PRINT March 1983


CERTAIN ANCIENT GREEKS INSISTED THAT philosophy should be an activity coextensive with life—as certain artists in our time have said about art. “Philosophize more often than you breathe” was the advice of one of the ancient exponents of this view. What he meant is that life lived with a certain focus is philosophy, as in our time it has been claimed that life lived with a certain focus is art.

The process of expanding a limited category into a universal frame involves a willingness to manipulate language directly. The semantic boundaries of the category word are broken open and forced, step by step, to the limits of life. Consciousness is violently retextured by the imposition of a new conceptual overlay on its experiences. Some ancient philosophers pursued this goal through enigmatic and challenging public behavior that was specifically designated as philosophy. “Performance philosophy” would be an appropriate term for this activity. The classroom philosophers of ancient Greece were no happier to confront this radical expansion of their realm than the established academies in our time were to encounter performance artists who insisted that the artistic frame should not separate one experience from another, but should enclose every moment of life.

The great hero of this tradition, and arguably the great prototype of much performance art, was Diogenes of Sinope, who lived mostly in the fourth century B.C.1 Diogenes designated his entire life as a performance of philosophy. Living in the streets and plazas of Athens and Corinth, he exhibited his every action to public inspection, a lifestyle for which he was called simply “The Dog.” From that urban stage he devoted himself to the performance of a series of absurdist acts designed to subvert the habitual motivation systems of his viewers. He strides in his freewheeling style across this page, in a selected catalogue of little performances.

Diogenes’ actions always demonstrated the viability of behavioral options opposite to those of the citizens at large. Thrusting at the cracks of communal psychology, his tiny and quiet gestures laid bare a dimension of hidden possibilities which he thought might constitute personal freedom. His general theme was the complete and immediate reversal of all familiar values, on the ground that they are automatizing forces which cloud more of life than they reveal.

A successor who goes nameless in the literature summed up Diogenes’ legacy as he felt it, in a piece repeated always the same. Ascending a platform from which philosophers would customarily address the public, he would simply laugh for the duration of a normal speech, then descend. More than any specific linguistic message, the generalized affirmation of a laugh could point to the unbounded openness that Diogenes had articulated in his gestures.

In our time the category of art has been opened up and deliberately universalized, as the category of philosophy was in Diogenes’ day. Artists have performed bizarre and enigmatic public acts and designated them as art. Artists have put themselves on exhibition, and in extreme cases have designated their entire lives as performances. These gestures have dissolved the traditional boundaries of art activity and set new ones at the limits of the life-field. In many cases, the project has both an artistic goal—the discovery of new art forms beyond the old boundaries—and an ethical one: by refocusing life as art, it is hoped to purge it of conventional motives and restore it to a fresh and disinterested appreciation.

Diogenes redivivus? “Whoever hears me say that this dog playing here now is the same one that frolicked and romped in this place hundreds of years ago may think of me what he will; but it is a stranger madness yet to imagine that he is fundamentally different.”2

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute of the Arts, Rice University.



1. I have retold the Diogenes anecdotes in my own words. For sources and discussions see: Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks, 2 vols., New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925, 6:23; Farrand Sayre, Diogenes of Sinope: A Study of Greek Cynicism, Baltimore: J.H. First, 1938; Donald Dudley, A History of Cynicism, London: Reprografischer Nachdruck der Ausg., 1937; A.J. Malherbe, The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition, Chico, Ca.: Scholars Pr CA, 1977; Daniel H H. Ingalls, “Cynics and Pasupatas: the Seeking of Dishonor,” Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962); Hermann Diels, “Aus dem Leben des Cynikers Diogenes,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 7 (Berlin, 1894): Kurt von Fritz, “Quellenuntersuchungen zu Leben and Philosophie des Diogenes von Sinope,” Philologus supplemental volume 18 (Leipzig, 1926); Gunnar Rudberg, “Zur Diogenes-Tradition,” Symbolae Osloenses 14 (Oslo, 1935).

2. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Idea, 2.41, slightly altered (I have changed Schopenhauer’s exemplum from a cat to a dog).

In a future issue of Artforum Thomas McEvilley will analyze the processes of category dissolution, universalization, and the appropriation of religious forms in some performance art of the last twenty years.