Marina Abramović's The Artist is Present, 2010, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abramović sat opposite museum visitors for eight hours a day, without speaking, for a total of 750 hours.
Performance Art, Entertainment, and Celebrity
By Philip Auslander
In 1983, I wrote a still unpublished essay on the relationships among performance art, theater, and entertainment forms. I was responding to a number of trends of the time. While some performance artists seemed determined to eschew theatricality and entertainment value in their work, others embraced theatricality, but produced work that often was indistinguishable from dance, music, or even stand-up comedy and frequently seemed derivative of artists who worked in those forms. Calling this work performance art was a way of distancing the art world from the world of entertainment. This is what I said back then:
In describing him- or herself as a performance artist, a performer defines the audience to which his or her work is geared, not the work itself, and makes it clear that he or she should not be taken for a mere actor or entertainer. The form, content and theme of much performance art closely parallels the work of such innovative entertainers as George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and the Firesign Theatre. . . . In its usual contexts, this kind of material is considered entertainment; presented to an art world audience, it becomes (performance) Art.
To some degree, the hostility toward theatricality and entertainment that I detected in the work of those performance artists who either refused to entertain or embraced theatricality on condition that their work not be confused with entertainment persists to this day. For example, the self-appointed doyenne of performance art, Marina Abramovic, is given to making pronouncements like,
To be a performance artist, you have to hate theater. Theater is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.
The bright red line Abramovic draws here between performance art and theater belies her penchant for theatricality in her own work, her larger than life persona, and her participation in the lavish theatre piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, directed by Robert Wilson, in which she played herself (The Art Section covered this production in two articles). It nevertheless represents a continued desire to cordon off performance art—and the art world--from the worlds of theater and entertainment.
The incursion of theatricality into Abramovic’s work, despite her refusal of it, is perhaps the long-term result of a trend that was only just beginning in the early 1980s when I engaged in my ruminations: the emergence of what RoseLee Goldberg would call the “media generation” in her standard history, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (2001). Goldberg’s rubric refers to performance artists whose work engaged directly with a mass-mediated cultural landscape. Even if the intentions behind this engagement were critical, these artists did not distance themselves from mass culture or claim to be commenting on it from the outside.
Made For TV (part 2) : Video by Tom Rubnitz.
Ann Magnuson, omnipresent on the downtown New York art and club scenes of the early 1980s as a singer, club manager, and performance artist, showcased her abilities in Made for TV (1981) in collaboration with video artist Tom Rubnitz. In a video that simulates a restless viewer’s relentless channel surfing through a fictional TV landscape, Magnuson, the only performer, portrays fifty characters including a news anchor, a televangelist, a cooking show instructor, the star of a sit-com, and a film noir femme fatale. Magnuson developed some of the characters that appear in the televisual flow, notably Anoushka, a Soviet lounge singer, in her club performances. The style of the video is campy and excessive, and its critique of television culture is so blatant as to become (intentionally?) self-parodying (for example, Magnuson portrays a cultural critic who becomes apoplectic over the idea that people are watching “too much of Fritz the Cat and too little of the zoomorphic images of Romanesque art!”). In the last few minutes, the editing becomes faster and faster as if to reflect the channel surfer’s descent into a psychotic frenzy. Throughout it all, Magnuson never overplays or condescends to her characters, no matter how exaggerated or absurd they are, making the video both pointed and entertaining.
Ann Magnuson as the Televangelist in Made for TV (1981). Video by Tom Rubnitz. Photo courtesy of mubi.com.
In 1983, Laurie Anderson unfurled her masterwork United States I-IV, a monumental eight-hour performance that stretched over two nights, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Although an epic performance evoking a journey across the country in search of a sense of home in numerous songs, stories, and vignettes with no direct connections to one another may sound more demanding than entertaining, Anderson’s embrace of theatricality, if not of dramatic narrative, and of a potentially mass audience were apparent. The theatricality of Anderson’s work lay both in its visual splendor, achieved largely through the use of rear-projected imagery, which sometimes evoked the spectacle of a rock concert, as did her use of musical technology, and her droll story-teller’s persona, which Anderson herself likens to that of a stand-up comic. Although United States was not filmed, Anderson’s film of a related performance, Home of the Brave (1987) provides a sense of what her work was like at this time.
