By Drew Klein

Performance art is so “in” right now. Just ask Jay Z, or Lady Gaga, or Shia LaBeouf. Each of these figures of contemporary pop culture have recently dipped their toes (or jumped headfirst into a fiery lake of PR hell) into the world of performance art. Or, at least that’s what they have called whatever it is that they are doing, whether it be sharing the stage with Marina Abramović for 6 hours repeatedly performing the same song, practicing a Marina Abramović method on video, or unapologetically (in the form of a public apology) copying the concept and execution of a piece by Marina Abramović. Should it not already be crystal clear, Marina Abramović is a figure of rather prominent influence in the field.

But how do we define the difference between performance art and more traditional types of live art such as music and theatre? Well, performance art is and can be many things; quite often of an interdisciplinary nature, it is both scripted and improvised, involves both text and silence, is demonstrated by the performer or simply a product of their intent and influence. There needn’t be a venue, stage, or designated area upon which performance art can occur, and there certainly is no established length of time within which performances should last. In fact, not everyone even needs to be in agreement that what is occurring is actually “performance art” instead of, say, the slightest alteration of public environment, or shared conversations between two people, or civil disobedience.

One essential factor that separates performance art from a simple act of everyday life is the importance of concept. In fact, the beginnings of performance art in the early 20th century were more heavily focused on declarations and conceptual manifestos than actual performances. Artist movements like the futurists and Dadaists sought to reject and protest against conventional art and culture and believed live gesture to be a powerful way to reach the public. When these ideas were turned into organized public happenings, groups of artists could demonstrate with an immediacy that was designed to draw thought, not necessarily resolution, from conflict. They could express in bold new ways how art is experienced and reflected in everyday life, and vice versa. Performance was not bound by rules that were so rigidly applied to established fine arts like painting and sculpture.

In the 1970s, performance as an artistic medium gained acceptance as a relevant form of expression. Conceptual art was then at the height of its popularity, and performance provided a mean by which to execute these radical ideas. Artists like the frequently aforementioned Abramović, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneeman, and Mike Parr created famous/infamous works that saw them manipulate and punish their own bodies in oftentimes violent exercises, prompting live audiences – and the general public – to wrestle with the political and societal messages within.

Today, as in times before, artists from a variety of backgrounds are using performance as a medium for artistic commentary. And similarly to the earlier performance movements, there remains an absence of defining characteristics by which to identify what is or is not performance art. Except, of course, for that initial creative concept. By showing intentionality and assigning value to an act, there is little room to dispute that any live occurrence deemed performance art be seen as anything but just that. Very recently this school of thought has been challenged, and somewhat surprising is that a number of established performance artists who have created thanks in large part to this artistic license have voiced some of the loudest dissension. When Hollywood firebrand Shia LaBeouf was found to have (rather obviously) stolenthe idea for a film he was making from a story by Daniel Clowes, an artist he had publicly admired, he was ridiculed and rightly called out for this impropriety. When it was revealed that LaBeouf’s apology to Clowes had also been an act of plagiarism, eyebrows were raised even more. Since then, hardly a public appearance or statement from LaBeouf has occurred which did not directly pull from an earlier source, quite often an instance of some cultural or popular relevance. A LaBeouf performance manifesto was written with the pen and paper of these contemporary times – a series of Twitter posts, a press conference was theatrically addressed and then exited, and a gallery offered an opportunity to sit face to face with the young actor and embrace his brutal honesty in a work titled #IAMSORRY; so, Marina Abramović, French footballer Eric Cantona, and Marina Abramović. Seriously, guys, there are other performers making interesting work…

And then, all of a sudden, LaBeouf credited his recent behavior (heretofore blamed on some probable cocktail of narcissism, addiction, and/or batshit craziness) as acts of performance art. This statement – unsurprisingly – was met with a great deal of head-scratching. Abramović herself labeled the work “manipulative”, seemingly questioning if LaBeouf’s acts were worthy of being labeled performance art. Other artists and relevant voices have weighed in, offering contrasting takes on whether a formalized concept was present to unite LaBeouf’s demonstrations.

While it is far too premature to adequately wrap one’s head around LaBeouf’s acts and offer any sort of elevated critique, it is fair to say that this brash appropriating of creative works and cultural moments raises interesting questions at the very least. Even if nothing more than a publicity stunt from a troubled artist, it is worth noting that the founder of Futurism, poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, first began his dalliances in performance in 1909 by indulging in what was referred to as “blatant personal publicity”. The company is good, the concept is in place – what shall we call this?

Drew Klein is Curator of Performance Art at The Contemporary Arts Center downtown.

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