Art 101: What is Performance Art?

Fourth post in my ongoing series, “Art 101.” This post focuses on the rise and lifespan of Performance Art. The other posts in the series can be found under the Art tab at the top of the page.

Performance Art

Cut Piece - Yoko Ono. First performed in Japan (1964) then in New York (Carnegie Hall, 1965). Performed for the last time in Paris (September 2003).

Performance art is a performance presented to an audience; either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.

Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like “democracy” or “art”, it implies productive disagreement with itself.

The meaning of the term in the narrower sense is related to postmodernist traditions in Western culture. From about the mid-1960s into the 1970s, often derived from concepts of visual art, with respect to Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, Installation art, and Conceptual Art, performance art tended to be defined as an antithesis to theatre, challenging orthodox artforms and cultural norms. The ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased. The in this time widely discussed difference, how concepts of visual arts and concepts of performing arts are utilized, can determine the meanings of a performance art presentation (comparePerformance: A Critical Introduction by Marvin Carlson, P. 103,2-105,1).

Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a conceptual art which conveys a content-based meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than being simple performance for its own sake for entertainment purposes. It largely refers to a performance which is presented to an audience, but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore can include action or spoken word as a communication between the artist and audience, or even ignore expectations of an audience, rather than following a script written beforehand.

Trans-fixed - Chris Burden. Performance piece in which he is nailed to a Volkswagon. Performed in Venice, CA in 1974

Some kinds of performance art nevertheless can be close to performing arts. Such performance may utilize a script or create a fictitious dramatic setting, but still constitute performance art in that it does not seek to follow the usual dramatic norm of creating a fictitious setting with a linear script which follows conventional real-world dynamics; rather, it would intentionally seek to satirize or to transcend the usual real-world dynamics which are used in conventional theatrical plays.

Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about “what art is”. As long as the performer does not become a player who repeats a role, performance art can include satirical elements; utilize robots and machines as performers, as in pieces of the Survival Research Laboratories; or borrow elements of any performing arts such as dance, music, and circus.


Performance art activity is not confined to European or American art traditions; notable practitioners can be found in Asia and Latin America. Performance artists and theorists point to different traditions and histories, ranging from tribal to sporting and ritual or religious events.

There are accounts of Renaissance artists putting on public performances that could be said to be ancestors of performance art.

Western cultural theorists often trace performance art activity back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the Russian constructivists, Futurists and Dada. Dada provided a significant progenitor with the unconventional performances of poetry, often at the Cabaret Voltaire, by the likes of Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara (see my discussion of Dada here). Russian Futurist artists could be identified as precursors of performance, such as David Burliuk, who painted his face for his actions (1910–20) and Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova.

According to the art critic Harold Rosenberg in the 1940s and 1950s Action Painting gave artists the freedom to perform – the canvas as “an arena in which to act,” thereby rendering the paintings as traces of the artist’s performance in his/her studio. Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting preceded the Fluxus movement, Happenings and the emergence of Performance Art.

Performance art was anticipated, if not explicitly formulated, by Japan’s Gutai group of the 1950s, especially in such works as Atsuko Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” (1956).

Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-Aux-Roses, October 1960. Photo by Harry Shunk.

Yves Klein had been a precursor of performance art with the conceptual pieces of Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959–62, and works like the photomontage, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void). In the late 1960s Earth artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Carl Andre created environmental pieces that predict the performance art of the 1970s. Works of conceptual artists in the early 1980s, like Sol LeWitt, who converted mural-style drawing into an act of performance by others, were influenced by Yves Klein and the Earth artists as well.


In the 1960s a variety of new works, concepts and the increasing number of artists led to new kinds of performance art.

Prototypic for the later emerging artform “performance art” were works of artists like Yoko Ono with her “Wall piece for orchestra“ (1962); Carolee Schneemann with pieces like Meat Joy (1964); Joseph Beuys with How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965); Yayoi Kusama, with actions such as a naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968) and Allan Kaprow in his many Happenings.

