Performativity in Art – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

I. What is Performativity in Art?

Performativity in art refers to the idea that art is not just a static object or representation, but rather an action or event that is created and experienced in real time. It is the idea that art is not just something to be looked at, but something that is done or performed.

Performativity challenges traditional notions of art as something that is fixed and unchanging, instead emphasizing the role of the artist and the audience in creating and interpreting the work. It blurs the boundaries between art and life, as well as between the artist and the viewer.

II. History of Performativity in Art

Performativity in art has roots in the early 20th century avant-garde movements, such as Dada and Surrealism, which sought to break down the boundaries between art and everyday life. Artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray used performance and found objects in their work to challenge traditional notions of art.

The concept of performativity gained further traction in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of performance art, a genre that emphasized live actions and interactions over static objects. Artists like Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Beuys used their bodies and everyday materials to create provocative and immersive experiences for their audiences.

III. Key Theorists and Concepts in Performativity

One of the key theorists in performativity is Judith Butler, whose work on gender and identity has influenced how we think about performance in art. Butler argues that gender is not something we are born with, but something we perform through our actions and behaviors.

Another important concept in performativity is the idea of the “performative utterance,” coined by philosopher J.L. Austin. This concept suggests that language does not just describe reality, but also has the power to create or enact reality through speech acts.

IV. Examples of Performativity in Art

One famous example of performativity in art is Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” in which she invited audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors. This piece challenged notions of power, vulnerability, and consent, as well as the relationship between the artist and the audience.

Another example is the work of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective that uses performance and activism to challenge gender inequality in the art world. Through their use of humor, anonymity, and guerrilla tactics, the Guerrilla Girls have brought attention to issues of representation and diversity in the art world.

V. Critiques of Performativity in Art

One critique of performativity in art is that it can sometimes prioritize spectacle and shock value over substance and meaning. Critics argue that some performance art can be self-indulgent or inaccessible to a wider audience, leading to accusations of elitism or narcissism.

Another critique is that performativity can sometimes reinforce existing power structures and hierarchies, rather than challenging or subverting them. Some artists and theorists argue that the emphasis on the artist’s body and actions can perpetuate stereotypes or reinforce dominant narratives.

VI. Impact of Performativity on Contemporary Art Practice

Performativity has had a profound impact on contemporary art practice, influencing everything from installation art to social practice to new media. Artists continue to explore the boundaries between art and life, the artist and the audience, and the performative and the static.

Contemporary artists like Tania Bruguera, Tino Sehgal, and Ragnar Kjartansson use performance as a central element of their practice, creating immersive and participatory experiences that challenge traditional notions of art and spectatorship. Performativity continues to be a vital and dynamic force in the art world, pushing boundaries and redefining what art can be.