What is Performance Art?

There are no rules to break with performance art, because there aren’t any. This would lead one to assume that it is a farce. Sometimes it is.

Performance art encompasses so much territory that it almost consumes itself. Anything goes, and that includes an artist not showing up. I have a friend in Berlin who actually posts elaborate, expensive posters for his shows and does not show up to perform. People pay admission, sit down and wait for something to happen. And things do happen. A room full of strangers, for the most part, sit and start talking to each other. With time on their hands, frustration and confusion in their brains, they try to collectively figure out what happened. When they exit, they are given double their money back. Sometimes this artist has the whole thing taped. It has now become somewhat of a “happening” in and of itself. A party. A place to meet people who like performance art and discuss issues of the day.

I offer this example because I think it conveys what we’re dealing with. If you think you “have the right” to the normal expectations of an audience member, you’re mistaken. And that, I think, is the main difference between “legitimate” theater and performance art and cabaret — a form of performance art that always includes music and signing.

Performance art, in the worst sense, is considered an umbrella term protecting those without talent from scrutiny if they rub chocolate over their bodies while reading their dead mother’s poetry. Cabaret is portrayed as the approximation made famous in the Liza Minnelli movie of the New York version of the art form — that is, Robert Goulet headlining at the Algonquin.

Cabaret is not Robert Goulet. It is not Bobby Short or Karen Akers. The art of cabaret, which evolved during the Weimar-era of Berlin as a reaction to pre-WWII fascism, is “bracingly literate” and “musically challenging” in Kurt Weill’s words and based on “terrible honesty,” a phrase coined by Raymond Chandler to describe the obsession that modernist artists of the ’20s had with the naked truth. (I want to remind you that the truth is often hilarious, which is why performance art, cabaret and stand-up comedy are incestuous cousins.)

Cabaret differs from performance art, as I mentioned, in that there is always music involved, much of it sardonic, profane, biting, satirical, in-your-face. It bears comparison with jazz in that it’s musical and improvisational.

Cabaret “happens” because per se in an intimate space, a soiree of sorts. The performer acts as an impresario, MC, party host. Sometimes audience members spontaneously soap box their cause with a poem, song, vignette — a dance. Discussions sometimes ensue, or a fight. (The much misunderstood performance artist Lenny Bruce used to say that his considered his performance a failure if a fight didn’t break out.) That’s a bit much, but upon conception cabaret was an outrageous revolt against Victorian hangers-on, and very bourgeoise.

Although all art is subjective, it’s tough to review or measure that capability of performance. Many times the value of the work does not immediately reveal itself — as in life, when a rough experience turns out to be a windfall of luck. It’s a head trIP, and your head is the trip. It tells you more about who you are, then what it is. (People learn a lot about their ability to be patient, forgiving, humored, and adaptable when faced with my Berlin friend’s empty stage.)

Performance art and cabaret create an environment where the boundary between audience and performer is often blurred or maladjusted. Performers, whose only historical context is to tell the truth, to hell with the consequences, are not everybody’s cup of tea. They ask that we think about what we think and why we should think it.

Should we care about what we think and why we think it? That’s a personal choice. Performance art asks that you take off your protective blinders and challenge the herd mentality — whether the herd is red, blue or purple.

In the midst of a swirling mess of absurd questionings — offered up cold and hard, without the security of textbooks, Bible, script, town meeting agenda, program guide, or philosophic manifesto — a completely independent idea that has previously eluded us may surface in our minds and cause a revelation. Under the conditions of these art forms, revelations occur, as they do in “legitimate” theater, when audience and performer(s) conclude, with either shame or pride, that they are not, after all, alone.

Audiences in this country must continue to grant artists the freedom they need to venture through unknown territory without the confines of a map, but there has to be an audience.

Hope to see you there. Maybe.


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