Thursday, January 24, 2008


I continue to receive comments scolding me for being too judgmental about certain art. I've always tried to follow the ancient advice of Seneca: "If you judge, investigate." So rather than repeating my own biased conclusions, perhaps it makes sense to share examples of "performance art" that helped to shape my views.
I report, you decide.

The following are direct quotes from favorable reviews that appeared in
High Performance Magazine (one of the leading journals of performance art for 20 years).

1. La Fura dels Baus

The Spanish industrial performance art group, La Fura dels Baus is so good it makes "all other industrial performance art groups stink like a Nazi pissing on the festering ashes of the Reichstag." Here is how La Fura uses performance art to provide insight into "the shit of politics:"
Two raving maniacs burst through a cinder block wall with sledge hammers....The performers come closer and I smell the unwashed suits they wear. With disgusting relish, these Hammer characters set upon three apparently harmless Slime men who have been rolling around in metal barrels chasing the audience mindlessly....Then they pour on buckets of liquid which must boil and burn for the Slime Men writhe in paroxysmal pain, horrible to behold.... I interpret the Slime men as Everyman, emerging from the dark and trying with limited faculties to organize something, anything which can be called their lives. The hammer men are oppressors.

2. "No Art" Performance

High Performance has been getting queries from other magazines wanting to know the status of Teching Hsieh's work in progress. But since July when Hsieh announced that for a year he would not do art, look at it, speak about art or think about art, we have been unable to find out any more first hand information than anyone else. Friends speculate that the piece grew out of the frustration he experienced trying to organize a one year torch-carrying piece that required a minimum of 400 recipients. Even after running full page ads in the East Village Eye and other publications, Hsieh was only able to come up with around 200 interested people, whereupon he dropped the idea and announced his "no art" piece. Fallout from the piece has been that he refuses to visit old friends because they have too much art on their walls and avoids Linda Montano, his friend and collaborator for his last year long piece in which they were tied together, because Montano is doing a seven year art/life piece in which everything she does is declared art. (italics added).

3. "I'm an Ass Man" Performance

Karen Finley's performance, "I'm an Ass Man," zeroes in on sexual tyranny, substance abuse and frustrations of marginal existence. Finley attacks New York's Eurotrash, recently moneyed and titled immigrants who flaunt their wealth and recreational drugs. At the same time she pours milk, honey and instant tea into an open purse, shakes it up, and sloppily drinks a portion...Sexual assault abounds in Finley's psychotic world....A slob at a subway station sees a fat lady and fantasizes about raping her, only to discover she is menstruating. Here, Finley opens a bottle of beets and a can of red kidney beans and pours them together, rubbing her hands in the red mess. After describing attempted child sexual abuse by an adult male on a young girl, Finley squishes several bars of melted ice cream sandwiches, smearing it all over her black dress. In graphic detail she disdainfully tells how a real "macho" man will have anal intercourse with a woman.... My main complaint is that Finley did not go far enough. This version was too short and tame....Art audiences need to be shocked because many come from sheltered middle class environments with no first hand experience in the seamier side of life.

All reviews copyright High Performance Magazine. Photo credit for Karen Finley performing her "I'm an Ass Man" art: Ira Sandler



idle. said...

David, could you please change the colors of the quotes? They were unbearable to read in my RSS aggregator and with the black background of your blog it was readable but I am still seeing the words on my retina.

Otherwise thanks a lot for your awesome blog. ^_^ Keep up the great posts.

David Apatoff said...

Sorry about that, idle-- it never even occurred to me.

If you're going to have words burned into your retina, you could do much better than these. Hope the new colors are better.

Gary Fitzgerald said...

I saw a travelogue program a year or so ago where the host visited the art school in Glasgow (Scotland), a prestigious and renown school apparently. Their "prize student" (winning accolades and awards aplenty) was a young american guy who's art was to hang upside down from ceilings/beams/furniture, thusly "challenging the way people look at things".
Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I can't really stand most of the "challenging the way people look at things" art. It's one thing to make the whole a completely different experience, like Christo (I regret not experiencing "The Gates"), but most of it isn't so much creative as it is pseudo-intellectual.

Eric said...

