What is a Performance Artist?

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Photo Source: Gerry Deiter/Joan Athey

From Yoko Ono’s conceptual bodily performances to Natacha Stolz’s SpaghettiOs exhibition that flummoxed the netizens of the early aughts, performance art is equal parts avant-garde, action-oriented, and controversial. While the art form differs from traditional performance in several key ways, its unconventional approach can be helpful for actors hoping to expand and deepen their repertoires.


What is performance art?

performance artYoann MORIN/Shutterstock

Though the bounds of any art form are nebulous, the defining factor of performance art is provocative action carried out to make a point. The artist’s execution of this action—motivated by specific, often political, principles—is itself the artwork. Performance art often combines disciplines such as acting, dance, and music outside of their traditional confines. Reciting the “to be or not to be” monologue during a production of “Hamlet” is acting; reciting the “to be or not to be” monologue for 24 hours straight on the steps of a government building is performance art. Different from a painting or piece of music, performance art is created live and in the moment, leaving no tangible “finished product.” 

Performance art has roots steeped in futurism, “happening,” Fluxus, Dadaism, and the avant-garde—all of which seek to shake the foundations of what is traditionally considered art. The genre reached peak prominence alongside the 1970s counterculture movement. Today, it is often associated with immersive theater, as well as endurance, corporeal, conceptual, and feminist art. 

The primary characteristics of performance art are: 

  • Presence in time and space: Because it must be conducted live, performance art captures what philosopher Walter Benjamin calls the “aura,” or an artwork’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Performance art might be rehearsed ahead of time or completely improvised, but it is always contingent upon the artist’s engagement with a live audience.
  • Artist-centered: This art form requires the artist’s body and active presence.
  • Experiential: Causing a reaction from the audience—whether shock, awe, contemplation, or enjoyment—is integral to performance art.
  • Intertextual: Performance artists draw inspiration from a variety of art forms, current events, and historical movements. This creates a dialogic, intertextual web that responds to other artworks and artists, history, and ideologies.

Performance art vs. performing arts

Performance artistPowerofflowers/Shutterstock

The “performing arts” is an umbrella term for any artistic discipline meant to be learned and then carried out in front of an audience. Examples include acting, dance, music, opera, puppetry, and mime. Performance art is a subset of the performing arts, specifically one where the act of carrying out a concept becomes the artwork. 

Although they sound similar, performance art distinguishes itself in the following ways:

  • Performance art is conceptual: Performance art tends to lean conceptual, while the performing arts are more skills-based. Of course, performing arts can also be conceptual, and performance artists are often highly skilled; but the impetus behind the art creates the delineation between the two.
  • Performance art is fluid: While other branches of the performing arts define themselves—musicians create music, actors act, and so on—performance artists seek to create art from unexpected action. 
  • Performance art is site-specific to the artist: Although performance artists might reprise and adapt other works, the site of the performance is usually the artist’s own body in relation to the space it inhabits. Performing arts tends to be site-specific based on the type of production (plays in a theater, singing in a stadium, acting on set, etc.).
  • Performance art is interactive: While performing arts are usually enjoyed by an audience of passive recipients, performance art transforms audience members into active participants. This makes performance art what literary theorist Roland Barthes deems a “writerly” text: a work that engages the audience in constructing its meaning. 

Despite these differences, actors and other performers can benefit greatly from studying performance art. The art form’s focus on the conceptual, the artist’s body and movements, and variations of immersion, interactivity, and improvisation are helpful to traditional performers who want to add more depth and texture to their work.

Performance art examples

Time Clock Piece performance artCourtesy UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

“Cut Piece”: Yoko Ono implicated viewers in the objectifying gaze in this early piece by inviting audience members onstage to cut clothes off her motionless body.

“I Like America and America Likes Me”: Joseph Beuys spent three days wrapped in felt and living with a live coyote as a statement on the legacy of intergenerational trauma in America.

“Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980-1981)”: Tehching Hsieh drew a line between artistic pursuit and the monotony of labor by recording himself punching into a time-clock in his studio every hour on the hour for a year. 

“The House with the Ocean View”: Refusing to eat or talk for 12 days, Marina Abramović created a conceptual statement about restriction and purification. 

“The Pandrogeny Project”: In this ongoing performance piece, partners Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye underwent parallel surgical body modifications in an  attempt to become a single entity named “Breyer P-Orridge.” 

Famous performance artists

Yoko Ono art360b/Shutterstock

Yoko Ono: Beyond “Cut Piece,” Ono is also known for the collaborative “Bed-In” and instructional “Grapefruit,” which asked the audience to engage in the performance under the conceit of following directions.

Marina Abramović: With works exploring the intersections of endurance and performance, artist and audience, Abramović is best known for the “Rhythm” series, “Seven Easy Pieces,” “The Artist is Present,” “House,” and her collaborations with artist Ulay.

Joseph Beuys: Inspired by the Fluxus movement, Beuys’ pieces often incorporated animal elements. In addition to the coyote in “America,” he made repeated use of dead hares in “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” and “The Chief—Fluxus Chant.” 

Allan Kaprow: The artist who gave the name to “happenings” used pieces like “Words,” “Eat,” and “Yard” to deconstruct the boundary between audience and performer. 

Chris Burden: Famed for his interrogation of the line between danger and art, Burden asked an assistant to shoot him in the arm during “Shoot,” and had nails hammered into his hands crucifixion-style during “Trans-fixed.” 

Pussy Riot: Feminist collective Pussy Riot uses highly political performance art to criticize the practices of the Russian government. In “Putin Zassal,” they lit a smoke bomb during a musical performance, and during “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” they jumped on the altar of a Russian Orthodox church.