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In issue 83, Wayne Roosa writes about a surprising conversation with his art history students about the parallels between Old Testament prophets and contemporary performance artists—a conversation that led to a new way of looking at performance work. We asked him about this art genre, one that many viewers find hard to connect with. 


Image: I want to engage with performance art but I often find it intimidating or weird. How do I start to make myself a more sympathetic viewer?


Wayne Roosa: Good question, and the first helpful thing is just what your question admits. Performance art can be weird, extreme, transgressive, or puzzling. It often is supposed to be, given its grounding in a protesting mentality. Two things are important for accessing this kind of work. One: understand what the medium is. Namely, instead of pictures on the wall that keep their distance, the media here are real time, real bodies, our shared space, and a kind of dramatic or symbolic action that operates in what the artist Robert Rauschenberg called “the gap between art and life.” Two: try to see all this as both a real and a symbolic event, one that works like a parable or a metaphor. Even though performance artists want to shake us awake via their real presence in our space, the work is still a symbolic action that embodies something about the human condition of being here in the world’s troubles and pleasures.

So it’s okay to be a bit intimidated or weirded-out. That means you are getting it and are engaged. This medium intends to engage you very directly. Later you have to sort each performance piece out and decide if its message holds up, if its method fit the intent and succeeded, if it moved you, offended you, or just made you giggle. Many performance works are very powerful, but many are, in hindsight, a bit ludicrous or pretentious. Just as many paintings are great but many more fall short.


Image: What is going on in your head and senses when you encounter a performance work you haven’t seen before? What are the things you’re paying attention to? What are the questions you’re asking or processes that are happening in you?


WR: Mostly I am just trying to be perceptive—that is, to let myself actually see and experience what is happening on its own terms without prejudging. Because performance art is different from art on a wall in a gallery or museum; it is easy for the mind and emotions to have reactions, to throw up barriers that make it harder to simply look at what is happening and take it in. Afterwards is when I ask questions and process.

An undergraduate poetry professor of mine used to tell us to ask three questions about every poem: “What was said?” “How was it said?” and “Was it worth saying?” I like these questions as a very direct way into performance art. But it is really important to take care with the second one—how it was done—because we are less familiar or conversant in this medium.


Image: Are there any additional concepts that you find useful in looking at performance art?


WR: If one accepts the basic premise of performance (it is a medium operating between actual life and traditional art), then it helps to ask if the artist really worked in those terms. As with any media that work in real time, the artist is asking you to invest your thought, emotions, and time in a vulnerable way. I expect a reward for my investment. I expect the work to be distilled enough, focused enough, thought-through enough that it succeeds on an abstract, metaphoric level at the same time that it invades my space. Too much performance work is amateurish. It is really easy for it to be self-indulgent, self-promoting, or banal. So what I look for is work that makes me see something about the human condition in a new way, where that new way required performance, where that immediacy alters me due to its being in my space.


Image: Can you put on your art-history teacher hat for a minute and put performance art in a context for us? When and where did it originate, and against what kind of backdrop?


WR: Its short, or modernist, history emerges out of an avant-garde attitude of the early twentieth century, when artists felt that society was sleepily and complacently holding a very bourgeois set of mores and assumptions about art, namely that it was about beauty and decoration. Artists felt a need to break out of traditional and safe aesthetic spaces (an easel painting on a wall, a sculpture on a pedestal, a play on a stage) and enter the viewer’s lived space in order to shock and awaken. The Dada movement around and after World War I staged events that broke into the viewer’s space. So did the Italian futurists between around 1909 and 1914. These artists sometimes jumped off stage and assaulted the audience. Then the Fluxus movement, which went international in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, pushed this with many public events. In the ’50s and ’60s in the United States, Fluxus and beat generation artists began using the term “happenings” for their spontaneous and planned events.

But there is also a deeper history with one foot in social and political action and another foot in religious preaching, ritual, and revivals. If the modernist history is grounded in the notion of the avant-garde, this deeper history is grounded in the notion of prophetic confrontation and proclamation. That is an ancient tradition sometimes referred to as “sacred discontent.” From the weird symbolic actions of the Old Testament prophets through the medieval tradition of morality plays to street preachers and tent revivalists, this tradition played an important role in moral proclamation. Herbert Schneidau, in his very interesting book Sacred Discontent, suggests that the avant-garde continues sacred discontent from a more secular or materialist perspective.


Image: What other resonances do you see between performance art and religion?


WR: Both are often about challenging us ethically, socially, and spiritually. Both are participatory. In religion, you attend and take part—you wear white robes and get dunked underwater in front of the congregation, you sing, sway, and clap, you stand up and sit down, you greet others, you shout “amen” (or least say it quietly in your head), you agree or disagree with the message because you believe it to have direct application to how you live and treat others. And you expect that the preacher will confront you, will summon you out of your comfort zone into a more radical and engaged role as a person come Monday morning.

Performance art occurs in a more secular setting, but it also is participatory. You watch the artists do things right in front of you that are not “normal,” ranging from talking to you to offending you to removing their clothing to eating odd things. They may involve you directly or implicitly. They expect you to engage and change, even as you accept that their more aggressive role, not unlike that of preacher or prophet, is permitted, within the structure of the medium, to challenge you. And in both cases, you understand the things that happen as bothlife events and symbolic events, working on you in a liminal zone between polite museum or church attendance and social protests or riots out in the street.


Image: Do you need to be there to “get” a performance work, or can it be understood through photos and description?


WR: Yes and no. Yes, because the nature of the medium is so direct and can’t be repeated. It is temporal. But no, because through the documentation and the oral tradition that is then written about, the intent of the piece lives on and gets interpreted. So it still does significant work for those who were not present. I would have loved to hear Homer reciting his poetry, or witness Isaiah preaching naked in Israel, but both still affect me through the long midrash of criticism, performance, and debate.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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