Putting on a show: what good is performance art?
But if performance art is all, or even partly, about denying the market, how do performance artists make a living unless they happen to marry a Beatle? The answer is the same as for the vast majority of artists who don’t make a living from their work: they do other things. They teach, they have part-time jobs as care workers, waiters, shop assistants and archivists, and they muddle through on a patchwork of residencies, bursaries, commissions and exhibitions.
Nevertheless the market, in all its guises, is very difficult to escape, and performance also emerges in video, photography and the ephemera of the event. Following the self-imposed destruction of everything he had ever owned in Break Down, Michael Landy steadfastly refused to sell the sacks that contained his shredded life, despite intense pressure to do so. In other cases, however, a video or other documentation can be all that remains of an event, and presents an opportunity to bring it to a wider public.
Loop Art Fair, which takes place in Barcelona every May, is dedicated to selling video art, and it is interesting to see the ways in which gallerists package video to create an object to sell. Intriguing anomalies emerge. A film that can be downloaded from the internet, or that costs €30 on a compilation DVD from, for example, talentsvideo.com, could be sold to a museum or collector for €25,000; the higher price gives the purchaser permission to show the work publicly. The collector and the museum are also subscribing to the idea of supporting the artist in making their work by buying it.
All video art is not simply a record of performances, but with both video and performance there is the continuing problem of quality.
Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says in the current issue of Frieze Masters magazine that “the art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art.”
He’s right, of course. There is a great deal of bad video and bad performance art about, and Niamh Murphy, an organiser of next week’s Dublin Live Art Festival, agrees. One of the problems is that with painting and sculpture, the market plays a large part in deciding what is recognised as art and what isn’t, and has been fundamental to developing a consensus around art for centuries. Subtract that system and you’re left with the network of curators, collectors and museum directors. Take them away too, because a great deal of performance can’t be collected, and you’re left with personal judgment.