What Does a Performance Artist Do?

Alan Rankin

A performance artist is an artist whose work consists of stage or other public performances. Technically, this includes musicians, poets, and anyone else who performs in a public venue. In common usage, however, the term performance artist refers to a class of performers working in America and worldwide since the 1960s. These artists are known for cutting-edge work that can employ music, spoken-word performance, and unusual objects in a variety of media; the resulting pieces are sometimes challenging and controversial. Well-known examples include Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, and Spalding Gray.

A performance artist may sing on stage.
A performance artist may sing on stage.

The modern performance artist movement grew out of Surrealism, Dadaism, and other anti-art movements of the early 20th century. Artists such as Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp believed that so-called true art should be challenging rather than comforting. Bored and angered by the trends of the established art world, they created art that alternately amused and enraged art lovers of the time. This culminated in onstage performances that provoked audiences into actual riots. Breton and the other Surrealists felt these stunts were successful in shaking up the art world.

Performance artists frequently play instruments as part of their act.
Performance artists frequently play instruments as part of their act.

In the following decades, artists such as Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol further redefined art in the public mind. By the 1960s, these and more radical artists had won their own followings in the art world, while the general public often found them confounding or alienating. Later artists sought to blur the lines between artwork and stage performance, between artist and audience, and between art and politics. Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, and Allan Karpow were among these pioneers, creating events and art that would later define the performance artist.

Surrealist Andre Breton believed that true art should be challenging rather than comforting.
Surrealist Andre Breton believed that true art should be challenging rather than comforting.

New York City in the 1970s was a nurturing environment for those on the outer fringes of art. Here, many an early performance artist like Laurie Anderson or Chris Burden could work in harmony with other established artists, performers, and musicians, some of whom were doing equally radical work. For a time, these performance artists enjoyed public and private support, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a U.S. federal agency. Their topics were often radical, focusing on body taboos or political and sexual issues, for example. The performances themselves were equally groundbreaking, such as Anderson conducting a symphony of automobile horns or Schneemann smearing her body with raw meat.

These controversial topics and performances were not welcomed in the more sober 1980s. American politicians balked at funding such radical art with public money. Performance artists in particular, including Karen Finley, were singled out; as a result, the NEA was forced to change its funding policies. In the 21st century, more mainstream artists have found success in the performance artist genre, playing to sold-out crowds around the globe. These mainstream performance artists include the Blue Man Group and the Stomp musical and dance ensemble.

Performance artists spend time in studios recording new songs.
Performance artists spend time in studios recording new songs.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - Well, there is definitely a lot more traditional-style performing around than performances where the audience participates. Almost every singer and band would come under that banner, after all, and I suppose most actors would as well.

The term performing artist usually seems to apply to live performances though.


@bythewell - I'm not sure those are really considered to be performances, so much as just art, although the line does blur quite considerably (and that's the intention of the piece to some extent).

There seems to be quite a movement at the moment though to bring art performance into more of an interactive sphere, where the audience can influence the work. I suppose it's one of the only ways to create something truly spontaneous, but honestly I find it somewhat nerve-wracking. I guess that's another intention of the piece.

I do prefer an old-fashioned performance where the audience only watches and participates with applause only.


One of my friends is a performance artist and she seems to do quite a lot of crazy things. She actually trained in ballet and modern dance but most of what she does now seems to be quite distant from that and owes more to activism and surrealism than traditional dance.

She hasn't quite gone this far, but her work reminds me of those performance artists in the past who have offered themselves as an art medium with the intention that the audience participate by interacting with them without their resisting.

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