Show Cause: Unconscious Partisanship in the History of Performance Art

Article excerpt

Jack Anderson. Art Without Boundaries. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. 360 pp., 36 ills. $34.95 PaPer.

Jill Johnston. Marmalade Me. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998. 334 PP., 13 ills. Sig.95 paper.

RoseLee Goldberg. Performance: Live Art Since 1960. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998, :240 PP., 123 color Ms., 209 b/w. $60.

Sally Banes. Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976-85. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 312 pp. $47.50, $16.96 paper.

Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, eds. The Ends of Performance. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 384 PP., 14 ills. $18.95 paper.

On Friday, March 12, 1999, The New School in New York held a symposium entitled "The Resurrection of Live Art: what kind of life will it be?" Lorraine O'Grady moderated, and panelists included Coco Fusco, RoseLee Goldberg, Kathy O'Dell, and Martha Wilson. The press release described the symposium's focus as: "Actions . . . performance . . . performance art . . . live art . . . we still don't know what to call it. But we do know it is one of the twentieth century's most influential art forms and that 1998 was its critical year." Publications offering historical perspectives on "live art" proliferated during this year. Among them were books by Goldberg, O'Dell, and the Winter 1998 "Performance Art" issue of this very journal, edited by Wilson, director of Franklin Furnace. What this proliferation highlights is the problem inherent in any historical enterprise involving contemporary art, exacerbated in this case because of current crises in historicism and criticism. The books considered here demonstrate the dif ficulties and challenges of dealing fairly with an evanescent art form.

Let's begin with Marmalade Me, the field's reputed classic. Both Deborah Jowitt (in her new introduction) and Sally Banes (in her afterword) immediately assume that Marmalade Me is central to any discussion of the art of the 1960s. And For those of us who have a dog-eared copy of the old Dutton paperback, Marmalade Me has long been an important source of opinion regarding that period. Certainly, Johnston's book consolidated the reputation of certain artists, most notably Yvonne Rainer. After the period covered by Marmalade Me, Rainer gave up her career as a choreographer and has devoted herself to filmmaking. Yet her importance to the development of "live art" has been indisputable because of the printed record (of which Marmalade Me was a prime exponent). And there weren't that many such records. So for those interested in postmodern dance and intermedia, Johnston's book has been a veritable bible. Because of this, Johnston subsequently was regarded in avant-garde circles as an oracle, and therein lies the rub.

In the original edition much was made of Johnston's creation of herself as the heroine of her own life. In the intervening years, Johnston has attempted to resurrect her career as an art critic, a career culminating in Secret Lives in Art (1994) and Jasper Johns: Privileged Information (1996), two volumes which might most charitably be described as misguided. The expanded Marmalade Me is certainly welcome, because more information on such events as the original Judson Dance Theater concert ("Democracy," 38-40) is definately needed at this time, when the history of Performance Art is being historically defined. And the essays included in the expanded Marmalade Me reveal clear and succinct writing, analytic discussion, and intelligent reasoning. In these essays, Johnston emerges as one of the finest dance critics this country has produced, on a par with Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce (though radically different from them) And "radical" is a good description for Johnston, as her prose comes gradually unhinged in the course of her essay-a disintegration mirroring the political radicalism that swept through this country in the late 1960s.

If the expansion of Marmalade Me is so welcome (and it is), what's the problem? …