David, I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a moment. Although I largely share your views on performance art and the contemporary art world in general, I don't think reading a description of a performance art piece is remotely the same thing as experiencing it directly (except in the case of the "no art" sham where hearsay and rumor makes up the entirety of the work). If you had seen one of these pieces, you might (hope springs eternal) have thought it had some power or resonance. Imagine the difference between reading a description of a Sargent painting and actually seeing it. ("... the confident brushwork suggests a critique of contemporary artistic trends...")

David Apatoff said...

Eric, you have a heart as big as all outdoors. The next time I have a show, I am going to lock out all of the critics except you.

jim said...

Well, one thing you can say about the performance art crowd and their followers is that they provide a never ending source of it's not a total waste.

kev ferrara said...

David, great blog as usual.

You've hit upon a hot button topic.

There is a point where charlatans fool the public into thinking they offer something of value. There is a point beyond that where charlatans are praised for their charlatanism alone. This point in the arts was reached in the 1960s, but it was a long time in coming. But it took the dominance of "youth" of the 1960s to "uncool" judgement to such an extent that charlatanism was allowed in as an artistic "choice".

A few quotes from Warhol (who, while painting from the model with some fellow artists, I accidentally called Andy Wall-whore, and I've had trouble calling him anything since!)....

"Art is what you can get away with".

"Art is a man's name".

From his diary: "Today I wrapped a Rolls Royce in cellophane. I hope somebody finds meaning in this."

Anyhow, I live near DIA: Beacon... a warehouse, that not only protects piles of sand, and stacked wood and boring configurations of flourescent light fixtures, but also, and more importantly, protects their value by keeping them institutionalized in rare air. One can only hope the enterprise goes out of business, because it is such a beautiful space for art that with 20 great instructors and 100 eager students a new Renaissance could be launched.


Brad Sturgeon said...

There is a thin line between something having shock value as a means of making a statement, and something having shock value with no interpretable correlation between the piece and the point being made.

If one falls off the wrong side of that fence, even the art community has difficulty accepting him.

On that note I, as an artist, find most performance art to be several miles off the deep end of said fence. Oh, you're pouring icecubes over yourself while were nothing but lampshades and a poodle on your head? Congratulations, you've made it to pre-school.

As far as I'm concerned, art without meaning is like a trophy without a struggle - empty, conceited and utterly pointless.

To be clear though, David, meaning can be construed as attempted to beautifully portray something as it is.

Xyling said...

The good thing about performance art is that it exists only for that moment and is gone. After it is finished, we no longer have to tolerate it.

Baklazhan said...

I don't think all performance art is invalidated by your claims. A while ago I’ve read of a woman who's performance was to stand in front of a table inside a museum for several days. The table was covered in various items: pins, cloth, food, lipstick. A sign on the table informed the passerby that he or she was allowed to use any of the items on the artist with no protest. At first nothing happened, but after a few days people began to use the items on the table. Her clothes were ripped off, her hair cut, pins stabbed into her skin and lipstick smeared on to her face. The audience was humiliating her. The artist attempted not to show any emotion to avoid compromising the performance. She cried. Other "viewers" attempted to care for her. To me, this kind of work takes courage, and reveals much more about people than any type of literature or illustration. It's not a skill, or a craft based art. This is what separates this art from what you are accustomed to, and what causes the confusion. Perhaps the examples you have presented do not put performance in the best light.

az said...

what exactly does the kind of work you describe here reveal about people that we don't already know ad nauseam? Does it really "reveal" anything, to begin with? To me this sounds like a poor copy of some social research experiment from the '70s, without any scientific benefit of course; Would you have stabbed a pin into her skin or dressed and fed her? And what would you thereby have learned about yourself? And if you think, literature couldn't teach you a great deal more about people than such a silly little "performance" rubbish, you've probably never read a good book...

omwo said...

I have to say that I agree with the general idea that performance art is mostly rubbish, but I must object to one of the examples you gave.

I actually saw Fura dels Baus perform in Lisbon (twice) and it was a magnificent experience. Was it art? I don't know. But it sure was entertainment. It was a magnificent romp, all light and sound, maybe signifying nothing, but one hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

It was so much fun, in fact, that I never realized until you mentioned it, that it was supposed to be performance art, which I usually associate with boring pseudo-intelecual displays oh hysteria and lack of technical skill! It was technically brilliant, suspenseful, kinky (a lot of it is porn, lets face it - but good porn), they had a great domain of physical technique (lots of circus stuff happening), of special effects, of drama and timing. I'd recommend it to anyone (that isn't too squeamish, that is) looking for a good show.

