- Cutting Performances: Collage Events, Feminist Artists and the American Avant-Garde
This book adds to the growing body of work in theatre history and performance theory that addresses the received history of the avant-garde through a particular feminist revisioning. James Harding does not simply supplement this history by adding female names to the list of artists; rather, he rethinks the critical apparatus that has created the history in the first place. Engaging with both feminist performance theorists (Sue-Ellen Case, Charlotte Canning, Elin Diamond, Jill Dolan, Rebecca Schneider) and also theorists of the theatrical avant-garde, historical and otherwise (Günter Berghaus, Paul Mann, RoseLee Goldberg, Arnold Aronson), Harding's book is "intended as a provocation" that utilizes the rhetoric of the avant-garde manifesto itself (7). "With regard to questions of gender, studies of the vanguard have decisively remained in the rearguard" is the accusation he loudly repeats in various iterations throughout the book (8). Through a series of insightful readings of feminist performance events by (and the lives of?) Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Gertrude Stein, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneeman, and Valerie Solanas, a feminist avant-garde history is sketched — one that engages thematically and contextually with the aforementioned events but that also points towards a series of "precepts" for a feminist historiography of avant-garde performance in general.
Somewhat schematically put (by this reader), these precepts are
• the identification of an anti-capitalist with an anti-patriarchal aesthetic
• a radical theatricality linked with the "risk-laden economies of sexual politics and gender construction" (31)
• a heightening of the aesthetics of collage and a simultaneous disruption of the aura of neutrality and immediacy that often accompanies critical assumptions about "found sounds, found behaviours, and found actions" (31)
• a nuanced inflection of Michael Kirby's notion of non-matrixed performance, a "sub-matrixed" performance where the departure from conventional, text-based theatre is informed by "the always already ideologically mediated social contexts of performance itself — and here that mediation refers specifically to the regulation of gender, sexuality and race" (32-33).
The fifth and final precept for a feminist historiography locates the book itself within the utopian aspirations of all avant-gardes, and that is its "deliberative liminality" (33) — what Valerie Solanas calls, in her SCUM Manifesto, its outlaw status.
From the wandering performances through the streets of New York by Freytag-Loringhoven, "the original Dada" (35), to the bullet fired into Andy Warhol by Solanas, this history proves to be fraught and messy, one [End Page 104] in which the personal and the politics of the everyday fuse with the formal imperatives of the works discussed. Indeed, this fusion is seen as crucial in undermining the workings of the repressive patriarchy, in creating historical precedents for feminist performance, and in devising a methodology that doesn't simply add to a received history but asks us to look at it again. However, in stressing its polemical dimension, the analysis overlooks some of its own historical precedents. The link between patriarchy and capitalism, for example, is long established and well documented in the materialist feminist tradition. Equally, the aesthetics of collage and the various ways collage conceptualizes the everyday, the ephemeral, the political, and so on have featured prominently in all the debates within early modernism, the Frankfurt School, and postmodernism.
What Harding's analysis brings to these debates, through his nuanced and well-documented readings of particular performance events, is the fervour and passion of the politics of visibility, presence, and identity. While Cutting Performances bypasses an explanation of what is specifically "American" about these events, it is distinctively American in its fusion of identity politics and performance theory. And if there is a distinct methodology that challenges the historiography of the avant-garde, I would claim, it is to be found in this heady fusion. At its best, rhetoric such as Harding's is impassioned and convincing, but at its worst, it dissolves into a politics of blame, where the "declaration" of one...