Kaprow had coined the term Happening describing a new artform, at the beginning of the 1960s. A Happening allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of Kaprow’s earliest was “Happenings in the New York Scene,” written in 1961 as the form was developing. Notably in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, the audience members become performers. While the audiences in Happenings had been welcomed as the performers, it only sometimes and often unwittingly that they become an active part in a Performance. Other artists who created Happenings besides Kaprow include Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Wolf Vostell: Theater is in the Street (Paris, 1958).

Hermann Nitsch's Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries

Hermann Nitsch in 1962 presented his “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” (Orgien- und Mysterien Theater), a form close to the performing arts, and a precursor to performance art. Andy Warhol during the early 1960s began creating films and video. In the mid-60s Warhol sponsored the Velvet Underground and staged events and performances in New York, like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) that featured live Rock music, exploding lights, and film.

Indirectly influential for art-world performance, particularly in the United States, were new forms of theatre, embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theatre and showcased in Off-Off Broadway theaters in SoHo and at La MaMa in New York City. The Living Theatre chiefly toured in Europe between 1963 and 1968, and 1968 in the USA work of this period, Paradise Now was notorious for its audience participation and a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing.

The work of performance artists after 1968 often showed influences of the cultural and political events of that year. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the forefront of the feminist body art, and performance art of the 1970s; among others including: Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas. Schneemann and Jonas along with Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden pioneered the relationship between Body Art and Performance Art.


Artists whose work already before tended to be a performance art, as well as new artists, at the beginning of the 1970s began to present performance art in a stricter form.

New artists with radical performances were Chris Burden, with the 1971 performance piece Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters, and Vito Acconci in the same year with Seedbed.

The book Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood, marked a shift in the use of media by performance artists. The first book considering video art as an art form, mentions Jud Yalkut as a pioneering video artist. Since 1965 he had collaborated in dozens of intermedia performances throughout the United States, also with Nam June Paik, who beginning of the 1960s already had been a Fluxus performer on the way to become a media artist. As to the art of Paik, Youngblood refers to works of Carolee Schneemann and Robert Whitman from the 1960s, which had been pioneering for performance art, becoming an independent artform at the beginning of the 1970s.

The British-based pair Gilbert and George, already in 1970, had documented actions of themselves on video, and created their “living sculpture” performance, being painted in gold and singing “Underneath The Arches” for extended periods. Joan Jonas began to include video in her experimental performances in 1972.

Pages from Marina Abramović Rhythm 10

In 1973 Laurie Anderson performed Duets on Ice, on the streets of New York City. Marina Abramović, in the performance “Rhythm 10,” conceptually included the violation of her body.

Since 1973 the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles had a formative impact on the wave of performances with feminist background.

Carolee Schneemann work in 1963, Eye Body, already had been a prototype of performance art. Schneemann in 1975 drew on with innovative solo performances, like Interior Scroll, showing the female body as an artistic medium.

Performance art, because of its relative transience, by the 1970s, had a fairly robust presence in the avant-garde of East Bloc countries, especially Yugoslavia and Poland.


Until the 1980s, performance art had been demystifying virtuosity. Now it began to embrace technical brilliance. In reference to Presence and Resistance by Philip Auslander, a performance art critic, Sally Banes writes:

“… by the end of the 1980s, performance art had become so widely known that it no longer needed to be defined; mass culture, especially television, had come to supply both structure and subject matter for much performance art; and several performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian,Willem Dafoe, and Ann Magnuson, had indeed become crossover artists in mainstream entertainment.”

Despite the fact that many performances are held within the circle of a small art-world group, RoseLee Goldberg notes, in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present that:

“…performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise.”

Art/Life: One Year Performance (aka Rope Piece) - Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh

Among the performance art most discussed in the art-world of this decade were a performance by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh between July 1983 and July 1984, Art/Life: One Year Performance (Rope Piece), and Karen Finlay’s I’m an Ass Man 1987.

Until the decline of the European Eastern Bloc during the late 1980s, performance art by most communist governments had actively been rejected. With the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia, performance art was more or less banned in countries where any independent public event was feared. In the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Latvia it happened in apartments, at seemingly spontaneous gatherings in artist studios, in church-controlled settings, or covered as another activity, like a photo-shooting. Isolated of the western conceptual context, in different settings it could be like a playful protest or like a bitter comment, using subversive metaphors to express dissent with the political situation.

