Drew Milne, ‘Performance Criteria’

Review: Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979, eds. Russell Ferguson and Paul Schimmel (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 450 illustrations, 200 in colour, pp. 408, Paperback £29.95, ISBN 0-500-28050-9

PERFORMANCE HAS BECOME central to a range of disciplines and practices across drama, art, cultural studies and social anthropology. The fluid concept of performance is contested across these different areas of thought, often at a level of abstraction which lacks specificity. This diversity resists the kind of overall characterisation usefully attempted by Marvin Carlson’s recent book Performance: a critical introduction (1996). The performance of gender, for example, has been central to the work of the feminist theorist Judith Butler, but such work rarely refers to the feminist theatre and performance art which has emerged since the 1960s.

In part this gulf reflects the social diversity of contexts in which performance is not merely an aesthetic question. Performance criteria figure in expressions such as ‘performance pay’, ‘performance in bed’ and ‘the performance of the pound against a basket of other currencies’. This suggests a metaphorical flexibility analogous to familiar theatrical metaphors in which the world is seen as a drama or stage of social actions. Performance, accordingly, is central to drama and theatre studies interested in the relation between text and performance. But these studies have often been wary or ignorant of performance art and its different orientation to the art world. Theatre studies and performance art have also been suspicious of performance theory and of any reduction of performance to text. Performance, then, cuts across social theory and practice, emerging as a central faultline in contemporary drama and aesthetics.

Out of Actions provides an historical survey of residual objects from action painting, live art and the variety of activities known as performance art. The book doubles as the catalogue for a major exhibition originating from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, designed to tour to Vienna, Barcelona and Tokyo. This relation to the international world of art museums is reflected in the internationalism of the exhibition’s contents, which come from America, Japan, Europe and Latin America. The redefinitions of Western art proposed by much performance art make it difficult, however, to maintain the identity of ‘art’ across different geopolitical contexts. Shinichiro Osaki suggests, for example, that: ‘in contrast to American art, physical and site-specific works were the mainstream postwar art in Japan’ (p. 157), but a different case could be made for the visual ‘art’ of Japanese design in electrical engineering and software programming. The book provides an extensive visual record of performance art, with lavish illustrations, many in colour, and helpful supporting information. The relation of book to exhibition is difficult to gauge without seeing the exhibition, but the book’s arrangement is circular and eclectic rather than chronological or systematic. It is hard, however, to imagine a more heroic effort to overcome the difficulties of recording such art. The curator Paul Schimmel modestly suggests that no attempt was made to provide an illustrated history of performance art, but this book probably offers the best such illustration currently available. It is unlikely that a comparable exhibition will be assembled for some time.

The catalogue also provides five substantial essays by Paul Schimmel, Shinichiro Osaki, Hubert Klocker, Guy Brett and Kristine Stiles. Like much of the pseudo-scholarly appreciation published in exhibition catalogues, these essays rarely succeed in combining description with evaluation or critical judgment. The etiquette of curatorial enthusiasm inhibits the questioning of works lent by institutions and artists who are understandably sensitive to criticism. There also seems to be a profound taboo against value judgments in contemporary writing on art. Art-works are said to ‘explore’ issues and problems without it becoming germane to ask whether they produce anything true or beautiful out of these explorations. The essays here provide a bewildering range of reflections on thematic connections between the works illustrated. The overall effect, however, is to suggest enthusiasms lacking a critical vocabulary either to judge what is was like to ‘be there’, to distinguish the qualities of different works, or to legitimate their enduring significance. The challenge to the category of the ‘art-work’ is blunted by the sacred status given to performance’s residual objects. Thus while the book illustrates the depth and persistence of performance’s art ‘history’, it also unintentionally dramatises major tensions between text and performance. Throughout the book the often profoundly disturbing work catalogued and described provokes unanswered questions.

The status of the objects and texts assembled remains paradoxical. Performance art is resistant to documentation and commodification, indeed has defined itself against the art market, against traditional criticism and aesthetics, and against the curatorial practices of museums. Resistance to objectification and institutionalisation has also made it difficult for this art to move beyond its initial contexts of performance. Shinichiro Osaki’s essay on Japanese performance art, for example, observes that a court case against the Hi Red Center Happenings means that their work is minutely and publicly recorded, whereas few other records of such work from the 1960s survive. Rumours of lost residues abound. I was once told that Joseph Beuys blackboards stored in the Tate Gallery were wiped clean by a diligent cleaner. As Guy Brett notes: ‘a sensitive eye-witness account of an ephemeral event may be a more precious residue than some other material object, although it cannot be fetishised.’ (p. 225 )

Given the ephemerality constitutive of performance and its residues, recognition of performance art’s importance for contemporary art has been subject to a kind of structural amnesia. The absence of traditional ‘art-works’, objects or records has made it difficult to incorporate performance art into art history or performance studies: it remains notoriously unteachable, with numerous autonomous D.I.Y. practitioners rather than experts. As Guy Brett observes, ‘Artists’ events and performances have been so many, varied, and scattered that one person cannot know more than a fraction of the whole phenomenon.’ (p. 197) Perhaps the clearest evidence of the insistence on process in performance art is the resistance to reprocessing this art within the institutions of culture and education.

