The Work of Art in the Age of Half-Hearted Reproducibility
Art, Affective Labor, and Performance in the 1970s
“Performance” has long been cast as a strict departure from the conventions of dramatic representation, said to have eliminated all traces of narrative, script, character, acting, theatricality, and pretend. This book flips that assumption on its head, offering the first history of performance's formation––in discourses both artistic and academic, in the 1970s––and in so doing, radically revising our understanding of the form. Performance, for many artists, was a means to cannily manipulate anxieties about authenticity and originality, long the purview of modernist art history: from the photograph to the readymade.
Drawing on original archival research and new studies of Laurie Anderson, Sheryl Sutton, Julia Heyward, Anthony Ramos, and Jill Kroesen, I contend that the era’s rhetorical emphasis on performance as “actual,” as opposed to theater’s putative “artifice,” wedged open a space for artists to plumb the possibilities of faux-confession, emotional manipulation, and the power dynamics of interpersonal exchange. Thus, the project demonstrates that performance is far from theater’s antipode, as it has dominantly been construed. In fact, only by historicizing and deconstructing that very formation might we see that performance offered artists an avenue to employ narrative, long suppressed by the dictates of modernist orthodoxy, and to engage theater’s skillful means of artifice in new, tactical ways, precisely because “performance” had been announced to expunge those very things.
The art world’s uneasy, collective elaboration of “performance” and the founding of “performance studies” as an academic discipline were mutually co-constitutive, though their interpenetration is often disregarded. The result of that entwinement is not without its own contradictions. On the one hand, performance was espoused as emphatically new, but that novelty required an attendant fiction—the invocation of a lineage, a history, a past. On the other, performance was championed as progressively capacious, encompassing both the most experimental and the historically ignored, but that very breadth sedimented into a series of vigorous disavowals. The book unearths three constitutive paradigms: the denigration of theater, long reliant on homophobic claims of its artificiality; the devaluation of affective labor, premised on misogynist assumptions of its naturalness; and the demand for authenticity, always already racialized, regulated by white supremacist measures of transparency and authorship.
All three have long histories, but so too were all three experiencing drastic transformations––even crises––in the 70s. Such prevailing ideologies were not only agents of neglect, consigning certain artistic practices to the dustbin of history, they were also exigencies to which artists were keenly attuned, immanent historical conflicts requiring creative attention. The period, a crucible in the transition to post-Fordism, was shaped by a rapidly expanding service economy, which conscripted the manufacture and management of workers’ feelings and personalities into a greater portion of waged labor than ever before. Therefore, while some scholars have claimed that performance offered artists a way to elude commodification, I situate its rise within and against historically specific capitalist logics. Performance in the 70s should be understood as a site in which artists exploited both their audiences’ desire for an encounter with the extemporaneous, unrepeatable, and therefore ostensibly authentic; and accompanying apprehensions about being fooled by the opposite––a person or event that is rehearsed, reproducible, and therefore inauthentic or “half-hearted.”
The book project reconfigures accepted histories of art after World War II, unsettles conventional articulations of the relationship between popular entertainment and the avant-garde, and draws new connections between the period’s experimental art, film, theater, and literature. In modernism’s wake, performance permitted artists to engage the reproducibility not only of images and objects, as in Minimalist sculpture’s industrial production, Pop art’s recapitulation of the commodity form, or Pictures artists’ appropriations of mass media, but that which is held to be most authentic and intimate––the complex and manifold processes of subjectivity and sociality––demonstrating that they might be both laboriously produced and unendingly reproducible, as if factory-made, fresh off the assembly line.
Julia Heyward, Untitled, 1971