PRINT Summer 1983


THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTUAL and performance genres changed the rules of art till it became virtually unrecognizable to those who had thought that it was theirs. The art activity flowed into the darkness beyond its traditional boundaries and explored areas that were previously as unmapped and mysterious as the other side of the moon. In recent years a tendency has been underway to close the book on those investigations, to contract again around the commodifiable esthetic object, and to forget the sometimes frightening visions of the other side. Yet if one opens the book—and it will not go away—the strange record is still there, like the fragmentary journals of explorers in new lands, filled with apparently unanswerable questions.

When Piero Manzoni, in 1959, canned his shit and put it on sale, in an art gallery, for its weight in gold; when Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm and crucified to the roof of a Volkswagen (in 1971 and 1974 respectively); when two American performance artists, in separate events, fucked human female corpses—how did such activities come to be called art? In fact the case at hand is not unique. Similar movements have occurred occasionally in cultural history when the necessary conditions were in place. Perhaps the most striking parallel is the development, in the Cynic school of Greek philosophy, of a style of “performance philosophy” that parallels the gestures of performance art in many respects.1 If this material is approached with sympathy and with a broad enough cultural perspective it will reveal its inner seriousness and meaning.

One of the necessary conditions for activities of this type is the willingness to manipulate linguistic categories at will. This willingness arises from a nominalist view of language which holds that words lack fixed ontological essences that are their meanings; meanings, rather, are seen to be created by convention alone, arbitrary, and hence manipulable. Ferdinand de Saussure pointed toward this with his perception of the arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified. Even more, Ludwig Wittgenstein, by dissolving fixed meaning into the free-for-all of usage, demonstrated a culture’s ability to alter its language games by rotations and reshapings of the semantic field. By manipulating semantic categories, by dissolving their boundaries selectively and allowing the contents of one to flow into another, shifts in cultural focus can be forced through language’s control of affection and attitude. In the extreme instance, a certain category can be declared universal, coextensive with experience, its boundaries being utterly dissolved until its content melts into awareness itself. This universalization of a single category has at different times taken place in the areas of religion, philosophy, and, in our time, art.

A second necessary condition is a culture that is hurtling through shifts in awareness so rapidly that, like the tragic hero in Sophocles just before the fall, it becomes giddy with prospects of new accomplishments hardly describable in known terms. At such moments the boundaries of things seem outworn; the contents flow into and around one another dizzyingly. In a realm that, like art some twenty-five years ago, feels its inherited boundaries to be antiquated and ineffective, a sudden overflow in all directions can occur.

The tool by which this universalization of the art category was effected is a form of appropriation. In the last few years appropriation has been practiced with certain limits; the art category as a whole is left intact, though inner divisions such as those between stylistic periods are breached. The model of Francis Picabia is relevant here. But twenty-five years ago appropriation worked on the more universalizing model of Duchamp. In this case, the artist turns an eye upon preexisting entities with apparent destinies outside the art context, and, by that turning of the eye, appropriates them into the art realm, making them the property of art. This involves a presupposition that art is not a set of objects but an attitude toward objects, or a cognitive stance (as Oscar Wilde suggested, not a thing, but a way.) If one were to adopt such a stance to all of life, foregrounding the value of attention rather than issues of personal gain and loss, one would presumably have rendered life a seamlessly appreciative experience. Art then functions like a kind of universal awareness practice, not unlike the mindfulness of southern Buddhism or the “Attention!” of Zen. Clearly there is a residue of Romantic pantheistic mysticism here, with a hidden ethical request. But there is also a purely linguistic dimension to the procedure, bound up with the nominalist attitude. If words (such as “art”) lack rigid essences, if they are, rather, empty variables that can be converted to different uses, then usage is the only ground of meaning in language. To be this or that is simply to be called this or that. To be art is to be called art, by the people who supposedly are in charge of the word—artists, critics, curators, art historians, and so on. There is no appeal from the foundation of usage, no higher court on the issue. If something (anything) is presented as art by an artist and contextualized as art within the system then it is art, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.2

Conversely, the defenders of the traditional boundaries of the realm will be forced to reify language. They will continue to insist that certain things are, by essence, art, and certain other things are, by essence, not art. But in an intellectual milieu dominated by linguistic philosophy and structural linguistics, the procedure of appropriation by designation, based on the authority of usage and the willingness to manipulate it, has for a while been rather widely accepted. During this time the artist has had a new option: to choose to manipulate language and context, which in turn manipulate mental focus by rearrangement of the category network within which our experience is organized.

