What Does a Performance Artist Do?

A performance artist is a visual artist who creates work for the stage or other public venues. This technically includes musicians, poets, and anyone else who gives a public performance. However, in common usage, the term “performance artist” refers to a group of performers who have been active in the United States and around the world since the 1960s. These artists are known for avant-garde work that incorporates music, spoken word, and unusual objects into a variety of media; the resulting works are often challenging and controversial. Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, and Spalding Gray are all well-known examples.

Surrealism, Dadaism, and other anti-art movements of the early twentieth century spawned the modern performance artist movement. Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, for example, believed that true art should be challenging rather than comforting. They created art that alternately amused and enraged art lovers of the time, bored and angered the established art world’s trends. This culminated in onstage performances that incited actual riots among the audience. These stunts, according to Breton and the other Surrealists, were successful in shaking up the art world.

Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol redefined art in the public mind in the decades that followed. By the 1960s, these and other radical artists had developed their own fan bases in the art world, despite the fact that the general public found them perplexing or alienating. Later artists attempted to blur the distinctions between artwork and stage performance, as well as between artist and audience and art and politics. These pioneers included Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, and Allan Karpow, who created events and art that would later define the performance artist.

In the 1970s, New York City was a safe haven for artists on the periphery of the art world. Many early performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson and Chris Burden, were able to collaborate with other established artists, performers, and musicians, some of whom were doing equally radical work, in this space. For a time, these performers received public and private funding, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency in the United States. Their topics were frequently radical, focusing on body taboos, as well as political and sexual issues. The performances were equally groundbreaking, with Anderson conducting a symphony of car horns and Schneemann smearing raw meat all over her body.

In the more sober 1980s, these divisive topics and performances were frowned upon. Politicians in the United States were hesitant to fund such radical art with public funds. Performance artists, such as Karen Finley, were singled out, and the NEA was forced to change its funding policies as a result. More mainstream artists have found success in the performance artist genre in the twenty-first century, performing to sold-out crowds all over the world. The Blue Man Group and the Stomp musical and dance ensemble are two examples of mainstream performance artists.