from mere seconds to many years. This temporality is a radical challenge to traditional conceptions of painting and sculpture, which are generally created with permanence in mind.

Like music, performance art can be recorded but it often includes interchanges between artist and audience that cannot be fully captured in documentation. Once completed, a performance piece truly exists only in the memories of those who experienced it.

Unlike conventional drama, performance art does not usually employ plot development nor does it require suspension of disbelief. The artifice of theater is deconstructed as the emphasis is placed on the here and now.

Many performance artists have also been drawn to philosophical questions regarding aesthetic experiences versus ordinary life experiences. What is it exactly that makes something art rather than just a regular thing?

Many performance artists have explored the capacity of ritual and meditative attentiveness to transform the quotidian or simply appreciate the everyday in an art-like way. In some cases, the artist is the art; body and life are at once the subject and object of the art, both canvas and content.

Confronting Complacency

In the early twentieth century, performance art was used by groups such as the Futurists and Dadaists to address the turbulence of their times. Both groups exploited performance as a means of confronting complacency.

The Futurists wished to free Italy from the shackles of the past by destroying the storehouses of history and embracing technology. Their desire to take art to the streets lives on in the protest work of such groups as ACT UP and Queer Nation. The Dadaists mirrored the absurdity of war with meaninglessness designed to agitate the bourgeois into action against Fascist aggression.

Raising Political and Aesthetic Issues

Between the world wars, performance art became an important aspect of the Bauhaus curriculum in the form of Oskar Schlemmer's theater workshop, which emphasized synthesis of all the arts. After World War II performance art became a testing ground for ideas concerning art and non-art, as well as identity politics and a host of other political and aesthetic issues.

In the 1950s, composer John Cage disseminated ideas about performance and interdisciplinary art. Through his teaching at New York's New School of Social Research and North Carolina's Black Mountain College, Cage influenced a great number of artists who went on to work in performance art. Cage and his life partner Merce Cunningham created some of the earliest interdisciplinary events that juxtaposed various media. Their work has served as models ever since.

The 1970s

In the 1970s, performance art truly blossomed as an artistic discipline. Fueled by the feminist interest in autobiography as a motivation for making art, performance artists addressed such issues as the body, race, gender, sexuality, and personal history. The West Coast became a hotbed of art and activism for women collaboratively creating performances focused on these ideas.

The connection between women and nature was also a prominent theme. Betsy Damon often covered herself with natural materials such as feathers and bark to express this relationship. In 7,000 Year Old Woman (1977), she wore 420 tiny bags of flour. Positioned on a street corner, she slowly removed these bags and gave them to passersby, creating an image of woman made both powerful and vulnerable through giving.

Performance art was ideologically associated with other movements of the time such as earthworks and conceptual art in that it challenged the idea of art as a marketable commodity. The boundaries between media were breached in favor of a fusion between art and life.

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A photograph of Holly Hughes performing Preaching to the Perverted by Dona Ann McAdams.
  
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