Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

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The Art of the Ordeal, or, What Does (And Should) "Performance Art" Mean Today?

Working session on "Feeling Extra/Ordinary: Populist Activism and Performance" (ASTR 2017; Atlanta, GA)

Throughout the 2015 primaries and the 2016 campaign, left-wing bloggers and mainstream pundits wrote often of Trump as a “performance artist” who had turned campaigning into “performance art.” Meanwhile, thanks to the Russian hack of the DNC, alt-right activists suddenly discovered performance art. (This story begins with an e-mail inviting John Podesta to a fundraiser for the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art and ends with a man shooting up a D.C. pizza shop, convinced it's a hub for a global Satanist pedophile sex cult with Abramović as its high priestess.) With these two facts in mind, I want to ask: what (and to whom) does “performance art” mean today? How can “performance art” lead (a) to the right-wing belief that a performance artist is, in fact, a global leader and (b) to the left-wing dismissal of a true world leader(-to-be) as, in fact, a performance artist? Performance studies, with its “liminal norm” (McKenzie), has always fancied itself essentially marginal, resisting from the edges, or else critiquing from the sidelines. Along with this identity has come a model of power: a house blend of ironies and commitments, which left-wing commentators thought they saw in Donald Trump, and which alt-right audiences read in Abramović as proof of a conspiracy. With assault weapons going off in our pizzerias and Donald Trump living in the White House, maybe it’s time for a new approach to performance art—not only as an art form, but as a model of cultural power.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe