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What Is Performance Art?

Gregory Hanson
Gregory Hanson

Performance art is a variety of modern art. The term has been employed in many different contexts, but generally speaking, it refers to art that is active and ephemeral rather than static and permanent. Such art engages the audience directly and includes the artist or some representation of the artist. Performance art is generally distinct from conventional theater. The term itself was coined in the 1960s, but the roots of the movement date back to the turn of the last century.

This type of art is meant to evoke very strong feelings on the part of audience members. Performance art is the art of experience and sensation. Art of this nature cannot easily be reproduced. A recording may capture the image and sound of the experience but will not capture the full sensory and emotional impact of an effective piece of art.

Performance art is often done on a city street.
Performance art is often done on a city street.

The idea of art that is both fleeting and meant to evoke a powerful impression dates back to the iconoclastic futurists and constructivists who worked in the years before the First World War. Inspired by the whirlwind pace of technological change, these artists often worked in ephemeral media. They employed unconventional techniques to elicit reactions from their audience.

Russian futurists, for instance, would interact directly with their audiences during performances. These interactions mixed scripted and unscripted elements. They were meant to evoke a variety of strong reactions, not all of them pleasant. For example, at a time when street hooligans were known to throw cups of scalding tea on passersby, Russian futurists would appear to do the same thing. Only at the last minute would the audience realize that their teacups were full of leaves without water.

Memories of this era of artistic exploration informed a new generation of iconoclastic artists in the 1960s. These artists, such as Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, intentionally broke artistic conventions and organized performances often meant to shock their audiences. They began to employ their own bodies and those of their audiences as part of the artistic process, a trend that has remained closely associated with the genre of performance art.

Performance art remains a popular and sometimes controversial genre. Artists have modified or injured their own bodies as part of the artistic process. The genre often remains focused on raising awareness of social or political issues as seen in the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan, known for disturbing performance art with political overtones.

Less political and provocative versions of the style focus more on simple entertainment. The popular neo-futurists of Chicago are one example of this offshoot of the performance art movement. Their work is participatory and absurd but aims at evoking laughter rather than darker emotions.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - I think most of the time performance artists aren't all that interested in money, to be honest. They want to say something, or to affect people emotionally, rather than make a living from their art.

More often than not they either have a day job, or they are already independently wealthy. As far as I know, most performance artists are already fairly well known for other pieces before they can get the space and recognition to do anything really interesting.


@bythewell - It depends on the individual artist, but a lot of the time their money comes from grants. Sometimes they might be doing a performance on behalf of an organization or a facility like a museum and might get paid from there. A lot of performance art is being done to make a particular statement and they might be hired by organizations that want to make that statement.

And performance art often happens as part of a festival or on a stage, which would require tickets.

Finally, a lot of performance artists just put out a hat and hope for the best. You can actually make a fairly good living that way if you know what you're doing and if you do it in the right place.


One of my good friends does a lot of this and I really envy her courage. She will do things like pose naked so that strangers can write messages on her skin, or dance in public spaces where she is completely open to critical comments.

I've got to admit, I'm not sure how people make a living doing this kind of thing, but it is always interesting and it must be a lot of fun as well.

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    • Performance art is often done on a city street.
      By: Ch.Allg
      Performance art is often done on a city street.