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5. Masculine Heroes   

16. The Search For Identity

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Activities: Context Activities

Escaping Their Cages: Performance Artists in the Twentieth Century

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Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions

[6123] John Whitworth, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions
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Imagine that you arrive for a concert, only to see all of the musicians do, well, nothing--no singing, no playing, no dancing. Would you feel you had been cheated out of a show, or would you feel invigorated by the concert's daring "newness"? Many performance artists would hope for the latter. Unrestricted by the bounds of traditional materials and freed from the need for museum space to display their work, performance artists often turn to their own bodies and environments to create art that many observers find both innovative and unsettling. In many cases, artists seek to discomfit viewers, forcing them to confront not only visual images but also ideas, ideologies, and people that might otherwise remain unacknowledged or, in a very real sense, invisible in the mainstream.

Beginning with the earliest performance artists, such as experimental musician John Cage (1912-1992), one of performance art's important goals has been to disrupt societal apathy by demanding audience participation in the performance. Cage used sounds made by machines, nature, people, found objects such as bottles, and virtually anything else he could locate, to produce experimental music that many listeners called "noise." He wanted his listeners to participate in the composition by finding the music within the noises. At times he went even further, once conducting a piece in which none of the members of his orchestra ever lifted their instruments--it was the audience's responsibility to fill in the silence with their own music. We can see the musicians in Thomas Pynchon's "Entropy" working out this theory for themselves. Duke, for instance, decides to write a song with "no piano, man. No guitar. Or accordion. . . . Nothing to listen to. . . ." Meatball, horrified, realizes that "the next logical step" is, in Duke's words, "to think everything." When Meatball protests, Duke replies that "there are a few bugs to work out," but that Meatball and, presumably, all other naysayers, will "catch on." Like Duke, performance artists are not, for the most part, unaware of potential resistance from their audiences but, like all revolutionaries, they hope that their new ideas eventually will prevail.

Alongside works that exist primarily to rattle the complacency of viewers, other performance art pieces exist independent of any audience at all or with ephemeral audiences who may not even realize that they have participated in or witnessed a performance. Wittman Ah Sing, in Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, reads aloud from Rainer Maria Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge on a public bus in San Francisco. Kingston's narrative provides the excerpts that Wittman reads aloud so that readers, too, can "witness" his performance. Wittman does not ask for applause or recognition: he complacently observes that "some of those present on the Muni were looking at [him], some had closed their eyes, some looked out the window, everyone perhaps listening." It is enough, then, that "none of the passengers was telling Wittman to cool it." He is pleased simply because they allowed him to continue reading. Sometimes, then, tolerance can be defined simply as allowing others to exist. Ah Sing's "performance" recalls real-life performances by other writers and poets, such as AIDS sufferer and activist Essex Hemphill in the poetry that he performs in Marlon Riggs's poignant and controversial film Tongues Untied (1989).

Some audience-free performance art, however, argues that such passive acceptance from the audience (i.e., society), while sometimes freeing, also can indicate blindness or apathy. In 1969, New York City performance artist Vito Acconci (b. 1940) enacted a "private" performance that consisted of his following random, unaware pedestrians through the streets of New York until they entered buildings, at which point he chose new "leaders" to follow. If no one knew about his journey, what could this performance possibly accomplish? Acconci saw himself as a "marginal presence . . . tying in to ongoing situations," and, as such, he demonstrated through his art that people and, by extension, society may be involved in revolutionary acts even without their own knowledge, much less their permission. While Acconci's performance itself was harmless, it also reminds us that people, preoccupied by the day-to-day comings and goings of life, could also be blithely complicit in allowing reprehensible acts or ideas to continue unabated.

Perhaps most significantly, then, performance art in the United States has been used by artists from disenfranchised or minority groups, including women, ethnic and racial minorities, and sexual minorities, to combat such apathy as well as prejudice and injustice. Frustrated by their absence or misrepresentation in American history textbooks and mainstream popular culture, these artists have created works to counter the history books and to make their presence and perspectives known. In a "living diorama" titled "Two Undiscovered Amerindians" (1992-94), which they performed during national celebrations of Columbus's arrival in the New World, Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña (b. 1955) and Cuban American performance artist Coco Fusco (b. 1960) dressed in grass skirts, painted their faces, wore tribal headdresses, and locked themselves inside a cage. They mocked the idea that the continent had not been discovered until Columbus arrived, exposed the specific nineteenth-century practice of "caging" indigenous peoples for display, and protested "cages" such as discrimination and stereotypes that still exist. Karen Finley (b. 1956) and Laurie Anderson (b. 1947) also have provided commentaries on myriad social issues, and as two of the most influential feminist performance artists, they frequently offer scathing critiques of society's continued marginalization of women. Their different methods highlight the flexibility of performance art: it bends to fit the talents of its various performers. Finley has created installation pieces and delivered monologues about pornography, sexual excess, and sexual repression and deprivation. Anderson, on the other hand, has combined autobiography with architecture, photography, and music. Her "Object, Objection, Objectivity" (1973) collects her photographs of men who insulted her with unwanted sexual comments.

