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Performance art maintains its place as most misunderstood in all of the arts. The radical nature of most public performance artists and the parallels we can draw between them and the clinically insane have a lot to do with that. However, those dedicated to this form of art can have a surprising effect on our world and society.

Often enough, that’s what they were going for – surprise.

Where one stunt-artist tries to live in a telephone booth for a week, another recites poetry off a scroll retrieved from her privates. Both are aiming for impact, but have they met with it?

Performance Art Through the Ages

Performance art goes way back in history. Particularly, to ancient Greece, when and where Cynicism was born.

Diogenes was, perhaps, the world’s first major performance artist of sorts. His interest was philosophy and his intention was to purify it. The man lived a vagrant’s life for some time – but purposely. Despite him amounting to an ancient bum, he succeeded in challenging prominent philosophers of his time with blunt public statements in the form of satirical gestures. Even Alexander the Great, who once came to visit him, was famously disregarded by Diogenes who simply told the inquiring conqueror “stand a little out of my sun.”

Even Alexander the Great…was famously disregarded by Diogenes who simply told the inquiring conqueror “stand a little out of my sun.”

Upon arriving in Corinth, he reputedly was made a tutor and, ultimately, a preacher of his ascetic take on the philosophy of Cynicism. Before being given a cushy position, though, Diogenes lived on the streets of Athens, where he came to relative fame through his many public stunts.

Public Performance Art - Changing Our World, One Stunt At a Time | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

He slept in a big ceramic jar, wandered the streets with a lamp in broad daylight “looking for an honest man” and harangued other philosophers of his time whenever he got the chance. Though his lifestyle was bizarre, even to those living in ancient Greece, it was thought out and founded in the philosophy of Cynicism.

Diogenes’s aim was always to shine a light on the hypocrisy and separation from life’s inherent simplicity…

Diogenes’s aim was always to shine a light on the hypocrisy and separation from life’s inherent simplicity that society in his time was guilty of as a whole. He did so by living an extreme performance of civilization’s polar opposite – regressing to apparent primitivism in the process.

His Cynicism would eventually form the basis of Greek Stoicism – a philosophy held in high regard to this day.

The World As A Stage

If one man’s frantic antics in ancient Greece could lead to the development of a widely-respected philosophy, what then can we make of the effects of other examples of public performance art?

Modern performance art comes in more shapes and sizes than ceramic jars and daylight lanterns… Take Russia’s development of the “Monstration,” for example.

A monstration is a demonstration without a point, without a serious attitude and, clearly, without “de.”

Siberian artist Ivan Dyrkin coined the term in response to Russian performance artist Artyom Loskutov’s public performance in a May Day demonstration of 2004. Artyom and others had joined the procession sporting signs with absurd, apolitical messages on them.

Public Performance Art - Changing Our World, One Stunt At a Time | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

His performance birthed an enduring phenomenon in the form of continued “monstrations” in multiple cities each year since. His own performances, however, were put to an end in 2013 when Russian authorities informed him he’d not be allowed to practice art anymore.

Obviously, he’d stricken a nerve.

Radical Actionism

Though Petr’s actions were met with plenty of criticism, his performances brought wide-scale awareness to the political unease in modern-day Russia.

Elsewhere in Russia, another brand of performance art was born.

This time, in 2012, political artist Petr Pavlensky would first step onto the world stage with his stunt entitled “Stitch.” In camaraderie with the recently-incarcerated members of feminist Russian performance art band Pussy Riot, he sewed his own mouth shut and appeared at Kazan Cathedral holding a banner likening their incarceration to that of Jesus himself.

His stunts would only grow in notoriety and gravity from then on. “Carcass” featured him wrapped in a barb-wire cocoon and left at the entrance of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg in 2013.

Public Performance Art - Changing Our World, One Stunt At a Time | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

That same year, he staged “Fixation,” which involved him nailing his own scrotum to the ground in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum.

His performances were meant as metaphors. His subsequent arrests were not.

Though Petr’s actions were met with plenty of criticism, his performances brought wide-scale awareness to the political unease in modern-day Russia. Images of his stunts have circumnavigated the world; even landing a spot on a Reuters year recap in photos.

Exercises In Futility

Thought-provoking though they may be, such performances as “Luminosity” and “Spirit Cooking” press hard on shock value buttons for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Not all performance art hits hard. Some don’t even have a target.

Where the radical and comical performance artists of the world have succeeded in challenging viewpoints on a large scale, others haven’t achieved much of anything with their stunts but short-lived time in the spotlight.

Take the many stunts and performances of Marina Abramovic…

Thought-provoking though they may be, such performances as “Luminosity” and “Spirit Cooking” press hard on shock value buttons for no apparent reason whatsoever.

“Luminosity” involved the performer sitting nude on a bicycle seat in bright light. The infamous “Spirit Cooking” bit involved her writing a “recipe” in blood on the walls of some nondescript room. Neither seem to have reached much further than the initial shock they were designed to deliver.

Public Performance Art - Changing Our World, One Stunt At a Time | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Similarly futile presentations have been staged over the years, including the likes of Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” in the ’70s, in which the man masturbated beneath a false floor in a room while vocally describing lewd fantasies involving any attendees curious enough to walk across it.

Obviously, these types of stunts weren’t meant to achieve much at all. Yet, they still count as art in their own ways…

Life As Art

Performance art is often mocked as the least artistic of art forms. It’s certainly the least restrictive.

If it’s all about impact, then we might consider judging these performances by the worldwide change they bring about. But, art being what it is – expression made manifest for others to experience – performance art of any kind more than qualifies itself as valid and worthwhile. In a sense, performance art proves the immutable artistic quality of life itself. Where there is life, there is art…

Perhaps life in action is art in action and inaction is death. Perhaps proving this is performance art’s greatest triumph.

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