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Define Performance Art


Here’s an amusing intellectual exercise; define performance art.

I tend to know it when I see it. I also know what it isn’t. It’s not theatre and it’s not acting. I’d even venture to say that performance art is the antithesis of acting.

A fairly standard definition is that performance art takes the structure of art making and uses it as a starting point. Performance art tends to use the artist body as a material or as a tool within an active art making system.

What does that mean, “an art making system?”

Let’s say that you are engaged is a series of steps that when followed result in the production of an artwork. For example, unroll a sheet of paper, get out your pastels make some marks, all the while thinking about what you are doing. The thought process is where the action is. You think about your hand. You look at something trying to reproduce it’s image with the pastels. You concentrate. You think about all the pastel drawings you’ve seen by other artists. Perhaps you construct a fantasy narrative on the page that has nothing to do with what you are looking at, it is about what’s in the “mind’s eye.”

What performance art proposes is that everything in this process can be considered art. Each act in the system is a fractal component of the whole system. It can be presented as art. The whole system can be taken apart and rearranged to create a new art work.

Some people might say this is deconstruction. There is however another component to Performance Art that is not really discussed and that is the element of media or more specifically mass media.

Performance art works with mass media as a foil. Documentation and presentation of alternative performance works critique mass media. They also depend on the audiences shared experience of mass media. This allows for performance in front of a camera that has nothing to do with the proscenium arch but everything to do with the media-logos.

Define Performance Art

Here's an article from Mute called "A Short History of Performance Art Part II" by Demetra Kotouza:

The second season of the Whitechapel's performance art retrospective was dedicated to the pedagogical form of the lecture as a medium for art. While some of the performances satirised the artists' function as commodity and carrier of imperialist agendas, the Whitechapel itself was still upholding the enduring 'cult of the artist'.