Performance Art as Critical Pedagogy in Studio Art Education

Article excerpt

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Theory and Praxis

In rethinking studio art education, performance art represents the praxis of a postmodern theory that espouses the critique of cultural codes, the development of agency, and the production of new cultural images, ideas, and myths based on students, subjectivities. A pedagogy founded on performance art serves as the praxis of the postmodern ideals of progressive education. It serves as an ontological process through which students learn to challenge art historical assumptions, the ideologies of institutionalized learning, and the spectacle of mass media culture in order to facilitate agency and to develop critical citizenship.

Progressive educators Paulo Friere, Henry Giroux, Maxine Greene, Roger Simon, and Carol Becker argue for a critical pedagogy-for educational discourses and practices that teach students to become public intellectuals capable of "rubbing against the grain" of normative schooling. Performance art in studio art education facilitates such agency by enabling students to intervene and reclaim their bodies from oppressive academic practices that assume students` personal memories and cultural histories to be insignificant to identity construction and new mythic representations.

Performance art pedagogy exposes the body as the palimpsest on which academic culture continually inscribes its ideologies. By using the body as material, process, and site, students learn to rewrite and re-present the cultural codes inscribed on their bodies and, in doing so, to construct their own identities and create new cultural myths with which to challenge the body politic. Performance artists, unlike traditional theatrical performers, "do not base their work upon characters previously created by other artists, but upon their own bodies, their own autobiographies, their own specific experiences in a culture or in the world, made performative by their consciousness of them and the process of displaying them for audiences."1

The philosopher Vincent Colapietro uses a ventriloquism metaphor to illustrate the performance of cultural inscription.2 He describes academic culture as a ventriloquist who manipulates students as dummies. What students learn to say and do is solely determined by the "body politic" of the ventriloquist. In contrast, the critique of performance art engages students in a transformative process to resist domination-to speak and act for themselves from their own cultural perspectives. By talking back to the ventriloquist, the "dummies" assume responsibility for their own bodies, voices, and identities.

Historical Background

Performance art has served as a contested site throughout the twentieth century. The early modernists used performance to critique traditional aesthetics for the purpose of experimenting with and developing new art forms relevant to the modern industrial environment. Unlike the staid performances that dignified traditional museums, theaters, and concert halls, the impulse for the early performances of the Futurists, Constructivists, Expressionists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Bauhaus artists came from circus, vaudeville, variety theater, and cabaret-popular performance genres comparable to the lively, forceful, and unpredictable character of the machine age.

From 1945 through the early seventies, the machine guise of performance art shifted its focus to the machinations of society and the self. The aleatory sound and movement performances of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow's Happenings, the Fluxus actions of George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Carolee Schneemann, and the body art of Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Linda Montano "made the actions, psychological and social conditions, and cognitive features of the body the primary medium of art, and they developed performance as an independent medium in the visual arts. …