The process of universalizing the art context goes back at least as far as Duchamp’s showings of Ready-mades. Dada and Surrealism, of course, had their input. But the tendency came to maturity in the middle to late ’50s, when Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, insisted that if art is going to be anything it has to be everything.3 At about the same time Yves Klein, extending the tradition of French dandyism, said, “Life, Life itself . . . is the absolute art.”4 Similarly, in America, Allan Kaprow suggested that “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps as indistinct, as possible.”5 Duchamp had appropriated by signature, as Klein did when, in about 1947, he signed the sky. Later Klein would designate anything as art by painting it with his patented International Klein Blue. Manzoni sometimes designated preexisting objects as art by signing them, and at other times by placing them on a sculpture base. In 1967 Dennis Oppenheim produced his “Sitemarkers,” ceremonial stakes used to mark off areas of the world as art.

These procedures were sometimes employed in conscious parody of the theological concept of creation by the word. In 1960 Klein, imitating divine fiat, appropriated the entire universe into his Theater of the Void, as his piece for the Festival d’Art d’Avant-garde, in Paris. In the next year he painted a topographical globe International Klein Blue, thereby appropriating the earth into his portfolio; soon Manzoni, responding, placed the earth upon his Sculpture Base (Socle du monde, 1961), wresting it from Klein’s portfolio into his own. Of course there is a difference between fiat and appropriation. The purely linguistic procedure of forcefully expanding the usage boundaries of a word does not create a wholly new reality, but shifts focus on an existing one. Any action that takes place in the appropriation zone is necessarily real as itself—yet semantically a kind of shadow-real. Insofar as the act’s prior category is remembered, it remains what it was, just as a loan-word may retain a trace of its prior meaning—only it is reflected, as it were, into a new semantic category. Thus the process of universal appropriation has certain internal or logical limits; it is based on the assumption that a part can contain the whole, that art, for example, can contain life. But the only way that a part can contain its whole is by reflection, as a mirror may reflect a whole room, or by implication, as a map of a city implies the surrounding nation. The appropriation process, in other words, may rearrange the entire universe at the level of a shadow or reflection, and this is its great power. At the same time, as with the gems strung together in the Net of Indra, only the shadowy life of a reflection is really at issue, and this is its great limit.6

The infinite regress implicit in such a procedure was illustrated when, in 1962, Ben Vautier signed Klein’s death and, in 1963, Manzoni’s, thereby appropriating both those appropriators of the universe. The idea of signing a human being or a human life was in fact the central issue. In 1961 Manzoni exhibited a nude model on his sculpture base and signed her as his work. Later he issued his “Certificates of Authenticity,” which declared that the owner, having been signed by Manzoni, was now permanently an artwork. But it was Klein who most clearly defined the central issue, saying, “The painter only has to create one masterpiece, himself, constantly.” The idea that the artist is the work became a basic theme of the period in question. Ben acted it out, not long after the signing of Klein’s death, by exhibiting himself as a living moving sculpture. Soon Gilbert & George did the same thing. As early as 1959 James Lee Byars had exhibited himself, seated alone in the center of an otherwise empty room. Such gestures are fraught with strange interplays of artistic and religious forms, as the pedestal has always been a variant of the altar.

It was in part the Abstract Expressionist emphasis on the direct expression of the artist’s unique personality that prepared the way for the claim that the artist’s person was in fact the art. Through the survival in the art realm of the Romantic idea of the specially inspired individual, it was possible, though in a sort of bracketed parody, to confer on an artist the status of a royal or sacred being who is on exhibit to other humans.

The underlying question (and an insoluble knot in philosophy) is that of the relation between substance and attribute; specifically, how does one tell the agent from the activity? Certain Indian texts, exploring imagistically the relation between god and the world, ask how one can tell the dancer from the dance. In the visual arts the question has always seemed easier, since the painter or sculptor or photographer has traditionally made an object outside him- or herself. But universalizing appropriation had dissolved such a conception, and in performance art, as in the dance, the agent and activity often seem inseparable. In the last twenty years various performance artists (James Lee Byars, Chris Burden, Linda Montano, and others) carried this category shift or semantic rotation to its limit by moving into galleries and living there for extended periods as performances. In this situation even the minutest details of everyday life are temporarily distanced and made strange—made art, that is—by the imposition on them of a new category overlay that alters the cognitive focus of both the performer and the beholder. Something parallel, though with fewer possibilities for irony, occurs when novices in ashrams are advised to regard their experienc, at every moment of the day, as sacred and special.

