Performance ca. 1979: The Invention of an Artistic Medium and Some Consequences
Jonah Westerman, Tue. Feb. 18, 2-3pm. 220 York Street, room 001.
This talk details how the discursive invention of “performance” (circa 1979) in the pages of journals and scholarly histories dedicated to new modes of artistic activity blazed a decisive trail through roughly thirty years’ worth of critical confusion. Over that period, art historians and critics had struggled to come to terms with a postwar emphasis on process in artistic production—from Jackson Pollock’s “action painting” to the globally dispersed form of the “Happening” to Fluxus “Events” to new collaborations between the visual and performing arts (like Robert Rauschenberg’s projects with Merce Cunningham). “Performance” (as an all-encompassing term) arrived at the end of a thirty-year expansion in art and claimed this multi-faceted territory as its own. This invention of “performance” secured legitimacy for a widely disparate range of practices. This paper not only traces this process of invention, but also elaborates its unintended consequences. First, I argue that the critical construction of performance as a medium brought artistic practices designed to flout convention under the regulatory gaze of a new essentializing vision. Second (and more importantly), these artworks’ claims to social and political experimentation became limited as well, insofar as the newly codified medium privileged individuality as the site of cultural significance. Each of these disciplinary presumptions has constrained and haunted our discussions of performance art ever since.
Jonah Westerman is Assistant Professor of Art History at Purchase College, State University of New York. In 2016-17 he was Chester Dale Senior Fellow in Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From 2014-2016 he was Postdoctoral Research Associate at Tate in London, where he collaborated with Curatorial, Research, Collection Care, and Archive departments on Performance at Tate, a project that produced an institutional history, as well as new strategies for collecting, displaying, and commissioning performance. He is co-editor of Histories of Performance Documentation: Museum, Artistic, and Scholarly Practices (Routledge, 2018). Most recently, he has published an essay on work by Anne Imhof in the summer 2019 issue of Artforum and completed an article about performance and museums for the forthcoming edited volume, The Methuen Drama Companion to Performance Art (Bloomsbury, 2020). He is currently working on a book titled The Invention of Performance: An Archaeology of Contemporary Art, which historicizes and theorizes the changing meanings of the word “performance” in relation to the artworks it is meant to describe over the last forty years.