Performance art conjures a lot of different ideas for people.  It can be seen as experimental, awkward, and sometimes not even art at all.  It is essentially live art using the audience, and it is meant to draw them into the piece and invites them to become part of the performance.

Early Days

(Pictured Above) Dada Cabaret @ adoc-photos/Corbis

It’s a relatively new medium, tracing its roots back to the Dada Cabarets of the 1910s.  During the cabarets, artists would use spoken word, dance, and music to entertain the audience, and share their political views.  Closely tied with Futurism, these early performance pieces were about changing how art was presented and tore down the invisible wall between the performer and the audience.

During the 1950s, “Happenings,” a phrase coined by Allan Kaprow, became the precursor to performance art.  They are difficult to define, but were a series of situational art events, and were largely improvised.  They were more focused on the environment, and this shifted more to the artist in later installations, giving birth to what we know today as Performance Art.

Protest Art

(Pictured above) Black Lives Matter Protest @ HONK FOR JUSTICE

Performance art is closely tied with society, as it is meant to use society as a whole to reflect the piece.  It became extremely popular during the 1970s as a means of protest, for the civil rights movement, feminism, and against the Vietnam War.

Feminist Art

Feminism is also intertwined with Performance Art.  During the 1960s and 1970s, women used their own bodies as a means to express themselves, often in a way that broke down traditional constraints on their sexuality.  It brought the ownership of women’s bodies back to themselves. 

(Pictured above) Ana Mendieta @ The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

Ana Mendieta, a Cuban migrant, performed a piece where she cut facial hair from one of the men in the audience and attached it to her own face.

The artist Carolee Schneemann in particular used her own naked body, and in one performance her own menstrual blood, to address patriarchal constructs.  Much of this art was not well received, but it paved the way for other female artists.

In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls became a familiar scene, with girls wearing gorilla masks.  Their protests were largely about fighting for recognition in the art world.  They used the names of dead female artists while remaining anonymous themselves.

Modern Performance Art

Today, artists still use performance art to challenge their audiences, involve them in their work, and bring to light injustices.  Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi artist whose brother was killed in 2004 by a missile, had his own body tattooed with a dot for every Iraqi killed as a casualty of war.  While he was being tattooed, the name of each individual was read out loud.

Wafaa Bilal image on The Marketer Magazine for The History of Performance Art
(Pictured above) Wafaa Bilal @Brad Farwell/

Most hauntingly, he had the names of the American soldiers tattooed in red ink, but the Iraqi civilians were done in ultraviolet ink, symbolizing their invisibility.  The dots can only be seen with a black light.

What does it all mean?

Performance art has come a long way since its conception in the Dadaism movement.  Closely tied with protest, because it breaks down barriers between the artist and audience, it is used as a means for the artists to express themselves on their terms, with their own bodies.