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T H E T H A T W E R E N O T O U R S R F O R M A N G E CDCD FUSCD W hether its primary intent has been to escape the strictures of the art market, to break with the tradition of appreciating finely made objects, to explore extreme forms of behavior, or to draw the aesthetic experience back into the sphere of communal ritual, performance art is nearly always centered on the body, or more specifically, the artist's body. Often involving the use of nudity, sexually explicit content and tests of physical endurance, this genre of artmaking is associated with challenges to the body's physical limits and affronts to established cultural sensibilities. The degree to which such confrontational aesthetic strategies are perceived as threatening to social order has fluctuated in relation to time, place, political pressures and/or the perceived impact on the social. While critical European precursors to post-war performance art such as Dada and Surrealist live actions and theater were the objects of public scandal and ridicule in the first half of the 20th century, for example, the marginality of the happenings and early performances of the 1960's and 70's in relation to a burgeoning American art market encouraged a limited public perception of them as relatively innocuous. Meore recently, however, performance art and performative uses of the body in high art and popular culture have become the targets of well orchestrated venom from special interests groups performing the role of the public. The Christian Right's prudish attacks on the uses of the body in the past six years are largely due to a resurgence of anti-intellectualism and social conservatism in mainstream American life. These attacks have been carried out in the name of the sanctity of the white, nuclear family; the B L A C K P E R F O R M E R S , B L A C K P E critics have lambasted gays as "bad" men and labeled women photographers who take pictures of their families as ill fit mothers and "pornographers". Even liberal sectors of the American artworld have taken to labeling the performative tradition of using shock as "irresponsible ", favoring instead the potential instrumentality of performance (and public art) as social work. These punitive, disciplinary actions are not color blind. The invectives against performative uses of the body in contemporary American art have paid disproportionate attention to representations by and of black people, especially black men. In 1989, it was Robert Mapplethorpe's image of a black man's penis emerging from an unzipped fly, Andres Serrano's body of Christ on a crucifix immersed in urine and Dred Scott's flag turned rug for bodies to step over that incensed conservative congressmen and set off a wave of censorship of the arts in the US. Shortly thereafter came the PBS controversy over Marlon Riggs' autobiographical film about his life as a black gay man, Tongues Untied. Within the domain of popular entertainment, this period was marked by legal controversies over the sexually explicit body language and "inflammatory " lyrics of black rappers such as 2 Live Crew and Ice T. The wave of criticism of these works was bound by its reliance of notions of instrumentality, literalism in relation to artmaking (i.e. an image of something can only be what it appears to be and will only be interpreted that way), and a peculiar assumption that black speech is somehow more likely to be linked to action than to remain within an aesthetic domain. The scrutiny to which these representations have been submitted bespeaks the links between censorship of art in the present and a host of other forms of social control and coercion that white power structures have levied against black bodies in the past. This scrutiny is not just white on black, but black on black. At the same time as the abovementioned controversies were taking place, the film that brought the black gay subculture of voguing to the public eye, Paris is Burning, was the subject of an impassioned critical debate between whites and blacks over the extent to which the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2152-7792
Print ISSN
1075-7163
Pages
pp. 28-33
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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