The Return of the Body: Performance Art and Art Education

By Green, Gaye Leigh | Art Education, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Return of the Body: Performance Art and Art Education

Green, Gaye Leigh, Art Education

"A performanceshould be as thin as an onion skin. An audience should see through you," observed Juliette Binoche, an actress who received accolades for her role as the French-Canadian nurse in The English Patient Cerio, 1996, p. 122). If you peel an onion you plummet its depths-each layer more transparent than the next, each layer revealing its core.

Like the subtle unraveling of an onion, defining performance art can be equally complex. Performance art is described by art historian Goldberg as "live art by artists" (1988, p.7. While this description is accurate, understanding performance art requires an exploration of its multidimensional nature to provide a more complete picture. Although the forms that performance art assumes are virtually unlimited, a number of characteristics are common to most performances. First, performance art incorporates a variety of forms, such as film, video, dance, poetry, narrative, music, and movement Second, the importance afforded the performance art process usually outweighs that of the product. In this sense, performance art resists commodification. Third, performance art blurs the line between art and life by including everyday actions such as brushing one's teeth, chopping vegetables, or watching television as possible metaphors to express, for example, boredom or ennui. Likewise, incorporating daily routines into performance art meshes artmaking with life experience as in the work of Dominique Mazeaud, who has, on the 17th day of each month since 1987, performed a cleansing of the Rio Grande. Fourth, performance art often relies on humor, irony, satire, and exaggeration as means to more serious ends. By combining unrelated or unexpected images, such as a man spending a week in a gallery space with a coyote, performance artists collage disparate elements to create new conceptual forms. Lastly, performance art may occur in more traditional locations such as art museums and galleries, but, most often, pieces are performed in atypical sites such as street corners, shopping malls, or isolated cornfields, making use of the particularities of such locales.


Influenced by such diverse forms as tribal ritual, cabaret, puppetry, circus events, and medieval plays, performance art dates back to artistic explorations included within movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism. Early performance work combined political activity with Futurist ideas for art reform. Joining the scores of artists who rallied in support of political intervention against Austria, Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti headed for Trieste, the pivotal border city in the Austro-Italian conflict. Here in 1909, Marinetti presented the first Futurist evening of performance art that raged "against the cult of tradition and commercialization of art, singing the praises of patriotic militarism" (Goldberg, 1988, p.13).

A direct means for effecting change, early in the 20th century performance art assumed two critical functions: as a wake-up call to broaden society's perceptions of what art is and as a testing ground for avantgarde concepts. Impatient with traditional art forms and media, artists employed performance as a shock mechanism to catapult the public out of complacency and to force reconsideration of outdated assumptions about the content of art. Believing that the public's perception of art had become limited, performance art was viewed as away to expand the realm of accepted, permissible art. Manifestos written by the Futurists instructed its members to "go out into the street and launch assaults from theatres and introduce fisticuffs into the artistic battle" (Goldberg, 1988, p. 16). Their audiences responded by heaving fruits and vegetables, insults and jeers into the artistic arena, much to the delight of the performers.

Examples of early experiments in performance art can be seen in the Surrealist movement Surrealist poet Andre Breton noted in response to the question-what is Surrealismthat the ultimate surrealist act would be "to fire a revolver at random into a crowd on the street" (Goldberg, 1988, p.

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The Return of the Body: Performance Art and Art Education


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