Out of Actions responds to these difficulties by offering overlapping narratives to coordinate the phenomena of performance art. Paul Schimmel suggests that residues of performance art parallel ‘Modernism’s march from the heroic gestures of Abstract Expressionism, through Minimalism’s reductive tendencies, to Conceptual art’s objectlessness’ (p. 17). The exhibition locates the emergence of performance art in Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, through its mythical mediation by Hans Namuth’s film of Pollock and Harold Rosenberg’s description of ‘action painting’. Pollock’s performative persona becomes central to Allan Kaprow’s theory and practice of the ‘Happening’, critically consolidated in Kaprow’s Assemblage, Environments and Happenings (1966), which in turn mutated into the range of conceptual and feminist art practices of the 1970s. As the book illustrates, however, this narrative does not account for the range of comparable work independently produced in Japan and Europe, notably by Yves Klein, Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, Tadeusz Kantor and numerous other artists. This leads Schimmel into formulations suggesting loose affiliations in which X prefigures or anticipates Y, but what needs to be analysed is the relative autonomy and difference of X from Y. Duchamp’s absence from the book is striking.

Schimmel claims an increasing stress on the theatricality of painting and sculpture, but leaves unanswered the counter-questions raised by Michael Fried’s influential critique of theatricality and process orientated art in the essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967), recently republished in Fried’s excellent Art and Objecthood (1998). Fried haunts this book, not least in his prescient hostility to the naive claims often made for performance. Naivety is exemplified by Schimmel’s account of how a performance by John Cage: ‘took place not on a stage, but among the audience, thus dissolving the hierarchical relationship between performers and audience members.’ (p. 21) The ideological hubris of much performance art is well illustrated by John Latham’s ‘action’ Still and Chew which involved invited student participants chewing up a library copy of Clement Greenberg’s book Art and Culture, distilling the resultant pulp into a flask labelled ‘essence of Greenberg’, and in due course returning this flask to a bemused librarian. This intellectual sabotage led to the ending of Latham’s employment at St. Martin’s School of Art, a process which Latham subsequently incorporated into the ‘action’.

By the standards of subsequent performance art this affront to intellectual debate and institutional norms is mild indeed. Latham’s action, like many British works by artists such as Richard Long, Bruce McLean, or Gilbert & George, has a kind of contextual playfulness and wit. Performance art often involves banal inversions of everyday life, as in Tom Marioni’s ‘The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art’. Such jokes might be funny in context, but many other performances have a deadly earnestness in their determination to go beyond the limits of taste and human endurance. The litany of masochistic experiments illustrated suggests a pathology of alienation in the work of many of these artists. This pathology may be worthy of pity and terror, but the studied sensationalism of ‘artists’ such as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and Orlan more often seeks to disturb or shock in ways which involve false or mystified conceptions of art and the body.

John Duncan’s Blind Date (1980), which involved filming the artist having sex with a dead female corpse ‘purchased’ by the artist, indicates the depths of depravity performance artists have ‘explored’. Such abuses of human rights are more often restricted to self-abuse, but as well as bringing performance art into conflict not just with taste but with the law, these perverse forms of exhibitionism invite ethical and political condemnations which go beyond the predictable forms of media outrage. Performance art often performs misogyny, shamanism, pseudo-scientific medical experiments and sheer nonsense. In short, the popular contempt for the perversity and childishness of much performance art is sometimes deserved and justified. If more subtle articulations of the aesthetics of performance and the ideology of the body are to be taken seriously, then qualitative criticism is needed. In a society which has given us Selwyn Gummer feeding a burger to his daughter to show that beef is safe, there is no shortage of material requiring a more articulate politics of performance. Out of Actions fails to articulate the interaction between art and life constitutive of the finest performance art, but its illustration of the history of these aesthetic performances makes an important contribution to performance studies. Although it needs to be supplemented by the range of new critical works exemplified by Amelia Jones’s Body Art / Performing the Subject (1998), Out of Actions will be a necessary reference work for anyone interested in performance art.


Copyright 2009, Drew Milne