Writing, Painting, and Performance Since the Late 19th Century

Lecture, Open—Spring

Performance is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon but also a subject whose definition is a matter of great controversy. It has been asserted by some scholars that the period after World War II saw the rise of “performance” as an identifiable art genre; yet, in the same period, sociologists like Erving Goffman argued that almost all features of social interaction could be treated as “performances.” The ambiguity of the word makes research into the visual arts both fascinating and contentious. This lecture course will take a broader view of the developments in the use of the term as has been applied to three central artistic mediums: paint, writing, and the inscrutable genre “performance art.” Students will closely examine several canonical works from these three mediums produced over the course of the period from the late 19th to early 21st centuries in order to develop and specify their ideas on deeper questions about the nature of art, ritual, social engagement, and even the nature of action itself. Close readings of works of art and literature—such as the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Antonin Artaud, the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the performances and photographs of Carolee Schneemann, and the music of John Cage—will be balanced against investigation of social history and discussions of the theoretical problems at stake in the issue. Theoretical writings from the history of 20th-century philosophy will be used to supplement students’ investigations. These disparate materials will allow us to focus on a network of questions whose connection is rarely interrogated. Why did “performance” take on the properties of an artistic genre only after World War II in a period when material standards of living had hit a peak? Why did performers from this period so often express their indebtedness to painting, and why is the genre grouped among the visual arts rather than treated as a subgenre of theatre? What difference does it make to the “material” of performance that, unlike traditional theatre, it need not comply with a script? Is documentation simply a means of delivering an ephemeral work of art to people who were not part of the audience, or is it an intrinsic component of the work itself? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, why does the idea of the “work of art” encompass something as ephemeral as a performance or as enduring as a painting?