The ARTnews Guide to Performance Art, Part One: 1700s–1920s


“Performance art” (or simply “performance”) is a term that’s often bandied about without any real understanding of what it is or where it comes from.  This confusion that may stem from the genre’s many contradictions.

It eschews proscenium-based traditions while at the same time borrowing elements from theater, dance, and music. Its transient nature conflicts with visual art’s concrete manifestations in painting and sculpture, but its documentation in photos, video, and film counts as a substitute for the same. Its meaning has become diluted to the point of being applied to nearly everything, everywhere, though in theory, almost anything, anywhere can be considered performance art, depending on artistic intent.

No wonder, then, that the story of performance art is as complicated as the category itself.