What is Performance Art?

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Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge Andrea Fraser in her fake guided tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989. Performance art? Yes.
  • Andrea Fraser in her fake guided tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989. Performance art? Yes.
Are Lady Gaga and Mitt Romney performance artists? The mainstream press has said so, and there's not much to stop them. As an artistic practice, performance art is what happens when an event or action is framed for an audience. Which means it could be anything, really. So what distinguishes self-aware mass entertainment or political events from, um, art?

To prepare us for the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art festival, which begins today, we asked Andrea Fraser for help. Her most famous performances tease the everyday out of the cliqueish confines of institutional art, like her fake guided tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989 or the videotaped sexual encounter with a collector who paid Fraser $20,000 to be part of a work of art in 2003. She could be the world's sexiest performance artist.

In advance of her new work for West of Rome Public Art -- a staged performance of a feminist radio dialogue -- we asked Fraser to explain the discipline.

What is performance art?

It's art that conceptualizes and self-consciously crafts the performances that we engage in every day. When an artist puts something into the world, they're presenting to people. [In real life] you perform roles in political relationships, economic relationships, and in social and cultural rituals. What performance art does is make those values and relationships more explicit, more available for reflection from an audience.

How's that different from the "performing arts"?

Those are more about showing someone a good time. Things like dance and theater can involve incredible virtuosity, but they may not be very challenging. That's what [performance] art is a site for.

Do you consider an entertainer like David Blaine to be a performance artist? Some of his stunts remind me of the works of endurance performed by Chris Burden or Vito Acconci.

In terms of art history, sure. There's been a lot of strategies from cabaret or carnival that made their way to Dada, one of the predecessors to performance art. It's not unusual for aspects of pop culture to circulate into art. Today, for example, I have students who are interested in the performative aspects of the hip-hop world. They want to explore how the internet can frame a video and produce a new perception of it for an audience.

So if I see someone doing something crazy on YouTube, I could say what's in the video is a performance, but the act of framing it through video, and then posting it online, is performance art.

Absolutely. Marcel Duchamp said anything could be art with his first readymade. Forty or fifty years ago, artists like Joseph Beuys and Allan Kaprow said that everyone is a work of art, and integrated art into every day life. There are fields of performance today that study everyday cultural rituals. But when you name something performance art, all you're doing is placing it in the context of the art world. It doesn't mean it's going to be any good.

And what makes good performance art?

Well, skill in singing, dancing or acting! But you don't need that. A really compelling performance takes an audience somewhere they haven't been before. There's some extreme performance or transgressive performance out there, but it doesn't have to be that way. Whatever it takes to bring other people to a point where they challenge their boundaries. Look, I saw a production of Shakespeare in the Park with Richard Foreman, and let me tell you, that was pretty challenging.

Andrea Fraser is Professor of New Genres in the UCLA Department of Art. She will perform Men on the Line, her work from 1972, at the National Center for the Preservation for Democracy, 111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, on Monday, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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