Logo The Directory of Artists Banner

Follow LivingGallery on Twitter

What is performance art?


The verb perform and its associated words performer, performance, performing, performative, performatory, perlocutionary and [performance] have both general and specialist uses. Within the past twenty years some quite fine distinctions in meaning have been accorded the terms performance, performative especially in linguistic theory, art history and art criticism and the theory and practice of acting. Perform has been in the English language since the late 15th and early 16th century. The word is from the old French par-parfourmer, and early French parfournir meaning to furnish or accomplish completely. Its early 17th century meanings relate it closely to the word function (q.v.) from the Latin functus, fungi, functare, meaning to perform. The most common and useful correspondences between the two words are the twin notions of instrumentality and utility.

Late 17th century meanings for perform suggest its principal contemporary meanings; the achieving or carrying out of something; an undertaking. Others suggest an execution of a piece of work, the act of doing, to bring about or suggest a result. The execution of a piece of work, was common through to the late 17th century which is close to the early senses of ART (q.v.) as were the meanings associated with the notion of discharging one's function FUNCTIONARY (q.v.). Playing one's part, and doing, were also closely associated meanings referencing themselves to the noun form of performance. The relevance of the term to acting and playing musical instruments beyond the mere carrying out of a command and the other senses in performance of carrying out something for the benefit of others was common by early 16th century; for example the carrying out of an action, act, deed and the act of publicly performing a play, ceremony, piece of music as in:

"Besides her walking and other actual performances, what...have you heard her say?" Shakespeare.

Colloquially, to perform by the early 20th century was used to describe the behaviour of one who fussed, or displayed extreme anger or bad temper,(an Australasian slang term, probably gained from music hall banter from London's East End).

In the late 18th century the mechanical uses of perform and performance became current. And especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century the relationships to the working or function of mechanical contrivances, devices, automobiles and aircraft and boats measured under certain test conditions; the final designation referring to the best performer or performance, as in Mechanical Magazine 1832 30th June 224/2:

"Extraordinary performances...on two occasions a load amounting to 100 tons was drawn by one engine...a distance of above 30 miles in an hour and a half." Thus derived from the mechanical uses, from the late 1960's high performance became popular in the language of advertising.

Perform and performance gained additional meanings with respect to behaviour; the medical, psychological usages corresponding to the mechanical meanings in terms of measuring, comparing one item, organ, function to another. Its psychological usages are numerous, attending a wide range of experimental or quasi experimental situations in various fields from worker management (F.W. Taylor Shop Management 1904) to flight engineering in the 1920's, business management and animal husbandry in the 1960's.

The association with linguistic theory occurs in the 1950 and 1960's. Performative occurs in J.L. Austin's How to do Things with Words (1962).

"What are we to call a sentence or an utterance of this type? I propose to call it a performative sentence or a performative utterance or for short, a 'performative'."

In Austin's work the performative was described as a member of a class of actions termed illocutionary acts. Utterances that effect actions by being either spoken or written are called performatives. Performatory or perlocutionary language is composed of such utterances. The range of declarative statements from the first person [present, future] indicative i.e. I ask you, I am telling you, I promise you, that...all are performative. In the work of Chomsky, Liles, and subsequently Derrida, Eco and others, the term performance was often used to distinguish between language rules and the actual use of language in everyday speech. Theories of transformation (hence the term "transformational grammar") were partially predicated upon these differences. The term Performatory is closely linked to the performance distinctions which occur in language when it is spoken in an "active" manner. For instance any declarative or imperative construction, spoken or written, is performatory.

From philosophical discourse, linguistic, specifically Anglo-American linguistic theory, performative and its derivatives found anthropology (symbolic), particularly the work of Victor Turner Drama, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974) and the interdisciplinary fields of communication research for instance in the work of Erving Goffmann: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1969) and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behaviour (1972). The relationships between the use of performance, performative in these fields and those of acting theory and visual art are very strong suggesting the appropriation from one discourse to another. However, other distinct meanings are suggested in the separate corpus of literature documenting recent performance history and theory/criticism in the separate fields of linguistic theory, theatre, anthropology and visual arts.

