The future of performance art

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Artist Sarah Hill during performance art piece "I'm Fine". Photo documentation by Patrick Altman at Le Lieu, centre en art actuel, Québec, Canada.

Last week, news of Jay-Z’s pop up appearance in Chelsea’s Pace Gallery littered the internet with Vine video posts and tweets about the rapper’s six-hour performance of “Picasso Baby,” from his latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail. The story’s circulation reached a new height when the queen of performance art herself, Marina Abromović, shared the stage with Hova.

The bizarre dance between the two seemed to press a stamp of approval on the stunt. Even notoriously combative art critic Jerry Saltz was surprisingly entertained and impressed by the piece, writing in Vulture, “I went in doubting. I left elated. Any performer who can get a room full of strangers chanting, ‘Picasso baby’ over and over again is good in my book. Better yet, Jay-Z even got me to actually start liking Marina Abramović. That's art.”

The crowd of participating art world luminaries shared Saltz’s supportive sentiment. “It’s great how he has really recreated the whole MoMA feel,” said artist Marcel Dzama to the New York Times, referencing Abromović’s 2010 exhibition, "The Artist is Present," which inspired the hip-hop mogul’s charade. While New York may be convinced that this act of appropriation is art, practicing artists view it as red flag.

“I think it’s another way to make it [art] commodifiable,” says performance artist Sarah Hill in response to Jay-Z’s act, “I don’t agree with it.”  Hill’s current project “I’m Fine,” which will be performed at Little Berlin on June 27th, is reflective of an artist who has experience in the field. Versed in multiple art forms, including video instillation and animation, and armed with a degree in painting, Hill has been performing internationally for over four years. But Hill, unlike Jay-Z, didn’t wake up and decide to be a performance artist nor did the profession come with a built-in fan base.

Jay-Z is not the only celebrity dabbling in performance-based conceptual art. Who can forget Tilda Swinton’s nap at the MoMA in April, and more recently Milla Jovovich’s Plexiglas box in Barnabo garden at this summer’s Venice Biennale? There is a trend emerging, and though the elite appear to be eating it up, welcoming the media attention that these performances are bringing to galleries and institutions, we must ask ourselves: is this really performance art?

Like any conceptual art form, performance art does not have a conclusive definition. A formal understanding of it developed in the mid '60s with pioneers like Carolee Scheemann and Yoko Ono who challenged the boundaries of orthodox performance approaches. Often described as the antithesis to theater, the interdisciplinary practice holds a strong relationship with visual arts, drawing from a slew of modern art movements including Dadaism and Fluxus.

Context and content play crucial roles in a piece of performance art. These two elements have served as a rule of measure in both understanding and interpreting a work of this form. When we look at Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” it’s evident that there is little going on beyond the surface. Granted the act was intended for a music video, but as the rapper’s art advisor, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, told journalists, “Jay has been wanting to do something durational for some time.” Yet regardless of duration, the performance is void of substance and therefore a source of entertainment as opposed to an actual piece of performance art.

Of course this point is debatable. After all, art is ultimately subjective and, as Saltz hinted at, the effect Jay-Z had on the art world during those six hours could be considered a work of art within itself. But that’s a bit of a stretch and, as far as we know, “Picasso Baby” and similar performance attempts, are just emulating what they recognize as performance art. So why is the art world interested in promoting celebrity art? How has this become a trend?

“Art museums are in crisis and they are really trying to bring in audiences,” says Annie Wilson, a local experimental choreographer and performer, who partially attributes the trend to a marketing scheme, “bringing celebrities in catches people’s attention.” Wilson has experience both inside and outside of performance arts, and recently hosted her experimental work, At the Gloaming with the Hipster Shaman, in Philadelphia’s SoLow Festival.

In the past decade museums have been rethinking their approaches, and depending less and less on provocative art pieces and attention-getting exhibitions. Instead they are embracing new ways to relate to the public and making adjustments to compete with other forms of entertainment. In the same vein, institutions have been altering admission fees and creating more feeless programing. We’ve seen these efforts taking place in our own backyard. Just this past February the Philadelphia Museum of Art introduced pay-what-you-want Wednesdays to their programming.

But blurring the lines between entertainment and art is not the solution, especially when there are artists who are struggling for opportunities and financial backing to support their work. The future of funding for the arts must be considered when discussing the relationship between celebrity and performance art. “Will performance artists receive more funding because their art is more accessible and popular, or will the funding only go to established names now?” asks Meghann Williams, one of SoLow’s administrators. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the repercussions of this influx of celebrity participation on the performing arts world is.”

It’s a scary thought—pop culture commandeering genres of art for marketing purposes and celebrities using it to expand their brands—but hopefully, like most trends, this will soon fall out of fashion. Until then, performance artists like Sarah Hill continue to practice their discipline. For more details on Hill’s upcoming event, long on to Little Berlin’s website.

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