But yeah, concerning the usual pedantic bullshit...let's say that I'd be tempted to use the needles on that girl just to punish her for her "art". >:->

Baklazhan said...


I think the Milgram Experiment is what you are referring to, and if you really believe that it is relevant, than I'm afraid you are missing the point. Essentially, there is nothing to reveal about human behavior that isn't stated somewhere else in one form or another. Art and other forms of creative communication as we see them today simply restate and update already known truths. Some performance art can present and idea in a way that is impossible in literature or illustration. Whether I myself have ever read any worthy books has absolutely nothing to do with it. All I'm saying is that condemning all of Performance art as "rubbish" based on a few inadequate examples {even if they make up the majority) is unfair. As far as I know Performance art has only been around for less than sixty years, it is a new medium in search for validation. I would go so far as to say that most of comic "art" is trash. But somehow the few great examples of it, many of which are on this blog, validate the entire medium. Nobody will remember work that is poorly expressed and designed; this is true of any art form. The core issue here is that illustration and comics are not getting the same recognition (and the funding) that performance art does. But that's not an issue of quality or validity; it's a marketing issue.
Thanks for proving my point!
Sorry for rambling on your blog, that's your job.

az said...

why not simply answer my question? WHAT is it, that we can learn from performance art like the one you describe? "Much more" than from "any type of literature or illustration"? What IS the "idea" behind it? I really wonder if there is any... Until now, "a few inadequate examples" (that make up the majority) are all I've got to appraise this art form; Just don't argue in such an abstract way, convince me with a good example :-)

David Apatoff said...

Thanks for all of the comments, gary, jim et. al.

Benjamin, I agree with you about Christo-- smart, hard working and thought provoking.

Omwo, I find it very interesting that you have actually seen-- and like-- Fura dels Baus. Part of the problem, I will admit, is the review I quoted rather than the performance itself-- all that nonsense about Nazis pissing-- perhaps if the reviewer had said (as you did) that it was "good porn" and a "romp" as you did, it would not have bothered me. The effort by art critics to find important political truths in their work struck me assinne.


OMWO said...

David, the truth is that even worse than the current state of art is the current state of art criticism. A lot of what is wrong today in art departments is that the sensuous beings, the visual and tactile beings, that used to devote themselves to painting, sculpting and such activities as one would usually associate with an art school, have been replaced by essentially literary creatures that prefer the sound of their comments on their own work and the work of others to the pleasures of sight and touch.
I think this started because of a certain paradox: that most art critics were themselves literary creatures, and evaluated art on literary grounds, mostly failing to understand it - at a gut level - on a purely visual level. The power of such literary critics first shaped the art world, slowly eliminating the sensual artist and finally replacing him altogether by the literary-minded artist, which dominates today. Whenever I see the long explanations that never fail to surround a modern art object (like a pack of bodyguards would protect a frail VIP unable to fend for himself), it strikes me how much more effort has gone into the description than the actual object.
La fura dels baus, on the other hand, sustains itself on purely visual, auditory, and sensual grounds, with no help of such putrid nonsense as the text you quoted. In fact I would describe it as "commercial art", in the best sense of the word. Of course, hidden layers of meanings can be put on the performance, essentially because you can do that about anything, but to me I find it nice that the experience was such that could stand on its own two legs, without any other justification beyond how gorgeously fun it all was.

David Apatoff said...

Baklazhan and Az, I've been thinking about your exchange.

I was not trying to invalidate all performance art with this posting. There is nothing wrong with performance art as a concept, but so far the performance art that I am aware of runs out of gas very quickly. Baklazhan, you say that performance art has only been around for sixty years, but that is far longer than the average life span of most major art trends of the 20th century. Cubism, dadaism, abstract expressionism, pop art and other major trends all had a cogent philosophy and were developing major works within just a few years. In 60 years, performance art still seems to be flummoxing around with a lot of silliness. Worse, the critics who try to draw meaning from it seem both pretentious and puerile (which was really the point of this posting). Maybe it is really the critics more than the artists that I am railing against.

