- Bodies of Action, Bodies of Thought: Performance and Its Critics
Throughout the last decade there has been a notable increase in the attention museums, galleries and alternative spaces have paid to recent avant-garde movements, particularly Happenings and Fluxus, and to individual performance works, while the number of books, essays, and catalogues devoted to the field of performance has swelled even more so. There appears to be a full-scale, ongoing attempt to legitimize performance and establish its position within art history, the most recent example of which is the exhibition entitled, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979, originating in February 1998, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveling to Europe and Japan.
The catalogue for this exhibit, which I did not see, is a highly-illustrated (450 photographs, nearly half of them in color) document representing the current state of contemporary criticism and historical perspective on performance, specifically, “action art.” In its intent to create an expansive framework for performance, the catalogue outlines the achievements of its scholarship and the perimeters and longing of the field, exemplified by the inclusion of work from the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Latin America, even as it reveals the shortcomings of its discourse, namely, the unexamined assertion of the myth of progress and the limited critical sphere that characterize current performance history.
Paul Schimmel, who organized the exhibit, opens the catalogue with a long and largely familiar narrative of performance, extending from the post-war period through the seventies. In an obvious allusion to Yves Klein, his essay titled “Leap into the Void” covers chiefly the influence of Pollock, Fontana, Cage, and Shimamoto in their celebration of the act over the object of creation, then moves on to Gutai, Nouveau Realisme, Arte Povera, Happenings, Fluxus, Viennese Actionism, “performative sculpture” of the sixties, and performance in the seventies. Along the way, he dispels [End Page 11] some of the myths surrounding Pollock’s supposed spontaneity of composition while acknowledging his inspiration for the Japanese Gutai artists, Klein, and those others of the fifties and sixties who learned from him the value of creating a self-image for public consumption. Schimmel challenges Allan Kaprow’s influential essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” in which he asserts that the painter’s canvases were “environments,” as wishful thinking but, more urgently, he acknowledges Kaprow’s development of the “performative environment” between installation and performance. He might also have pointed to the impact of Kaprow’s thinking on the “environmental theatre” of Richard Schechner and the work of his company, The Performance Group. It should be noted that among visual artists and their critics, performance history is tactically linked to the history of painting and sculpture—art history—rather than interacting with theatre history. Notwithstanding, already in the opening pages of the catalogue Kaprow emerges as one of the most dynamic of performance thinkers, his ideas coursing through the work of the last several decades.
It is Schimmel’s contention that the post-war era of art situated itself between the dialectics of creation and destruction and that World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb left an existentialist legacy that made artists more aware of the significance of the individual act. But, since Schimmel doesn’t demonstrate how these events are communicated in individual works (the Gutai artists, who speak for themselves, excepted), merely declaring their impact, his politics has an obligatory ring. He also overlooks the strength of American artists’ allergic reactions to overt social and intellectual agendas, namely the Marxism, Freudianism, and McCarthyism that informed so much thinking before and after the war. This same turn away from politics was the setting for Susan Sontag’s famous essay of the period, “Against Interpretation,” and other redefining commentary, such as her “One Culture and the New Sensibility.” It is also difficult to reconcile Schimmel’s reading with the extraordinary influence at this time of John Cage, whose writings do not carry strong political content or post-war angst. Nor do Kaprow...