Hedwig Gorski before 1982 came up with the term performance poetry, to distinguish her text-based vocal performances from performance art, especially the work of performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson, who worked with music at that time. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture.


While the Soviet bloc disintegrated, formerly repressed activities of performance artists like György Galántai in Hungary, or the Collective Action Group in Russia, became better known. Young artists from all over the former Eastern bloc, including Russia, turned to performance. Performance art at about the same time appeared in Cuba, the Caribbean and China. Chinese performance artists like Zhang Huan had been performing underground since the late 1980s. Beginning of the 1990s chinese performance art already was acclaimed in the international artscene.

“In these contexts performance art became a critical new voice with a social force similar to that found in Western Europe, the United States and South America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It should be emphasized that the eruption of performance art in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere should never be considered either secondary to or imitative of the West.” (Linda Montano, Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, 479)

In the western world in the 1990s, even sophisticated performance art became part of the cultural mainstream: performance art as a complete artform gained admittance into art museums and became a museal topic.


Abramović sitting with "The Artist is Present" curator Klaus Biesenbach

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Marina Abramović’s work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed “The Artist is Present,” a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. A support group for the “sitters,” “Sitting with Marina,” was established on Facebook. The performance attracted celebrities such as Björk and James Franco and received coverage on the internet including an essay by NYC-author Tao Lin.

The Role of the Body in Performance Art

Through history, the figure has provided artists with both form and content. Human figures are challenging, versatile forms that can strike many poses and provide a multitude of contrasting, complex shapes and visual relationships. As content, human figures have served to express deeply cherished cultural values, including beliefs about religion, politics, and personal and social identity. Sometimes but not always in art history, the figure has also been used to represent ideas about the body as a corporeal entity, for instance, ideas about sexuality and morality.

(Parasite) performed by Stellarc at the Ars Electronica Festival, 1997

Figurative art has had a tumultuous history in the West since WWII. The most critically acclaimed new art of the 1950s was nonobjective. At the same time, much attention was given to artists’ gestures and creative process; think of the well-known photographs of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings. Artists’ self-consciousness about their own physical actions and creative process helped open the ay to the various live-art forms – the performance art that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Happenings, Fluxus, Actions, and Body Art. Body Art, a subset of performance art consisting of art made on or with the human body – where artist’s body literally serves as the medium – has an obvious connection to themes of the body. There have been forms of body art in many times and places, such as tattoos, body piercing, and scarification. Body art as a movement in contemporary art includes works ranging from self-mutilation (think of Yoko Ono’s now canonical Cut Piece, or Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0) to feats of bodily endurance (Stellarc, for example) to more benign demonstrations of the artist’s body as a form in space.

Why have so many contemporary artists focused on the body? In some cases, this focus is a result of an activist stance toward art making, in which the personal becomes the political. In an essay analyzing the formation of the feminist art in movement in the US, artist Suzanne Lacy provides a list of key ideas that helped propel the work that feminist artists were making in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among these ideas, she noted that the body became a primary site for works of art. Lacy explained:

“Not only was the body a site, it was an important source of information. Much of women’s social status was seen as based in the body, so issues like violence, birthing, sexuality and beauty were frequent subjects.”

Lateral Suspension - Stellarc, 1976

In other cases, artists using the body have made as aggressive decision to blur the boundaries between art and life. Linda Montano, discussing a work of performance art in which she was tied by rope to the artist Tehching Hsieh for one continuous year (1983-84), explained the consequences of viewing all their bodily actions as forms of art:

“… because I believe that everything we do is art – fighting, eating, sleeping – then even the negatives are raised to the dignity of art.”

But there is more about the body than the role of gender or politics. The sexualized body and sexuality, the gaze, sex and violence, mortal bodies, and posthuman bodies have all become central topics of Performance Art, of Body Art.



Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, Feminism, History

2 responses to “Art 101: What is Performance Art?

  1. ewsil mawdebe


  2. Pingback: Why “The Arts” Matter | mashrabiyya

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