With respect to the performance art you are describing, it reminds me of a yoko ono piece where a woman stood on a stage in a dress and members of the audience were allowed to come up with a pair of scissors and cut away pieces until there was nothing left. On the one hand, I agree with az that you can observe the same kind of treatment (and victimization) of people just by watching people interact in relationships every day. You can read about it in novels. It's not clear what this art form reveals that other art forms (or every day life) cannot. On the other hand, the purpose of much art is to isolate and purify emotions and reactions that we have in every day life, so that they can be felt more intensely and perhaps understood better. I don't question that the scenario you describe could be an informative distillation of what we see in diluted form every day. In that capacity, it would have value (at least for me). But performance art so often teeters on the brink of antic buffoonery, I think there is a special burden on performance artists if they want to be taken seriously.

Baklazhan said...

AZ- I don't think I'm arguing in an abstract way. I'm simply saying that performance art is different from other forms of art in that within a small audience, an observer is within the space of the art. An observer is an actual participant of the act through being an observer. When you look at a painting read a book, listen to music even, it's easier to become disconnected from the message being conveyed. Looking at a picture of somebody about to get shot will effect you differently than if you were actually there, either as an observer or a participant. Pardon the analogy, I just can't think of a better way to describe it. As far as learning from performance art, I did not mean to insinuate that art has to have some sort of conceptual or educational base for it to be art (as far as it's general meaning). It doesn't.

Mr. Apatoff- I think that today it's pretty clear that Performance art is more than just another trend. Most art historians would agree that it's a form of art with it's own divisions and history. As such, I doubt that it owes its popularity to entirely to the critics and proponents. From my point of view art critics from all sides of the spectrum carry their own pretentious agenda on their sleeve: you have to in order to be a critic. What can performance art reveal that other forms of art can't? It's not about "revealing" something as much as it is restating. As I mentioned earlier, performance art has a certain edge that can be misused, that's why allot of it is terrible. But it's foolish to deny that it has potential to be a very complex and effective form of creative communication in the future.

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David Apatoff said...

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Thanks for taking the time and personal care to write in.

Jack Ruttan said...

That will happen (spam).

But unless you can make a good argument for the bad art pushing out the good, or at least damaging the art that you like, then what's the matter with stuff going on that you don't like? No one's forcing you to see it.

There are always going to be boundaries for people to challenge. At least that's the way things are today, rather than anonymous masters ringing the umpteen millionth variation on "Madonna with Child."

Fine art has left the mainstream, and possibly needs another genius or movement to help it catch fire with the public again. Also there are all those huge sums that make commercial artists angry.

Still, I think all the strains feed into the culture. Hard to tell if there's decadence or decline when you're in the middle of it. If this were a hundred or so years ago, would you be complaining about Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde?

David Apatoff said...

Jack, the spam doesn't bother me (I thought it was kind of neat and appropriate for a discussion of performance art) so I don't want to overstate the way in which these other performances irritate me.

The pact I have with performance art is that it is allowed to say whatever it wants, and in exchange I get to say whatever I want. I would never suggest that it be censored. Quite the contrary, I genuinely enjoy reading them because I think many are so funny and jejeune, and I like sharing them with people who get the joke.

I do keep my eyes and ears open for occasional wisps of merit (and I pay special attention when readers like omwo say they actually witnessed and enjoyed a performance).

Jack Ruttan said...

It would be boring if everyone said everything is "great" for the sake of some ideal of diversity. Still, monolithic movements tend to take over, and determine what gets shown.

So one era's all about impressionists, the next cubism, then abstract impressionism, then pop -- end of story. This is the small-mindedness of people who think about art.

A very sad story for me was during my year at the Banff School for Fine Arts, and important critics from Europe were coming down to tour the studios. They completely ignored anyone who was doing painting, because to them, Canadian art was all about "site-specific installations" that year.

Karen Findley, and other shock performance types such as Monty Cantsin (sort of a floating pseudonym for a number of different artists) have been lightning rods for the "isn't modern art outrageous" morally hysterical group since the early '90s, but they haven't inspired hordes of followers. I wouldn't be frightened of them.

I think an element of transgression helps keep art alive, as in the punk, and "fort thunder" movements, all of which have had their equivalents since the time of William Blake, at least. Maybe this "chocolate-coated Irishwoman" to use a funny phrase from the Villiage Voice a long while back, will inspire an interesting illustrator, the way modern composers and dance inspired visual artist in the early 20th century.

I've always liked performance art, (which to me is closer to dance than visual art) because the descriptions never matched up with what took place, so you never knew what you were going to see. Your mileage may vary, though.