Is the Internet the Death of Performance Art?

The artist is present, but only online

Did video kill the performance art star? The New York Times asks this question in a post that claims that the constant spectacle of YouTube and social media have trumped performance art’s shock value. James Westcott, author of the biography, When Marina Abramovic Dies, writes:

The ubiquity of digital spectacles and curiosities today is one reason performance art has had its thunder stolen. Another is more insidious — a new form of subjectivity prompted by platforms like Facebook: the constant need to Perform Yourself (which could be YouTube’s slogan, rather than “Broadcast Yourself”). It’s not surprising, then, that many people were blasé about the nudity on Wall Street.

But were people really unfazed by Zefrey Throwell’s strip tease in downtown Manhattan? Sure, some busy bankers might have rushed on by, but seeing boobs on Wall Street usually doesn’t constitute an ordinary day even for the most jaded of New Yorkers. Westcott also argues that the online palooza surrounding Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” (2010) turned her intimate performance into a Where’s Waldo for celebrity visitors.

There’s no doubt that much of the hype for her show was generated on Flickr and Tumblr, which became just as much a part of the experience as sitting before the high priestess of performance art. But, as someone who participated in both the virtual and IRL versions of “The Artist is Present,” I don’t think the internet had any diminishing effect whatsoever on the power of the work. Rather, the egalitarian possibilities of the internet and its penchant for sharing was exactly what drew even more curious visitors to the event. Watching others take part in the performance, whether in person or on the computer, only elevated the interaction that Abramovic set out to create. While it may seem that the internet has turned performance art into publicity art, the increased digital visibility of performance art has not replaced the value of the real life experience. As an art form that already doesn’t have a clear set of boundaries, whatever gets sucked into performance art in terms of its distribution and reception becomes a part of the performance.

Pronouncing art forms dead in the art world is also as trendy as a Damien Hirst, but let’s get a little perspective on the matter. I have to agree with one NYT reader, Edmund Mooney, who wrote in the comments:

Did the phonograph kill live music? Did tv kill the theater? No it just made them that much more special to experience, and human beings above all else want to feel like there experiencing something special.

While I’m certainly not ready to hold a funeral for performance art, where do you stand on this debate?


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