Performance Art as Progressive Education

By Spencer, Jenny S. | Art Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Performance Art as Progressive Education

Spencer, Jenny S., Art Journal

Charles R. Garoian. Performing Pedagogy:Toward an Art of Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. 248 pp., 33 bow ills. $; $20.95 paper.

In November 1996, Charles Garoian held an impressive symposium called "Performance Art, Culture, Pedagogy" at Penn State University to celebrate activist performance art and to explore its pedagogical significance as an emerging discipline within the academy.1 The conference embodied Garoian's utopian desire for a performative event where shared learning and transformative conversations would actually take place between the invited performance artists, who also consider themselves teachers, and students of performance art that included undergraduates (mostly from Penn State), graduate students (mostly from NYU), and scholars affiliated with performance studies as currently taught in the academy. A combination of lectures, panel presentations, workshops, and informal discussions, the symposium was the brainchild of Garoian, whose passionate belief in performance art as a liberatory practice provided the impetus for this unique and inspiring event. The message of both the symposium and the subsequent book are virtually identical: that given current postmodern theories of the self and society, performance art that emerges from personal, cultural, and historical exploration has a unique and important role to play in modern educational settings.

Like the "live" event that shadows the writing, Performing Pedagogy is extremely ambitious in its attempt to engage a number of different audiences at once. The book addresses K-12 and postsecondary arts educators, performance theorists, arts activists, professional practitioners, and performance studies students, as well as past and future audiences of the book's featured performance artists Suzanne Lacy, Goat Island, Robbie McCauley, and Garoian himself. While the symposium served to showcase (and thus "teach about") the work of particular performance artists whose innovative work is primarily recognized within politically progressive artistic circles, the selection of participants and their presentations also implicitly staked out a definition of performance art at a time when the history of performance studies (or the story we tell of its genealogy) is the hotly contested foundation for a new academic discipline.2 Although hardly comprehensive or survey-like in intention, the book makes similarly ambitious claims about the history and nature of performance art: its "radical" and disruptive qualities, its civic character, interdisciplinary methods, and emancipatory goals. But Garoian's most important claim is that performance art is inherently both pedagogical and postmodern: "in providing a reflexive pedagogy . . . performance art enables students to learn the curriculum of academic culture from the perspective of their personal memories and cultural histories. In doing so, performance art represents the praxis of postmodern theories in art and education" (1).

Garoian bolsters his claim with references to postmodern philosophers (e.g., Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari), performance scholars (e.g., Diamond, Conquergood, Schechner, Barba, Boal), and educational theorists (e.g., Giroux, McClaren, Felman, Aronowitz, Ulmer), not to mention Freud, Lacan, Bahktin, Merleau-Ponty, J. L. Austin, and Artaud among others. Given Garoian's commitment to an historically specific, counterhegemonic "art of politics," the lack of any reference to Brecht within this otherwise heavily contextualized discussion is somewhat surprising.

In Performing Pedagogy, Garoian not only promotes a particular kind of performance art training, one that runs counter to mainstream art instruction in the schools, but sees performance work as central to the goals of critical educators in all fields. Like earlier calls from composition studies for "writing across the curriculum," Garoian's focus here is on an embodied practice that would help collapse the difference between academic and creative work and could promote critical thinking in any discipline. …

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