Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Meat Joy
A pioneering feminist artist, Carolee Schneemann investigates women’s lives, bodies, and roles in society.
Although she has worked in a variety of media throughout her career, she is most closely associated with a type of performance from the 1960s and 1970s known as Body Art (not to be confused with “body art,” a term that encompasses tattoo, scarification, piercing, painting on the skin, etc.). Feminist Body Art celebrates and reasserts aspects of women’s bodies that have been traditionally ignored or repressed by the male-privileged mainstream. These performances often included nudity and an explicit rejection of traditional, dismissive ideas about female sexuality. In many of Schneemann’s performances, her body literally becomes part of the artwork. Film, photographs, and verbal descriptions are all that remain of these powerful, highly charged live performances witnessed by a limited audience.
Schneemann and her participants first performed Meat Joy at the First Festival of Free Expression in Paris in May of 1964. Two other performances followed later that year in London and New York. A group of men and women, stripped to their underwear, danced and writhed around with each other on plastic sheeting, while rubbing raw fish, chicken, and sausage, as well as wet paint, onto their bodies. The entire performance was highly sensual; there were aspects of feeling, smelling, hearing, seeing, and even tasting. The work was simultaneously erotic, disgusting, comic, choreographed, and spontaneous. Meat Joy was a celebration of the flesh that verged on ecstatic ritual.
RoseLee Goldberg, Director/Curator, PERFORMA
“The live is where so many ideas of the twentieth century, the radical ideas, really begin. I think people turn to performance because there’s a lot of license to do whatever you want to do. There are no rules, no regulations. And actually very few critics and very few people who are going to kind of say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to what you’re doing. So I think that’s been a very interesting part of the politics both of Feminism and of Multiculturalism in the sixties through the eighties.
I think in terms of Feminism, it reflects as much as leads the way in terms of consciousness-raising. Performance allowed artists to really go out and activate—put into action—these various ideas that they were looking at. And indeed, they were pretty shocking a lot of the times. So, there’s a way to insist on attention being given to what the various artists were doing. For example, Carolee Schneemann, insisting on the body and trying to push it away from the idea of the object, which everybody was talking about, and more into this more expressive way of dealing with politics at the time.”
Carolee Schneemann, Artist
“Some of the, let’s say, nude action works I’ve done terrified me. Those works were motivated by the fact that I couldn’t discover in my culture any equivalents to lived sensual, sexual experience. All through the sixties and before, female sexuality was either depicted as a kind of pornography or a medical subject. There seemed to be nothing really in between. So the motive for me was to see if I could integrate my nude body as part of my painting constructions of the time and it was also to try and reposition the body. My sense was I’m the image and I’m the image maker. So this can’t be pornographic and it can’t be deadly the way I found the Pop art depiction of female embodiment to be mechanistic and harsh and mechanized and full of this sort of prurient obsession. And then the classic obsessiveness of the female nude as the ideal subject—I wanted to see if I could displace that or change that by becoming part of my materials.
The body has always been central to my art because the eyes are part of the body and the hand receiving the energy and information from the eyes is part of the body, and the sexual body is the energizing core to feeling and thinking, even if it’s displaced conceptually as it often is. But for me, it’s always had an integration. It’s fluid. It’s dynamic.
Meat Joy ritualizes interactions between eight participants. The sequences of building form with each other’s bodies, the sequences are set but within that the parameters vary. So the interaction is full of change. In the central sequence, the bodies are constructed as sculptures. Women to men, men to men and they’re supposed to be put into position as if they could move, and of course, they always collapse. And out of that collapse comes the sequence where the serving maid arrives with the tray of the raw chickens, raw fish, and raw sausages. And, the participants have never had these thrown on them before. So the reaction is real and alive and the chickens are very heavy and very sticky and the fishes really stink because they’re old and the sausages are sort of amusing, delightful. And one of the rules is that once you get hit with one of these materials and you’ve handled it, you have to keep it. So the choreography will evolve in a set of exchanges and continuous motions.
Meat Joy confused the art authorities. But I always felt that I was working with traditions, that I was extending traditions of painting and sculpture and particularly the inheritance of abstract expressionism and the activation of Jackson Pollock.”
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, rev. sub. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Goldberg, RoseLee, and Laurie Anderson. Performance: Live Art Since the ’60s. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Sayre, Henry M. The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde Since 1970. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Carolee Schneemann Web site. http://www.caroleeschneemann.com