In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Performance Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Exhibitions
  • Journals
  • Modernist Avant-Garde Performance
  • Performativity
  • Reenactment

Art History Performance Art
Kristine Stiles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0047


This article offers a wide range of resources for understanding the rich genealogy of global performance art that emerged as a discrete genre within experimental art in the post-1945 period. While the historic avant-garde initiated performance as a theatrical genre in the visual arts before World War II, live art appeared internationally in relation to the physical act of painting and in reponse to artists’ augmentation of viewer interaction in the early 1950s. The use of the body in art may also be understood as a response to the ontological threat of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons and to unprecedented changes in society and culture, including advances in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, from the advent of poststructuralist thought to the etiology of trauma, and breakthroughts in genetic and biomedical engineering. From its inception, live, performed art included all variety of media: photography and film, slide projection, kinetic sculpture, and eventually the addition of radio and television, video, digital media, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the Internet, and social media. Many performance artists introduced animals in their work, while others protested this aspect. Artists creating performances also played a precipitating role in the use of human and animal fluids, live tissues, living organisms, and bacteria in art, as well as in the development of bioart, which followed scientific breakthroughs in cloning, DNA sequencing, and biomedicine. These discoveries led to social transformations such as the alteration of gender, sexual transitions in which performance artists have also been at the forefront. In what some have theorized as the post- or trans-human era of techno-scientific amplifications of the body, performance art has been responsive to the cyborg age, corporeal enhancement and redesign, uploaded forms of consciousness, implant and wearable computers, and an array of mental and physical supplements that increasingly render the body ambiguously human. However hybrid, performance art is foremost a medium of the body in all its aspects and augmented states. The very presentation of the body raises ethical questions regarding social mores that determine cultural concepts, from identity, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and class to a host of other social constructions. Recognizing the artist’s subject-to-subject relation to a viewer, artists using their bodies initiated participatory involvement with the public. Such interaction was intrinsic to the very definition of a “happening,” from which much performance art that encourages direct social response has evolved. Performance art engages the public in questioning institutional forms of oppression, from patriarchy, racism, and the moral strictures of the heteronormative family to organized religion and nationalism; and from capitalism and communism to war and global colonization. In many respects, performance art has been a practice of artists on the Left, some of whom have run afoul of the law by challenging conventional, yet controversial, social norms. Causing controversy associated worldwide with the “culture wars” such actions have led to widespread misconceptions about the medium, including the presumption that a performance is identical with the life of the artist. But while an event in an artist’s life, art actions diverges from life as metacomentary on life and what it means to be an embodied subject in society.

The author would like to thank Assistant Professor Jasmina Tumbas (SUNY, Buffalo), and Lauren Reuter and Jacqueline Samy (Duke University) for research assistance.

General Overviews

The following volumes have been selected for their broad overviews of performance art throughout the world. Lippard 1997 is unsurpassed as an annotated bibliography of international experimental art, covering the plethora of post-studio art that emerged between 1966 and 1972. Now canonical, Goldberg 2011 begins a comprehensive survey of performance art with the history of the modernist avant-gardes, and closes with contemporary performance art. Gray 1993 provides an inclusive bibliography on performance art from 1909 to the mid-1970s. Huxley and Witts 1996 presents fifty critical, theoretical, and some canonical 20th-century texts on performance. Ramirez and Olea 2004 is an invaluable assembly of primary documents on and writings by Latin American artists and critics. IRWIN 2006 offers a comprehensive history of contemporary art in the former Soviet Union and central and eastern Europe, from the 1950s to the present. Stiles and Selz 2012 provide writings by an international selection of performance artists, with an introduction to the history of performance art from the 1950s to the present. Shanken 2009 surveys the international production of art involved with movement and electronic media from the 20th century through the mid-2000s. Wu and Wang 2010 present English translations of difficult to find primary documents and review Chinese avant-garde art from 1976 until 2006. With a survey text by Amelia Jones, Warr 2012 assembles documents and images of international performance art, artists’ writings, and criticism since the mid-20th century.

  • Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. 3d ed. London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

    First published in 1979 as Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present, each successive edition (1988, 2001, and 2011) has been expanded, including proto-theatrical performances of the historical avant-garde up through performance in the present, and includes color and black-and-white illustrations and revised bibliographies. See also Goldberg’s biennial Performa, held in New York City (2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011). These catalogues document this performance series with many illustrations and scholarly essays (e.g., Performa 09: Back to Futurism. New York: Performa, 2011).