The use of the term performance within the discourse of visual arts is interesting. Performance was italicized in A. Kaprow's introduction to Assemblage Environments and Happenings N.Y. (1966) to distinguish happenings from theatre and other performances. The word also appears in the definition of Happening in Webster's Third International Dictionary in that year. In 1969 performance (art) began to be used in America to distinguish the theatre of visual art (one definition of performance) from the "true" work of theatre. Further, the term performance art was used by English speaking visual artists to describe work which was not theatre, music, nor dance. Performance art was contrasted early in 1970 to Body Art, a term probably coined in 1969/70 by the editors of the cultural magazine Avalanche. Performance had more currency as an art world buzz word than "events", "pieces", "things", "auto" art and "actions". In N. America the word gained preference over others to describe live art produced at set times for an audience. (q.v. "non-matrixed theatre" {events} [Kirby]), "Intermedia" [Higgins].)the relationship of performance to theatre and language persisted. The work of Turner, V., and particularly Schechner, R. and Schuman, M., (eds.) Ritual, Play and Performance (N.Y. 1976), reveal the extent to which by the mid 1970's, performance theory had become anthropological. Performance as text, as non-simulated (represented) acting in the world, as ritual, symbolic act, was often stressed. (q.v. act, action.)

"Variously called actions, events, performances, things, the works present physical activities, ordinary bodily functions and other usual and unusual manifestations of physicality." Sharp, W. 1970.

In Rolling Stone 24 June 37 Performance art is (defined as) "basically an extension of art into the theatre, often involving more or less set programs at specified times and places ..."

The term performance (art) was used in several conflicting ways throughout the 1970's.

1976 National Observer 7 Feb 20/2. "Not quite the same as theatre or dance, though it combines elements of both, performance art grew out of avant-garde movements, particularly in painting and poetry, that swept Europe early this century". Performance was described (Goldberg, R. 1979) as "Live Art" and the "Avant-avant-garde" in Performance Live Art 1909 to the Present, London 1979.

Performance was related to shamanism which provided a western correlative to a range of "primitive" behaviours, myths, rituals and mysteries. Performance was also discussed in mid-decade symposia as "the unifying mode of our time", Benamou, M. in Performance in Post-Modern Culture (eds., Benamou and Caramello, C.). Wisconsin, 1977. The word's refusal to be adequately defined resulted in overuse and redundancy.

Performance continued to have currency in many European countries throughout the 1970's, which signaled to some, an Americanophilia, particularly in those countries where indigenous substitutes for performance were available. This was not the case in French speaking countries where Performance already had currency and in view of its derivation perhaps, greater validity i.e. representation, meaning a "sight" or "play".

Debates in Germany suggested the rejection of the term in favour of Handlung and Aktion(en). Handlung meaning action, deed, transaction, performance; in translation relates performance to the English word function. The emphasis on transaction is also available in the term performance bond a bond issued by a bank or other financial institution, guaranteeing the fulfillment of a particular contract. The German words Handlungweise (mode of procedure) and dramatische handlung (plot of a play) correspond to some of the meanings associated with the term performance in English.

The term demonstration art, action/actionist and interventionism began to be distinguished in the mid seventies as particular kinds of political art performances. The term art performance or performance (art) seemed too ambiguous for some performance theorist/practitioners. To a few artists, performance was beginning to have too much currency within popular culture. Lauder's cosmetic company used the term in advertising promotions i.e. "the performance face pack" and "the night performer" for their "Performance Collection". Artists responded to the commoditization of performance in the pages of LIFE magazine and other popular media institutions by politicizing performance and theorizing a performance as resistance.

[Performance] was coined in 1982 by Barber, B. in Essays in [Performance] and Cultural Politicisation. Open Letter summer/fall 1983. Fifth series Nos 5 & 6 Toronto 1983.

"...In these senses performance, far from being regarded merely as a separate genre within the history of art, would once again confirm those meanings common to its original use - function, utility and instrumentality. Nominally, [performance] describes the engaged and committed task of acting on culture, as distinct from an enactment in culture."

Bruce Barber's Performance [performance]: Keyword published in: B. Barber, Performance, and Performers, Vol. 1: Conversations, ed. M. J. Leger, Toronto: YYZ Press (2008), pp. 8-11.

see photo