Laurie Anderson Home Of The Brave 1986
Anderson had been playing violin in her performance art work and recording songs since the mid-1970s. The unexpected success of her single, “O Superman” in the UK led to her being signed by Warner Brothers Records, for which she would ultimately record seven albums between 1982 and 1995 before moving to Nonesuch Records. United States thus originated at an intersection between the art world and the world of mass culture. Although Anderson performed the work in part or whole largely at museums and art world venues for several years, she had already forged the relationship with a major entertainment company that would lead to its being published as a five-LP set and a trade book by HarperCollins.
Laurie Anderson, United States I-IV (1983). © Laurie Anderson. Photo Courtesy of medienkuntznetz.de.
Magnuson and Anderson both exemplify performance artists of the 1980s who embraced theatricality and entertainment value in their work. Both also enjoyed “cross-over” success: Anderson as a musician and recording artist, Magnuson as a film and television actor (though Magnuson describes herself as a performance artist and has said that her work in Hollywood supports her performance art work). They, and other like-minded performance artists, productively straddled the line between the art world and the entertainment world, finding audiences on both sides of the line. As performer Tim Miller said of Anderson, “Performance art has a tradition of boredom, of extended time, of repetition. People didn't want to have anything to do with it. That's why Laurie is so important. She's popular, but epic; showbiz, but avant-garde.”
Fast-forwarding almost thirty years, we can see that the divide between performance art and entertainment, already contested in the 1980s, had been shored up, only to be contested again, this time in relation to the prospect of the performance artist not just as an entertainer, but as a celebrity, and the question of the art world’s relationship to celebrity culture. Abramovic’s anti-theatrical declaration, quoted above, comes from 2010, when there was a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for which she also staged a new piece, The Artist is Present. Even as she took her stand against theatricality, her work became as hot as any ticket on Broadway. Half a million people attended the retrospective, while 800,000 people watched The Artist is Present online. 1,400 people participated in the piece by sitting opposite the artist and treated the event like a rock concert by a major artist: lines stretched around the block; people camped out over night to be assured a place. Many art critics regarded this phenomenon with bemusement, regretting that the museum had seemingly become subject to the machinations of celebrity culture.
Tilda Swinton, The Maybe (2013). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images.
Parallel to Abramovic’s becoming a celebrity by staging herself as such through performance art is the phenomenon of celebrities from other fields gravitating toward performance art as a form. Since 1995, but particularly since 2009, actors Tilda Swinton, James Franco, Milla Jovovich, Joaquin Phoenix, and Shia LaBoeuf have all created works of performance art in art world settings, including major museums, as have musicians Jay Z and Lady Gaga. (Abramovic has been something of an éminence grise in this development, since she has worked with Franco, performed with Jay Z, and enlisted Lady Gaga to appear in a promotional video for her Marina Abramovic Institute.) The art critical establishment has expressed disdain in the face of this phenomenon, dismissing celebrities from other realms as unqualified to undertake performance in the art world.
Lady Gaga, Sleeping with Gaga, September 13, 2012. Fame Eau de Parfum Launch, Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage.
Abramovic is an important, yet paradoxical figure in performance art’s ongoing flirtation with entertainment and celebrity. The intensity and physical demands of her work underscore her connection to the performance, endurance, and body art associated with the 1960s and 1970s in which she was a participant and of which she remains a living exemplar. This kind of performance was highly resistant to entertainment value and celebrity, but it yielded a great many iconic images of performers, including Abramovic, through which both they and their work are best known. As Sharon Marcus points out in “Celebrity 2.0: The Case of Marina Abramovic,” celebrity always entails a dialectic of presence and representation in which iconic representations of the celebrity create the desire to experience that person’s presence. The iconicity of Abramovic’s work, restated through both the performance reenactments in her retrospective and The Artist is Present, is perhaps one reason why she was able to use the Museum of Modern Art as a platform on which to launch her celebrity. As resistant as many artists and critics are to the ever-increasing porousness of the boundaries between the art world, the entertainment world, and celebrity culture, the drive of performers like Ann Magnuson and Laurie Anderson to make performance art less hermetic and more accessible to a broader audience in the 1980s, the interest celebrity actors and musicians now take in doing performance art, and Abramovic’s achievement of celebrity through performance art all suggest that the breaching of those boundaries is inevitable.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. His seventh book, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
Here's the link for the book: