Performance art as a concept first arose in the 1960s with the rise of art practices involving the body activated in space in real time with an audience. In turn, the term was applied retrospectively to hybrid time-based theatrical events involving nonsense poetry and other actions that had been presented by the Dadaists in WWI-era Europe, primarily in Paris and Zurich. Contemporary performance art was accompanied in this way by the development of a theory and history of performance in relation to the visual arts.
But the idea of performing has a much longer history. The etymology of the term "perform" is telling in tying together the theory and practice that are both associated with performance art:
to perform: to do; to do well; to entertain
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French parfurmer, alteration of perforner, parfurnir, from par-, per- thoroughly (from Latin per-) + furnir to complete
First known use: fourteenth century
performance: the execution of an action; representing a character in a play; the efficiency with which an action takes place
First known use: fifteenth century
performing: "of, relating to, or constituting an art (as drama) that involves public performance; ex: the performing arts"
First known use: 1889
performative: the act of doing or enacting; or, "of, relating to, or constituting an art (as drama) that involves public performance"; in linguistics, "relating to an expression that serves to effect a transaction or that constitutes the performance of the specified act by virtue of its utterance"
First known use: 1955
[Definitions from merriam-webster.com/dictionary]
In this cascading chronology of English words relating to performance, we see it springing from the context of fourteenth century Europe (at the dawn of the early modern period)—its very concept embedded in the nascent structures of capitalism, industrialism, and colonialism beginning to shape Western culture as we know it. (Perhaps performances were necessary to counter the growing instrumentalisms of capital? Perhaps performance as a self-conscious concept must be seen as itself an aspect of the accumulation of capital and the extrusion of surplus value as well as the development of leisure time? Both may well be useful things to consider.) We see its original etymological connection to "completion" and "thoroughness" (connecting the notion of performance to work in the fourteenth-century shift from guilds and artisanal labour to the soon-to-be defined concept of "art" as a separate kind of production in the so-called Renaissance). By the nineteenth century, not surprisingly, "performing" permutated into theatrical modes of public display and, finally, in the post WWII period that would come to be identified with postmodernism, the term "performative" is invented as a concept to understand the force and processual nature of expressing, doing, or uttering as modes of self-articulation and doing.
If we play out this logic of how words about performance developed in relation to social shifts, performance as a theory and practice, then, could be said to have been inaugurated in the early modern period as a means of defining doing by quantifying its speed and completion—both in the arena of labour as performance and in the soon-to-be burgeoning field of theatrical plays. The "performing arts" of the nineteenth century indicate a professionalisation and aestheticisation of time-based arts that involve enactments of characters through narratives (theatre), of sound (music), of choreographed schemes of mobile embodiment (dance) or of hybrid forms of sound, image, and choreography (opera). And performativity provides a way of conceptualising the shift to models put forth in the mid-twentieth century to describe and map psychologised and phenomenological enactments of the self, both in everyday speech (where language could be seen as activating agency, per the work of J. L. Austin and John Searle) and in the newly developing visual arts categories of performance art and "intermedial" art, as Fluxus guru Dick Higgins termed the hybrid often time-based practices of Fluxus and of other experimentally minded artists in his 1966 "Statement on Intermedia." In turn, performativity has become the key theoretical term in discourses addressing performance art.
Performativity has a specific context as a concept and strategy connected to contemporary performance art; it is a historically specific Euro-American phenomenon developed theoretically and in creative practices in the 1950s and following. The invention of "performativity" as a term occurred in a series of lectures by British language philosopher J. L. Austin in the mid 1950s. For Austin, famously, performative utterances are those that do what they say (such as "I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth." Shortly thereafter, Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman famously theorised social interactions as performances in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where Goffman wrote: the self is a "product of the scene that comes off, . . . as a performed character . . . [it] is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented" (245).
Performance art developed in parallel with these concepts. Austin’s theory of the performative links historically to the precise moment (1950–1960) when artists such as those in the Gutai group in Japan, Georges Mathieu in Paris, and Allan Kaprow’s New York-based Happenings group as well as the Fluxus artists in Europe and the US were inspired by Japanese calligraphic traditions and by the photographs of Jackson Pollock paintings disseminated in early 1950s art magazines, beginning to enact their bodies explicitly in their works. Even as Austin was theorising the performative as a mode of speaking-as-doing, process or performativity itself was becoming the art, as would be made even more explicit with the consolidation of the Happening and Fluxus movements from the late 1950s onward. In the 1960s epic performances such as Yoko Ono’s nominally Fluxus work Cut Piece (performed in Japan and New York in 1964 and 1965) shaped the early field of performance art proper. And, linked in part to the release of the hand-held video camera in 1967, by the early 1960s, artists such as Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, and Bruce Nauman were creating body art works often integrating real-time video in installation formats or producing videos or films in which the body was directly enacted within the representation.
"Performance" and "performativity" as articulated in the post WWII period also relate to shifts in labour and industry. At the same time, as the more or less coincident articulation of Austin’s and Goffman’s theories attest, Euro-American cultures shifted towards "dematerialised" forms of labour with the development of late capitalism (wherein so called first world nations sent many manufacturing jobs overseas to be taken up by so called third world labourers who would actually continue to make things). English-speaking theorists in particular (Austin, Goffman) seem to have been motivated to find ways to "rematerialize" the information economy of the spoken word through a concept of enunciation as activating social relationships and the phenomenological.
Just as the post-colonial movements destabilised the unquestioned dominance of Euro-American powers and the mythical white male-centred subject of modernism, performativity seriously challenges the modernist model of the making subject (or artistic "genius") as fully in charge of the making of his work and of its meaning. Pollock, for example, occupies the position of "white male genius" while, paradoxically, inaugurating for younger artist Allan Kaprow a radically new action-based painting that profoundly questions the modernist idea of the artist as the singular agent of the artwork and thus of its meaning (see his influential 1958 article "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," where he famously frames the action painting body of Pollock as inspiring the performative practices of the 1960s and following).
Performance art proper developed out of this milieu in which philosophers, sociologists, and artists alike were putting meaning in motion and embodying it as relational and social, as occurring between subjects. This complicates the understanding of where meaning resides, and raises the question of agency. For the modern and postmodern Euro-American subject, agency has to lie somewhere. We are driven to articulate some kind of relation between humans as enactors and the world of things; between humans as enactors and other humans who react and enact—as discourses of aesthetics attempted to do in the late eighteenth century and as Goffman extended in a sociological model in his 1959 book. Through Austin’s formulation of the performative, agency could reside in the very act of speech (or, in Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s late 1980s–1990s formulations, in the very comportment of the body or language itself as gender/sex performative). In between, philosophers John Searle and Jacques Derrida had it out over the potential for speaking as doing—stressing intentionality, Searle expanded Austin’s performatives into a philosophy of communication by adding a psychological dimension to examining the ways in which locutions come to mean in interpersonal engagements. Against this metaphysical strain of thinking, Derrida used the concept of the performative to interrogate the deepest beliefs attached to our desire for spoken speech to enunciate subjects fully and our tendency to make recourse to a simplistic notion of intentionality no matter how "scientific" the model of linguistic meaning seems to be.
Through all of these models, the performative stresses the processual, time-based, and communicational aspects of relationships between people via speech or actions—the way in which saying or doing connects with an other (or not) and how this connection determines "meaning" as such. If anything, performance art can be seen in this way as activating meaning across subjects—as deeply questioning modernist ideas about art holding within itself a static truth, or as a repository of meaning deposited by an initial creative act. Performance art does a lot of other things, too. But it is this questioning of meaning that defines its radical position in the Western history of modern and contemporary art.
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Amelia Jones, Robert A. Day Professor in Art and Design and Vice-Dean of Critical Studies at the Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California