That these creations by designation are linguistic, involving a willed change in the use of the word “art,” does not altogether rob them of mystery and effectiveness. It should be emphasized that category shift by forced designation is the basis of many magical procedures. In the Roman Catholic mass, for example, certain well-known objects—bread and wine—are ritually designated as certain other objects—flesh and blood—which, in the manifest sense of everyday experience, they clearly are not; and the initiate who accepts the semantic rotation shifts his or her affection and sensibility accordingly. Art has often been thought of as exercising a sort of magic; around 1960, some artists adopted an actual magical procedure—basically a linguistic form of what Sir James Frazer called “sympathetic magic.” At that moment art entered an ambiguous realm from which it has not yet definitively emerged. For the magical rite is already an appropriation of a piece of reality into a sheltered or bracketed zone of contemplation; when it is reappropriated into the realm of art, a double distancing occurs. Furthermore, the universalization of any category, or the complete submission of its ontology to the process of metaphor, blurs or even erases its individual identity. To be everything is not to be anything in particular. In regard to the universal set, the Law of Identity has no function. The semantical coextensiveness of art and life means either that art has disappeared into life, melting into it everywhere like a new spark of indwelling meaning, or (and this departs at once into theistic metaphor) that life has dissolved into art. In short it means ultimately that the terms have become meaningless in relation to one another, since language operates not by sameness but by difference, and two sets with the same contents are the same set.

The art of appropriation then, is a kind of shadowy recreation of the universe by drawing it, piece by piece, into the brackets of artistic contemplation. Artists engaged in this pursuit have concentrated on the appropriation of religious forms, of philosophical forms, of political forms, of popular forms, and more recently, of art historical styles. These enterprises have met different fates. The appropriation of religious contents has been the most unpopular, even taboo, while that based on philosophy, especially linguistic philosophy, for a while acquired a marketable chic. In this discrimination the Apollonian (to use Nietzsche’s dichotomy) surfaced over the hidden depth of the Dionysian. Apollo represents the ego and its apparent clarity of identity; Dionysus, the unconscious, in which all things flow into and through one another. In the Apollonian light each thing is seen clear and separate, as itself; in the Dionysian dark all things merge into a flowing and molten invisibility. That our culture, in the age of science, should favor the Apollonian is not surprising. The value of light is beyond question; but where there is no darkness there can be no illumination. Rejection of the Dionysian does not serve the purpose of clear and total seeing.

Universal appropriation has an exacting task if it is to be practiced with sufficient range of feeling not to trivialize life. The levity, the sense of the will to entertain, that prevailed when Ben or Gilbert & George displayed themselves as sculptures was balanced by the sometimes horrifying ordeal through which the appropriation of religious forms unfolded. It was necessary to descend from the pedestal, with its Apollonian apotheosis of the ego, into the Dionysian night of the unconscious, and to bring into the light the logic of its darkness.

In Vienna in the early 1960s, Hermann Nitsch began presenting a series of performances that, in 1965, he would consolidate as the OM, or Orgies Mysteries, Theatre.7 His work was a focused exercise to bring the performance genre to its darkest spaces, its most difficult test, at once. In OM presentations the performers tear apart and disembowel a Iamb or bull, cover themselves and the environment with the blood and gore, pour the entrails and blood over one another, and so on. These events last up to three hours (though Nitsch is planning one that will last for six days and nights). They have occasionally been shut down by the police. They have occurred in art galleries and have been reported in art magazines and books.

The OM Theatre performances open into dizzyingly distant antiquities of human experience. In form they are essentially revivals of the Dionysian ritual called the sparagmos, or dismemberment, in which the initiates, in an altered state produced by alcohol, drugs, and wild dancing, tore apart and ate raw a goat that represented the god Dionysus, the god of all thrusting and wet and hot things in nature.8 It was, in other words, a communion rite in which the partaker abandoned his or her individual identity to enter the ego-darkened paths of the unconscious and emerged, having eaten and incorporated the god, redesignated as divine. In such rites ordinary humanity ritually appropriates the aura of godhood, through the ecstatic ability to feel the Law of Identity and its contrary at the same time.

