Stop Picking on Performance Art
If nothing else, you really don’t want to piss off performance artists
So, last week I was briefly in a Twitter beef with Jimmy Carter’s grandson over whether it was sexist to claim that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles.* That was resolved amicably, but it did get me thinking that maybe it’d be a good time for me to talk a little about performance art; for whatever reason, our society has decided that performance art is a perpetual punchline, and this is part (but only part, and it’s probably a distant second to raw sexism, and you can’t really discount unexamined racism) of why people are so endemically shitty about Yoko Ono, who made her name as a performance artist.
*Yes, it is. Check out the Recs section for more.
All right, then. Performance art. It’s a broad category, right? It’s an artist doing something and saying it’s art. Usually there’s some contextual element—the place where it happens is part of why it’s art, or the time it happens is part of why it’s art, or something about the artist’s identity is art of why it’s art, and so on. The key thing is that a person (or people) do something.
Performance art took off as its own thing in the 20th century, especially in the back half of it, and I think that’s important for a bunch of reasons (as I’ve said around here before, developments in art are almost always at least partly tied to broader social and/or technological happenings). That was the stretch of time where the world of communication that we take for granted really exploded and became omnipresent, meaning that culture in general was more available to people than it ever had been before in human history; but always in a mediated format (like, it’s not much easier than before to see the Mona Lisa, but it’s far easier than it ever had been previously to see a picture of the Mona Lisa in a book or on TV or, now, online). Between the layer of distance that this mediation creates and the way easy, multiple copies of artwork effectively cheapens interactions, performance art pops up as a way to make things one-of-a-kind, special, and ephemeral. If the work of art is an artist doing something in a specific spot at a specific time, then it’s not mediated or cheapened. The happens-once-you-have-to-be-there ephemerality makes it special (I mean, this is also why seeing a beloved band is more special than listening to an album, or even listening to a high-fidelity recording of a live show).
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s more complicated, as always. But performance art arose as a response to real forces in culture, and the response varies in success. A lot of performance art really is shitty and silly, but, well, you can say the same thing about all art; Sturgeon’s Law exists for a reason. But at its best, performance art can be fantastic and powerful, and interactive in a way that passively looking at a painting might not be.
For instance, and to tie us back to our original subject, check out Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece (mediated by my description, ironically). Ono sat alone on a stage wearing nice clothes, with a pair of scissors on the ground in front of her. Audience members were told that they could walk up to her, pick up the scissors, and cut off a piece of her clothing. And they did, steadily cutting off all of her clothes.
The thing about performance art is that it tends to be really cerebral, and requires you to think a bit about what the hell’s going on and why it matters (although it’s likely that the one of the main points of Cut Piece is just the extremely surreal and charged experience in the moment of being in that room, or even being one of the cutters). Cut Piece is definitely one of those situations, where if you step back and think “what does it mean for a room full of Americans, especially Americans of the socioeconomic status that tends to go to staged art events, to cut all of the clothes off of a lone Japanese woman in front of each other?” If you think about the power dynamics for even a second, you’re floored; if sexism and racism are major issues in the public reaction to Yoko Ono, think about what those currents look like in the middle of Cut Piece. What’s at stake if men are cutting a woman’s clothes off in front of a room full of people? What’s at stake if a room full of white Americans, most of whom would have been alive during World War 2, are cutting the clothes off of a Japanese woman? It’s an amazing act of personal bravery for Ono to subject herself to it. Just stop and contemplate what it must feel like to have a theater full of strangers walk up to you, one by one, with scissors in their hands, and cut your clothes off of you. I can’t even conceive of it.
Another great performance artist, working in a similar vein, was James Luna. Luna, who identified as Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican-American, and died in 2018, staged several performance pieces that work best as mirrors making the audience/participants look at their own attitudes and biases. He did a bunch of great ones, but to keep from going overlong, I’ll focus on one that he staged a few times in the 90s, Take a Picture With A Real Indian. Here’s Luna’s own description of the work:
Standing at a podium wearing an outfit, I announce: “Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C. on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day. America loves to say ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here today, on this sunny day here in Washington, D.C.” And then I just stand there. Eventually, one person will pose with me. After that they just start lining up. I’ll do that for a while until I get mad enough or humiliated enough.
In one of my grad school seminars, we saw a full recording of one of these stagings, and it’s nuts just to see on video; I can’t imagine the raw emotions of seeing it in person. You basically watch a group of people decide one by one to turn a person into an object. First it’s one or two nervous people, often smirking teen boys (today they’d have MAGA hats on), then, slowly, everybody, as Luna gets visibly saddened furious, and also satisfied that his piece is working out the way he expected to. It’s a powerful thing, made more so by the realization that this very looking at a distance and feeling superior to the participants is also kind of a shitty, objectifying thing, and Luna 100% planned on that. It’s amazing; it’s like he worked out how to build the perfect ethical/moral bear trap.
Running long, so I’ll cut it short there. But to sum up: sure, some performance art is shitty, but so’s a lot of painting, a lot of sculpture, a depressingly overwhelming percentage of movies, and so on. Some performance art is transcendent. On top of Luna and Ono, some other names to check out are Coco Fusco and Marina Abramovic. Right on.
I’m a fan in general of the podcast You’re Wrong About; I love their basic modus operandi of re-examining events that were high-profile news stories in the past and looking at the ways the popular version of the story is misleading or outright wrong. It’s high-quality stuff. And, appropriately, one of my favorite of their episodes was the one where they debunked the idea that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. They unpack the sexism and racism coded into that belief, and also lay out the fact that she was an established star in the art world who was pursued by John Lennon. It’s a great episode of a great show.
This clip of a comedian doing a set in character as Jerry Seinfeld in the 90s, making nothing but jokes about dating a 17-year-old, probably counts as performance art:
And here’s a video of a cat playing a Theramin, which, well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s performance art?
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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