Performance art shaped up in 1960s – 1970s in the USA, yet his roots are traced back to the Dada art movement with its epatage character and involvement of viewers. The latter is often mistakenly considered to be the feature performance has adhered. However, performance emerged on different bases, coming not from public declamation of manifestos but the desire to give political or social context to the work; not scandality and absurditity but “readymade” aesthetics that allowed working with profane space and turning each act into art object.
It’s important to note one more important thing – new art movements managed to show up only in those countries, where the load of traditions wasn’t significant, so the society was opened enough to innovations. America occurred such land.
Specialists define three major art movements within which key principles of performance precipitated:
1 – Dadaism (late 1910s – 1920s).
2 – Pop art (postwar years – 1950s – 1970s) that stimulated development of happenings (a branch of performance art, which makes special accent on interaction with a viewer).
3 – Conceptual art (classical perfomance) gave birth to fluxus (existential performance).
As we’ve already mentioned, it was readymade that prompted the idea that the artist can use not only conventional medias but everyday life objects that are placed into the artistic environment. Nevertheless, if Dadaists’ aim was eliminating the aristocratism and conservatism of art, performance rather strives for creating alternative forms.
Art became a performance action, which transformed the role and essence of an thing or a gesture. They protested against art as an object of collecting. Dada introduced intellectual art, irony and buffoonery that destroyed boundaries of art, releasing it from norms.
The next step in developing of action art was Pop art, which is called the “national” one in America. Its gist lies in the permanent situation of play with informational structure, presented through object or gesture. The artist’s attitude toward himself has changed (as he rejects from authorship), as well as perception of the surroundings, viewer and mass culture. He treated the act of creation as a game needed to dissolve art in the commonness. Hence the activity was often directed on making series of actions with certain purpose.
Unlike many other new kinds of art that were popularized in Pop art (like land art, body-art) , performance wasn’t ultimately visualized information. So the first pure or “classic” performances were organized by conceptualists. It was within that movement, where main shaping principles and main “genres” emerged. The first steps toward it were undertook in 195, when 4’33” was created in 1952 by American experimental composer John Cage – it was so-called “silent piece”, which lasted for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, during which the performer announced the composition and played nothing.
But as a kind of visual art performance accomplished in a decade, in 1960s. Yves Klein’s experiments were one of the prompting factor for it. Klein wanted to make art of nothing, which wasn’t a new idea itself, yet the methods of its realization were beyond traditional action art methods. In 1958 the painter opened The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void at the Iris Clert Gallery, where he demonstrated… nothing, empty walls. He attempted to sell his “product” for gold, claiming that “the highest quality of immaterial should be paid for with the highest quality of material.” It was the first performance, which gave zero artist activity yet revealed the whole concept, and notable for the fact that the artist announced himself and, in fact, modified the Cage’s 4’33”. Since that time performance became an essential part of Conceptualism (in form of fluxus – existential performance) and contemporary art process in general.
Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys are considered to be the founders of fluxus (from Latin fluxus – flow). It consisted of actions, close to happening, full of shocking provocation. Its main motto was insanity, altered to the ultimate mystification, spontaneity and denial of all limitations. For participants of Fluxus it was important to use body, space, things in paradox situation, which wasn’t motivated by common logic. Performance absorbed its situational character.
Fluxus, together with body-art, had greatly influenced Vienna Actionism that would gradually introduce imbecility and cul-de-sac of idiocy (if to take Billy Childish’s term) as methods to obtain right for “beyond normality”. But fluxus still wasn’t the final stage in completing of contemporary form of performance, giving it just a direction for further development: Beuys’ “actions” were defined by violent physiological aggression and ritualism.
Many specialists define performance as conceptualism on behaivorial level. But it never fully belonged to this art movement, evolving as a self-sufficient trend. Conceptual performance exist between idea and speculative construction of visual object (which actually the concept is). The artistic act is in naming / demonstrating that object in the proper time and situation. Combination of visual inanity together with informational fullness is credo of conceptual performance. Its duration can be endless, involving the viewer in the game of interpretation. In conceptual performance artist is a creator and carrier of author’s ego, like Duets on Ice (1975) by Laurie Anderson, when she stood in her ice skates frozen in a block of ice and playing her violin while wearing her ice skates. The performance ended when the ice melted.
This type of performance had a short period of popularity, ending in 1980s, when the conceptualism itself go for vague semantics and existential problems. Hence, the ways of conceptualism and performances parted, as the latter attempts to extrude everything that has anything to personality and destiny of the author and striving for new relations between viewer and art. It was done through rigorous irony, turning of performances into self-parodies, and overstepping and vanishing individual borders. Shortly speaking, performance transformed into controlled, conscious and strategic madness within the processual action.
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