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Definition: performance art from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1971) : a nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience or onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, or painting

performance artist n


Summary Article: performance art
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Type of modern art activity presented before a live audience, and combining elements of the visual arts and the theatrical arts, such as music, video, theatre, and poetry reading. Performance art developed in the 1910s, but flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It often overlaps with other avant-garde forms of expression, particularly body art, happenings, and fluxus art. The term happening is sometimes used synonymously with performance art, but happenings are often more informal and improvised than performance art, which is usually carefully planned.

The history of performance art has been varied and colourful. The Futurists and the Dadaists often promoted their work in the 1910s with humorous or outrageous events and publicity stunts. The surrealists carried on this tradition in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the 1950s the works of the French artist Yves Klein included dragging naked women smeared with paint across a canvas on the floor of a gallery, to the accompaniment of one of his own minimalist musical compositions. It was not until the 1960s that performance art was recognized as a distinctive branch of art, and the term was first used in about 1970.

Performance art has taken many different forms, ranging from the whimsically comical to the disturbingly violent, as in the work of a group called the Vienna Actionists, members of which were arrested on several occasions for their performances involving nude participants, blood, and excrement. Sometimes performance art has been used as an addition to political activity, but it often deals with the artist's personal fantasies.

Well-known exponents of performance art include the US musician Laurie Anderson, who uses it in her music, the British team of Gilbert and George, who consider their entire lives an ongoing work of performance art, and the German Joseph Beuys, who is regarded as one of the most radical and influential artists of the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps his best-known performance was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), in which he walked round an art gallery in Düsseldorf, cradling in his arms a dead hare to which he talked about the pictures. Beuys said that this was a ‘complex tableau about the problems of language, and about the problems of thought, of human consciousness and of the consciousness of animals’. Many people, however, regard such performances as absurd and pretentious.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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