Euripides, an ancient forerunner of the Viennese artists, featured this subject in several works. Like Nitsch, he did so partly because this was the subject matter hardest for his culture, as for ours, to assimilate in the light of day. In the Bacchae especially he presents the dismemberment as a terrifying instrument of simultaneous self-abandonment and self-discovery. The Apollonian tragic hero, Pentheus, like our whole rationalist culture, thought his boundaries were secure, his terrain clearly mapped, his identity established. Rejecting the Dionysian rite, which represents the violent tearing apart of all categories, he became its victim. Disguising himself as a Maenad, or female worshiper of Dionysus, he attempted to observe the ritual, but was himself mistaken for the sacrificial victim, torn apart, and eaten raw. In short, his ego-boundaries were violently breached, the sense of his identity exploded into fragments that were then ground down into the primal substrate of Dionysian darkness which both underlies and overrides civilization’s attempts to elevate the conscious subject above nature.

Nitsch writes of his work in consciously Dionysian terms as celebrating a “drunken, all-encompassing rejoicing,” a “drunken ecstasy of life,” a “liberated joy of strong existence without barriers,” “a liturgy of exultation, of ecstatic, orgiastic, boundless joy, of drugged rapture . . . ”9 He has created, in fact, a purely classical theory for it, based on Freudian and Jungian reinterpretations of ancient religious forms, on Aristotle’s doctrine of catharsis, and on the ritual of the scapegoat as the wellspring of purification for the community.

Another stage of the OM ritual finds a young male standing or lying naked beneath a slain carcass marked with religious symbols and allowing the blood and guts to flow over his naked body. Again an ancient source has been appropriated. In the initiation rite called the taurobolium, the aspirant was placed naked in a pit over which, atop a lattice of branches, a bull, representing the god, was slain and disemboweled. When the initiate emerged covered with the bull’s blood and entrails, he was hailed as the reborn god emerging from the earth womb.10

These works demonstrate the category shift involved in the appropriation process. In part this shift from the zone of religion to that of art represents the residual influence of Romanticism: the artist is seen as a kind of extramural initiation priest, a healer or guide who points the alienated soul back toward the depths of the psyche where it resonates to the rhythms of nature. In addition, it is the neutrality of the unbounded category that allows the transference to occur. Religious structures in our society allow no setting open enough or free enough to equate with that of ancient Greek religion, which was conspicuously nonexclusionary; the art realm in the age of boundary dissolution and the overflow did offer such a free or open zone. Günter Brus, another Viennese performer, has claimed that placing such contents within the art realm allows “free access to the action”11—a free access that the category of religion, with its weight of institutionalized beliefs, does not allow. The assumption, in other words, is that in the age of the overflow the art context is a neutral and open context which has no proper and essential contents of its own. Art, then, is an open variable which, when applied to any culturally bound thing, will liberate it to direct experience. That this was the age of psychedelic drugs, and that psychedelic drugs were widely presumed to do the same thing, is not unimportant. As this tradition advanced along the path to the underworld, it was increasingly influenced by psycho-pharmacology with its sense of the eternally receding boundaries of experience.

Soon after Nitsch’s first performances in Vienna, Carolee Schneemann presented a series of now-classic pieces also based on the appropriation of ritual activities from ancient and primitive sources. The general shape of these works arose, as among ancient shamans and magicians, from a variety of sources, including dream material and experiences with psychedelic drugs. Like Nitsch’s works, Schneemann’s are based both on depth psychology and on the appropriation of contents from the neolithic stratum of religious history, especially the religious genre of the fertility rite.

In Meat Joy (Paris, 1964) nearly naked men and women interacted, in a rather frenzied, Dionysian way, with one another and with hunks of raw meat and carcasses of fish and chickens. They smeared themselves with blood, imprinted their bodies on paper, tore chickens apart, threw chunks of raw meat and torn fowl about, slapped one another with them, kissed and rolled about “to exhaustion,” and so on.12 The sparagmatic dismemberment and the suggestion of the suspension of mating taboos both evoke Maenadism and the Dionysian cult. The wild freedom advocated by this ancient cult, as well as its suggestions of rebirth, seemed appropriate expressions of the unchecked newness that faced the art world as its boundaries dissolved and opened on all sides into unexpected vistas, where traditional media, torn apart and digested, were reborn in unaccountable new forms. The Dionysian subversion of ego in the cause of general fertility has become another persistent theme of appropriation performance. Barbara Smith has performed what she calls a Tantric ritual, that included sexual intercourse, in a gallery setting as an artwork.13

In general, performance works involving the appropriation of religious forms have fallen into two groups: those that select from the neolithic sensibility of fertility and blood sacrifice, and those that select from the paleolithic sensibility of shamanic magic and ordeal; often the two strains mix. Both may be seen as expressions of the desire, so widespread in the ’60s and early ’70s, to reconstitute within Modern civilization something like an ancient or primitive sensibility of oneness with nature.

