Performance art is a joke. Taken terribly seriously by the art world, it is a litmus test of pretension and intellectual dishonesty. If you are wowed by it, you are either susceptible to pseudo-intellectual guff, or lying.
Is that overstating the case? Probably. There have been some powerful works of performance art – but most of them took place a long time ago, in the early 1970s, when the likes of Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden were risking all. Or perhaps the golden age of performance art was even longer ago, in the days of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Back then, Dada performance was a real menace to society, when Hugo Ball stood in a wizard costume declaiming words that made as little sense as the world war then raging.
Today, most art that claims to part of this modern tradition of performance is an embarrassing revelation of the art world’s distance from real aesthetic values or real human life. Take, for instance, the latest nude egg layer from Germany.
Performance artist Milo Moiré creates abstract paintings by pushing eggs filled with paint and ink out of her vaginal canal. She does this while standing naked in front of an audience. The nudity, apparently, is artistically essential. As for the act of pushing paint-filled eggs out of her body, it is – as no doubt you perceive – a powerful feminist statement about women, fertility and creativity.
And yet it’s not a strong statement at all. It is absurd, gratuitous, trite and desperate. Anywhere but an art gathering, this would be regarded as a satire on modern cultural emptiness.
And this is the thing about performance art – it has quite rightly become the stuff of satire. When the film director Paolo Sorrentino wants to capture the brittleness of contemporary European culture in his film The Great Beauty, what does he show? Performance art, naturally. A group of arty folk watch as a woman runs towards a stone aqueduct and bashes her head against it. Afterwards she struggles to explain herself in an embarrassing interview.
Yet in mocking the art world’s weakest tic, its indulgence of ludicrous performers, Sorrentino is not even that original. It’s an old joke that fits his nostalgic mood. As long ago as the 1970s, performance art was already comical. The perfect satire on it was created by the Muppet Show when the Great Gonzo bashes a rock with a hammer while shouting “Art!”
Performance art is funny for a very simple reason – it takes itself more seriously than appears justified. Anything that takes itself seriously invites mockery, from politics to religion: but when the gap between ostentatious importance and self-evident silliness is as vast as it is in so much performance art, the only honest response is laughter. Add to this the pomposity of an art cult that defends such stuff against the mockery of the multitude, and you have a recipe for biting satire.
If performance art did not exist, bile-filled commentators on the modern world would have to invent it. For what else so perfectly captures the cultural inanity of our time?
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