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A STAR IS BORN Performance Art in California Moira Roth A poet is placed on a meditation cushion, a lamp burning beside him, in a huge concrete circle on a mountain top. As the sun rises, a woman appears on horseback and hands the reins of another horse to the man so that they can ride together down through the woods in which friends have hung the poet's paintings . Twelve hours of such events surround the unsuspecting poet on his birthday . A berserk butcher pours blood over a white-clothed victim as slaughterhouse images are projected over her. The two are actually friends in real life. Performance, in California and elsewhere, encompasses both art which thrusts itself into life-ambitiously, energetically, often awkwardly-and art which is an extension of regular, or experimental, theatre placed within an art setting. These two basic performance modes do not necessarily depend upon whether a performance occurs in a gallery or on the streets but rather more upon its intent, audience and effect. To date, no one has satisfactorily worked out critical criteria to apply to performance art-either life-oriented or theatre-oriented modes (to say nothing of the many variances which lie between these extremes). In the first, criticism is often dismissed impatiently with the disclaimer: But this is not art, it is life. In the second, any attempt to look critically at the theatre aspects of artists' performance is countered with: But this is not theatre, it is art. California performance now has some ten years of history under its belt but oddly little critical or historical sense of itself.' Its rich history contains performances geared toward life and toward theatre. Both traditions need to be 86 looked at critically but my intention in this article is to focus on the lifeoriented performance tradition in California: its brilliant beginnings and current difficulties. Performance was born in the 1960s, a decade which encouraged a belief that vision and imagination could shape life powerfully, indeed transform it radically. Early performance, promising much, brought psychological subjects and ritual back into art after a decade of the morass of Pop and Minimalist "cool" art. Performance was a major escape route away from the detachment of those two movements. When California performance began to shape itself in the late 1960s, it emerged from a very different context than that of New York performance. Its initial emergence was less of a struggle since the Pop and Minimalist strangehold was weaker than on the East Coast; but it was also harder to establish performance here publicly. California had neither the tradition of Happenings (with the strong accompanying presence of experimental dance) nor a critical framework.There were no seminal events such as Kaprow's 18 Happenings in 6 Parts or Dine's The Smiling Workman. Equally, there were no benign influential critics and publications nor a Fluxus network.2 California performance had to begin, so to speak, from scratch. For California artists, especially in the Bay Area (San Francisco and Berkeley), the equivalent of Happenings and of the New York dance and literary circles were the belligerent, raucous and poetic Be-Ins, the rock concerts and the constant bombardment by street theatre. In the absence of strong art prototypes for performances on the West Coast, the dramatic and visual quality of the decade's political and social events, and the attitudes which generated them, operated directly as models for much of the early performance here. The lack of hospitable art support systems caused early California performance artists to turn to one another for both audience and space. Virtually no critics were involved in these early performance circles, and little critical evaluation of the works was undertaken. If anything, criticism was seen as part of the art system which did not support this new medium. Many found criticism irritating, irrelevant and invalid. Early California performance allied itself very closely with life and there is a non-artful vigor in much of the best work. There was only a thin membrane separating the life of the performance from that of the artist and of his or her audience of close friends; and dividing the art from the moods, tastes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 86-96
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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