Though the erotic content of the works based on the theme of fertility has been received with some shock, it is the work based on the shamanic ordeal that the art audience has found most difficult and repellent. Clearly that is part of the intention of the work, and in fact a part of its proper content. But it is important to make clear that these artists have an earnest desire to communicate, rather than simply shock. Seen in an adequate context, their work is not aggression but expression.

In 1965 Nitsch formed the Wiener Aktionismus group in conjunction with Otto Mühl, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Much of their work focused on the motifs of self-mutilation and self-sacrifice that were implicit, though not foregrounded, both in Klein’s career and in the OM Theatre performances. Brus, during his performing period (1964–1970), would appear in the performance space dressed in a woman’s black stockings, brassiere, and garter belt, slash himself with scissors till he ran with blood, and perform various acts ordinarily taboo in public settings, such as shifting, eating his own shit, vomiting, and so on. Schwarzkogler’s pieces presented young males as mutilated sacrificial victims, often wounded in the genitals, lying fetally contracted and partially mummy-wrapped as if comatose, in the midst of paraphernalia of violent death such as bullet cartridges and electrical wires. Not only the individual elements of these works, but their patterns of combination—specifically the combination of female imitation, self-injury, and the seeking of dishonor through the performance of taboo acts—find striking homologies in shamanic activities. The same motifs reappeared, not necessarily with direct influence from the Viennese, in the works of several American performance artists who have stretched audiences’ sympathies beyond the breaking point.

Paul McCarthy, a major exponent of the art of the taboo gesture, first heard the calling not from the Viennese but from Klein. As a student at the University of Utah in 1968, he leapt from a second story window in emulation of Klein’s Leap into the Void.14 By about 1974 his work had found its own distinctive form, developing into a modernized shamanic style so difficult for audiences to bear that the pieces were usually published only as video tapes. These performances, like Schneemann’s, were often developed from dream material, indicating their intimate relation both with shamanic magic and with depth psychology. Like Brus, McCarthy has sometimes appeared dressed as a woman, and has worked, like Schwarzkogler, with the themes of self-mutilation and castration; some pieces have acted out the basic female imitation of feigning menstruation and parturition (magical pantomimes that are common in primitive initiation rites). In others, McCarthy has cut his hands and mixed the blood with food and water in bowls, clearly echoing various sacramental rites from the Dionysian to the Christian. In still others that, like Nitsch’s, have sometimes been shut down by the police, he has acted out the seeking of dishonor as an exploration of the Dionysian-Freudian depths of psychobiological life. In Sailor’s Meat, a videotape from 1975, for example, he appeared in a room in a wino hotel wearing black lace panties smeared with blood and a blonde female wig and lay on the bed fucking piles of raw meat and ground hamburger with his cock painted red and a hot dog shoved up his ass. As Old Man in My Doctor, 1978, he slit a rubber mask over his head to form a vagina-shaped opening on it and from the vagina gave birth to a ketchup-covered doll. The piece was a conscious remaking of the myth of the birth of Athena from the cleft brainpan of Zeus, a myth that reverts to the age when male priests and their divinities sought to incorporate the female principle and its powers. In Baby Boy, 1982, McCarthy gave birth to a doll from between his ketchup-covered male thighs as he lay on his back with his feet in the air like a woman in missionary-style sexual intercourse. In these and other works self-mutilation, female imitation, and the performance of taboo acts are combined in a structure roughly parallel to that of Brus’ work, though with a greater range of expressiveness.

