Performance art finds its art in the social arena. It is built from the same mechanisms that led Judith Butler to identify gender as a performance; those constructions that cause us to treat any social event to be a performance, seriously or mockingly; the roles of performer and audience that have spawned a thousand old saws about “doing one’s best,” as if each particular task we were about to complete was an individual piece of work, with an according rubric for ranking the performance, from passing to failing. Performance art is the recognition of this fact, that we are all being judged in minutely parceled contests throughout our entire lives, and an embrace of that role. “You like judging human performance? Okay, then judge this.”
So what is called “performance art” has a tendency to lean towards the extremely abstract, or the confrontational and the bizarre, in order to earn its mention among all the other mundane performances of our lives. You don’t remember the old man waiting for the bus you see every work day as you pass on the sidewalk. But you remember the hipster covered in beef blood singing while cutting strips of clothing from his own body. My partner M and I, who do performance art together as a pair, have an inside joke—in uncomfortable social situations, we lean towards each other and loudly whisper, in a fake-bourgeois credulity, “Is this performance art?” If only it were, then we could categorize it as “only art,” and walk past unperturbed like we’re at one of MOMA’s free admission Fridays.
But everything is performance art. Every sexual relationship is performance art. Every career, in which a person plods to the same office, to make a similar set of decisions that lead to a similar set of resulting actions. Every war, in which someone gets rich, someone gets poor, and people die. It sounds macabre to consider all of these dramas, from the personal to the cultural, as “only art.” But what else is there? Who else is evaluating the justice of any particular action, other than those who stand around it, gawking? And what form of meaning other than art is more easily and readily ignored, so that we can go on with our lives without having to obsess about the missteps of the billions upon billions of other humans around us, who are doing all kinds of crazy things? If I believed in a more universal frame of justice than art, like “God’s Law” or “Human Rights,” I would be forced to commit an even crazier form of performance art in order to stop all the violations of that justice.
To talk about something as serious as war as if it was performance art is not to take it less seriously, but to move out of the realm of standardized, universal responses. Just because one doesn’t have the entire justice of heaven standing behind one’s ideas doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have any real motivation for those ideas. It simply means they are more nuanced. And thinking about war as art is even a step up in response compared to how some people view it—as a necessary evil, a means to an end, or even a business opportunity. “Art” may mean an opportunity for the bourgeois to fade out from system of values (whatever it may be) and stop paying attention, but for others, it means intense, contextual scrutiny.
One benefit of thinking about reality as if it were art, is that art has the ability to explore speculative veins for future action, by means of a limited experiment. By judging the wider response to performance art, one gets a sense of the lay of the land in the arena of social meaning. Is the staged work ignored? Do people get angry? Do they get more angry when they discover that it is “only art” than if were real? These are big questions, but small questions are interesting too—at what point do people really start paying attention, and when do they get distracted? What elements do people focus on, and what do they ignore?