In addition to addressing societal inequalities, performance artists also confront specific issues and causes. Before becoming famous as Beatle John Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono (b. 1933) was already well known in performance art circles in the early 1960s for her feminist, avant-garde perspective and for the art shows that she held in her downtown New York City loft, starting in 1961. Her influence on Lennon increased the visibility of performance art in popular culture, as seen in his "Revolution 9" (from the Beatles' 1968 White Album), which was inspired by John Cage's music and composed entirely of preexisting sounds. Lennon's mainstream fame allowed their 1969 weeklong honeymoon bed-in for world peace to become one of the world's most widely seen performance art events. Over thirty years later, recordings of this anti-Vietnam War protest can be purchased on video, and Lennon's song "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (1969) immortalizes their position: "The news people said / 'Hey, what you doin' in bed?' / I said, 'We're only tryin' to get us some peace.'" By subverting the public's expectations and enduring widespread ridicule, Ono and Lennon successfully used performance art to bring visibility and support to a cause in which they believed.

Some observers argue that they and subsequent performance artists have been too successful and that American culture has changed so much that performance art has lost its shock value and "strangeness." But artists continue to perform, believing that because of its flexibility and fluidity, performance art by definition can never be irrelevant; it is, by its very nature, not only innovative but also politically, socially, and culturally revolutionary.

  1. Comprehension: What is performance art? Why does it continue to be appealing as an alternative to more traditional forms of art?

  2. Comprehension: How have Karen Finley and Laurie Anderson used performance art to bring visibility to feminism? Relate their performances to the feminist posters [6182] (Woman Power poster) and [6183] (Feminism Lives! poster).

  3. Context: Compare John Cage's theory of noise and music to the theory of noise and communication set forth by Thomas Pynchon in "Entropy" (1960). How can we differentiate music, or meaning, from surrounding "noise" and "leakage"? Also consider Duke, Meatball, and Pac's conversation about "think[ing] everything."

  4. Context: In Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey (1989), Wittman Ah Sing performs live readings of Rilke while riding public transportation. What do these readings accomplish? The audience is basically passive: does this indicate that they somehow accept the readings or just that they're apathetic? If the audience would react violently, would the performance be more successful or effective?

  5. Exploration: Because so much of life is made up of various kinds of performance, how can we determine which performances are "art"? Does a categorization depend on the author's intention? The audience's reaction? Other factors?

  6. Exploration: What do you think Vito Acconci was trying to accomplish with his virtually invisible performance? To find out, follow in his footsteps for an afternoon or even just ten minutes. What was your experience like? Did you perceive your environment and those around you differently?

  7. Exploration: The growth of technology, including photo-imaging software, increasingly sophisticated recording equipment, and the Internet, has created new sites of experimentation for technologically savvy artists who "perform" by using computers to manipulate images, visual space, and text. Do you think performance art and computers are a good match? Why might a performance artist turn to the Internet, for example, to display his/her work? And is it really "performance" if it's on the computer?

  8. Exploration: As performance art has become more accepted and seemingly a part of the mainstream, some might argue that it has concurrently become less shocking and, thus, less effective at delivering social messages. What happens when a fringe movement enters the mainstream? What do you think it loses and gains in the process?

  9. Exploration: Performance art tends to stir up a lot of controversy, as its artists and subjects often push the limits of "acceptable" mainstream behavior. Specific works of performance art or exhibitions often are held up as ridiculous by people who want to discontinue government funding for the arts. Why do you think performance art may be controversial? Do you think that the government should limit its funding of artists to "traditional" art forms? If so, how would you define traditional? If not, why not? How should the government decide which artists it funds?

[3043] John A. Gentry, LCpl, Vietnam . . . Private First Class Joseph Big Medicine Jr., a Cheyenne Indian, Writes a Letter to His Family in the United States (1969),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Soldier from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, on a clear, search and destroy mission near An Hoa. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam encouraged antiwar protest and distrust of the government.

[6123] John Whitworth, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions (1969),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Men and women, both Hispanic and white, set the stage for a protest with tents, furniture, and other household items near the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver. A placard reads, "Denver Witnesses for Human Dignity."

[6182] Ivy Bottin, Woman Power (1965),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [POS 6-U.S., no. 548 (C size) <P&P>].
The women's movement sought to change the dominant perception that all women could be satisfied by homemaking. Many feminists argued that liberation must begin at home, where men should share domestic chores.

[6183] Anonymous, Feminism Lives! (c. 1973),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Poster declaring "Feminism Lives!" in pink, above a black-and-white photograph of women fighting for suffrage. In the 1960s, a second wave of feminist activism washed over the United States, spearheaded by such figures as Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique created solidarity among the many women who were dissatisfied with the role society had mapped out for them.

[6525] Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Rivas Botello, "La Familia" Mural (1977),
courtesy of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center).
This mural shows a Chicano family standing in the center of a starburst, surrounded by images of life in Mexico and in the United States. Many Chicanos and Chicanas have struggled to understand their hybrid identity within the dominant white culture. Sandra Cisneros writes primarily about the experiences of Chicanas growing up in the United States.

[7234] Anonymous, The Evil System of Colonialism and Imperialism . . . (c. 1970),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-995].
This poster shows the power of action and demonstration for dispossessed, marginalized, and persecuted peoples. Its quotation from Mao reads, "The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the Black people." Questions of action, audience, apathy, politics, and affect permeate performance art.

[8619] Various, Don't Mourn, Organize: SDS Guide to Community Organizing (1968),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Students for a Democratic Society's Guide to Community Organizing. Some of the articles in this guide address organization and resistance to the war beyond draft dodging, the original focus of SDS actions. One discusses responses of poor whites to black rebellion and violence during the ghetto uprisings in the summer of 1967.

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