Similar materials recur in the work of Kim Jones. In a performance in Chicago in 1981, Jones appeared naked except for a mask made of a woman’s pantyhose, covered himself with mud (as both African and Australian shamans do when performing), and lay naked on the fire escape in the cold to accumulate energy (a shamanic practice known worldwide but most famous from Tibet). Returning to the performance space, he produced a mayonnaise jar filled with his own shit, smeared himself with it, embraced members of the audience while covered with it, and finally burned sticks and green plants till the smoke drove the remaining audience from the gallery. In another piece, Jones cut himself with a razor blade 27 times in a pattern suggesting the body’s circulatory system, then pressed himself against the gallery wall for a self-portrait. 15

Understandably, to audiences habituated to the traditional boundaries of art, to audiences for whom easel painting was still the quintessential art activity, these performances were offensive and even insulting. Of course, the point of such works when they first appeared was in part their seeming to be radically, even horrifyingly, out of context. But for twenty years they have been part of the art scene, if somewhat peripherally, legitimized by art world context and critical designation again and again. In order to understand the wellsprings of such works, in order to approach them with a degree of sympathy and clarity, it is necessary to frame them somewhat in cultural history, where in fact they have a clear context.

Many of the artists discussed here feel that shamanic material and primitive initiation rites are the most relevant cultural parallels to their work. But most of them feel that the tone of their work arose first, often under Freudian or Jungian influence, and was later confirmed and further shaped by some study of shamanic literature. 16 The question of origins, then—whether from shamanic literature, or from the Jungian collective unconscious, or from the Freudian timeless repository of infantile memory, or from all these sources—though it is worthwhile to state, cannot be answered. In any case it is important in terms of any theory of the function of art that these artists have introduced into the art realm materials found elsewhere only in the psychiatric records of disturbed children and in the shamanic thread of the history of religion.17

In societies where the shamanic profession is intact, shamans have been perhaps the most fully rounded and powerful cultural figures in history. The poets, mythographers, visual artists, musicians, medical doctors, psychotherapists, scientists, sorcerers, undertakers, psychopomps, and priests of their tribal groups, they have been one-person cultural establishments. They have also been independent, uncontrollable, and eccentric power figures whose careers have often originated in psychotic episodes—what anthropologists call the “sickness vocation.”18 As a result, when societies increase their demands for internal order, the old shamanic role, with its unassimilable combination of power and freedom, is broken up into more manageable specialty professions; in our society, the doctor, the poet, the artist, and so on, have each inherited one scrap from the original shaman’s robe. Beginning with the Romantic period an attempt was made to reconstitute something like the fullness of the shamanic role within the art realm; poets especially were apt to attribute both healing and transcendentalizing powers to the art experience. This project has been acted out in the last twenty years by those artists whose work appropriates its materials from the early history of religion.

Perhaps the most shocking element in the various performance works mentioned here is the practice of self-injury and self-mutilation. This has, however, been a standard feature of shamanic performances and primitive initiation rites around the world. Siberian shamans cut themselves while in ecstatic states brought on by drugs, alcohol, drumming, and dancing.19 Tibetan shamans are supposedly able to slit their bellies and exhibit their entrails.20 Related practices are found in the performance art under discussion. Chris Burden crawled through broken glass with his hands behind his back (Through the Night Softly, 1973). Dennis Oppenheim did a piece in which for half an hour rocks were thrown at him (Rocked Circle/Fear, 1971). Linda Montano inserted acupuncture needles around her eyes (Mitchell’s Death, 1978). The Australian performance artist Stelarc, reproducing a feat of Ajivika ascetics in India, has had himself suspended in various positions in the air by means of fishhooks embedded in his flesh.21 The number of instances could easily be multiplied.

The element of female imitation, found in the works of Brus, McCarthy, Jones, and others, is also a standard shamanic and initiatory motif, involving sympathetic magic. Male shamans and priests around the world, as well as tribal boys at their puberty initiations, adopt female dress to incorporate the female and her powers.22 In lineages as far apart as North Asian and Amerindian, shamans have worn women’s clothing and ritually married other men.“ Akkadian priests of Ishtar dressed like their goddess, as did Ramakrishna in 19th-century India. A Sanskrit religious text instructs the devotee to ”discard the male (purusa) in thee and become a woman (prakriti)."23 Various tribal rites involve the ritual miming, by men, of female menstruation and parturition, as in the works of McCarthy.25 Freudian and Jungian theories of the bisexuality of the psyche and the need to realize it are relevant both to archaic and to modern exercises of this sort.26

