Catherine Damman 


Research

 

The Work of Art in the Age of Half-Hearted Reproducibility
Book Manuscript

Art history has long insisted that “performance” marked a radical departure from the conventions of dramatic representation. My project flips this assumption on its head. I demonstrate that many artists turned to performance not to avoid, but rather to mobilize the possibilities of repetition, fabrication, and manipulation. I argue that as affective labor—that is, the performance of self, personality, and emotion—was increasingly conscripted into the demands of waged work in the 1970s, artists cannily manipulated anxieties about authenticity and originality, long the purview of modernist art history: from the photograph to the readymade.

Drawing on original archival research, I establish that the 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 and the power dynamics of interpersonal exchange. Laurie Anderson, Sheryl Sutton, Julia Heyward, Anthony Ramos, Jill Kroesen, and their peers adopted the form precisely because it offered an avenue to employ narrative—long suppressed by the dictates of modernist orthodoxy—in new, tactical ways, that highlighted theater’s connotations of deception and unreliability. Moreover, such artists maintained a critical understanding of several longstanding cultural suppositions, which their work exploited and pressured, including: 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 fetishization of authenticity, which is always already racialized.

In the 1970s, the indeterminacy of performance as a nascent and protean form allowed artists to manipulate its boundaries, exploiting audiences’ desire for an encounter with the spontaneous, 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.” While some scholars have claimed that performance offered artists a way to elude commodification, I situate its rise as rather more keenly attuned to capitalist logics, working within and against its structural contradictions. Thus,  I show how, in modernism’s wake, artists critically engaged the duplication not only of images and objects––as in the histories of minimalist sculpture or pop and conceptual art––but also the complex and manifold processes of subjectivity and sociality: in short, affective labor.

The project both offers a radically reconceived genealogy of performance, and theorizes a major shift in artistic practice—from the reigning modernist suspicion of narrative and its seductions––to a mode of artmaking that exploits that very suspicion.