  • Gray, John. Action Art: A Bibliography of Artists’ Performance from Futurism to Fluxus and Beyond. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993.

    Organized in three sections: Action Art 1909–1952; Action Art 1950s–1970s; and Biographical and Critical Studies. Five appendixes and four indexes follow. Topics covered include futurism, Dada, cubism, Russian performance, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, Gutai, happenings, Fluxus, Viennese Actionism, destruction in art, and the Dutch Provos.

  • Huxley, Michael, and Noel Witts, eds. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

    Compilation of fifty critical and theoretical texts on performance, with contextual summaries, cross-references, suggested readings, and a chronology, including artists, playwrights and poets, dramaturges, dancers, and historians—such as Laurie Anderson, Adolph Appia, Antonin Artaud, Judith Butler, Jerzy Grotowski, Bill T. Jones, Tadeusz Kantor, Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer, Hans Richter, Konstantin Stanislavski, Stelarc, and Raymond Williams, among others.

  • IRWIN, ed. East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. London: Afterall, 2006.

    IRWIN, a Slovenian artists group and member of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), collected essays (by such critics as Eda Čufer, Jürgen Harten, Lutz Becker, Boris Groys, Marina Gržinić, Slavoj Žižek, and Susan Buck-Morss) on experimental art, especially performance and conceptual art, from throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Volume also includes interviews, short texts on individual works of art, and difficult-to-find photographic documents, and artists’ biographies.

  • Lippard, Lucy, ed. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    First published in 1973, Six Years is an inclusive, chronological compilation (by year and month) of documents, fragments of statements and interviews, texts, art works, concepts, and much more on artists throughout the world who pioneered performance, minimal, earth, process, and conceptual art. Contains a provocative Preface and sobering Postface that addresses how quickly the art market co-opted conceptual artists’ utopian aims.

  • Ramirez, Mari Carmen, and Héctor Olea, eds. Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    An invaluable scholarly history of the Central and South American, Mexican, and Caribbean avant-gardes, covering every medium from painting to performance and conceptual art. Contains biographies, ephemera, lavish color illustrations, and black-and-white documentary photographs, with scholarly essays by the editors, as well as by Benedito Nunes, Angel Rama, Marcelo Pacheco, Marta Traba, Ana Maria Belluzzo, Olivier Debroise, Ariel Jiménez, Luis Péres Oramas, Saúl Yurkiévich, Paulo Herkenhoff, Guy Brett, Max Bense, and Justo Pasto Mellado.

  • Shanken, Edward A., ed. Art and Electronic Media. London and New York: Phaidon, 2009.

    With an introductory survey by Shanken on international media art, the volume includes excerpts from canonical documents on art, technology, and electronic media, much of which involves performance art. Innovative chapter topics range from “Motion, Duration, Illumination,” “Charged Environments,” “Networks, Surveillance, Culture Jamming,” and “Bodies, Surrogates, Emergent Systems” to “Simulations and Simulacra” and “Exhibitions, Institutions, Communities, and Collaborations.” Many color and black-and-white photographs, primary documents, and artists’ biographies.

  • Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

    Revised, expanded, and reedited from the original 1996 publication, the second edition includes a chapter on “Performance Art” (chapter 8), with an introduction to the history of performance. Video and multimedia performance appears in chapter 5, “Art and Technology,” and conceptual performance in chapter 9, “Language and Concepts.” See also Stiles’s “Performance,” in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff’s Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 75–97.

  • Warr, Tracey, ed. The Artist’s Body. Survey text by Amelia Jones. London: Phaidon, 2012.

    Originally published in 2000, this updated edition provides a broad survey of international performance art with excerpts from original documents written by performance artists, critics, and art historians; includes artists’ biographies, bibliography, and many color and black-and-white photographs. See also Jones’s “Body” in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff’s Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 251–266.

  • Wu Hung, and Peggy Wang, eds. Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

    Exhibition catalogue with a chronology, manifestos, artists’ writings, and a few Chinese state documents, as well as over 120 illustrations and critical historical introductions to the chapters. Some of the most significant work during this period is by performance artists.

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