Female imitation and self-mutilation combine in certain practices of ritual surgery found in primitive cultures around the world, though most explicit in Australia. In Central Australian initiation rites, for example, a vulvalike opening is cut into the urethral surface of the penis, symbolically incorporating the female principle into the male body;27 Bruno Bettelheim has observed this motif in the fantasies of disturbed children. Brus, in a performance, once cut a vulvalike slit in his groin, holding it open with hooks fastened in his flesh. Ritual surgery to create an androgynous appearance is com mon in archaic religious practice generally, as an attempt to combine male and female magical powers into one center. The emphasis on the mutilation of the male genitals in much of the Viennese work is relevant here. In classical antiquity the priests of Cybele cas trated themselves totally (both penis and testicles) in their initiation, to become more like their goddess; thereafter they dressed like women and were called “females.” In subsequent ecstatic performances they would cut themselves in the midst of frenzied dancing and offer the blood to the goddess.28

The public performance of taboo acts is also an ancient religious custom with roots in shamanism and primitive magic. Both art and religion, through the bracketing of their activities in the half-light of ritual appropriationism, provide zones where deliberate in versions of social custom can transpire; acts re pressed in the public morality may surface there, simultaneously set loose for their power to balance and complete the sense of life, and held safely in check by the shadow reality of the arena they occur in.

A little-known Sanskrit book called the Pasupata Sutras formulates this practice in detail, under the heading of the Seeking of Dishonor.29 The practitioner is enjoined to court contempt and abuse from his fellow humans by behavior deliberately contrived as the most inappropriate and offensive for the situation, whatever it may be. In shamanic contexts such practices had demonstrated the shaman’s special status beyond convention, his ability to breach at will either meta physical or ethical boundaries. In yogic terms the goal of the practice was the effacement of ego by the normalization of types of experience usually destructive to the self-image.30 The shaman, the yogic seeker of dishonor, and the ritual scapegoat figure all offered themselves as targets for calamity, to draw it away from the communities they served. They were the individuals who went out on the razor’s edge and, protected in part by the brackets of religious performance, publicly breached the taboos of their times. Today the exhibitionistic breaching of age and gender taboos, as well as other forays into the darkness of the disallowed within the brackets of the art performance, replicates this ancient custom, sometimes with the same cathartic intention. As the shoals of history break and flow and reassemble, to break and flow again, these and other primitive practices have resurfaced, in something like their original combination, in an altogether different context.

The preparation of his or her own body as a magico sculptural object, for example, is a regular and essential part of the shaman’s performance. An Australian shaman may cover his body with mud (symbol of recent arrival from the netherworld) and decorate it with patterns of bird down fastened on with his own blood; an African shaman may wear human bones, skulls, and so forth, and may surgically alter his or her body in various ways; a Central Asian shaman may appear in a skeleton suit with mirrors on it. Frequently the shaman’s body is tattooed or scarified or painted with magical symbols. Similarly, Schneemann has presented herself as a “body collage” decorated with symbols from ancient fertility religions. In a mixture of archaic and Christian materials, Linda Montano in The Screaming Nun, 1975, “dressed as a nun, danced, screamed, and heard confessions at Embarcadero Plaza [in San Francisco].”31 Other pieces by Montano have involved dancing blindfolded in a trance, drumming for six hours a day for six days, shape-changing and identity-changing, self-injury (with acupuncture needles), and astral travel events. Mary Beth Edelson’s “Public Rituals” have involved the marking of her naked body with symbols from ancient goddess cults, the equation of her body with the earth, and the declaration of the end of patriarchy (Your Five Thousand Years Are Up, 1977).32 Kim Jones, as Mud Man, or Bill Harding emerging covered with mud from a hole in the ground in the middle of a circle of fire, are reconstituting before our eyes images from the elementary stratum of religious forms.

A motif that is absolutely central to shamanism, and that often also involves body decoration, is the attempt to incorporate the power of an animal species by imitation of it. Shamans in general adopt the identities of their power animals, act out their movements, and duplicate their sounds.33 The claim to understand animal languages and to adopt an animal mind-set is basic to their mediation between culture and nature. Echoes of the practice are, of course, common in the annals of performance art. In Joseph Beuys’ conversation with the dead rabbit the knowledge of an animal language combines with a belief in the shamanic ability to communicate with the dead. In Chicken Dance, 1972, Montano, attired in a chicken costume, appeared unannounced at various locations in San Francisco and danced wildly through the streets like a shaman possessed by the spirit and moved by the motions of her animal ally. Terry Fox slept on a gallery floor connected with two dead fish by string attached to his hair and teeth, attempting, like a shaman inviting his animal ally to communicate through a dream, to dream himself into the piscine mind in Pisces, 1971.

In such behavior a style of decision-making is involved that has much in common with the peculiar arbitrariness and rigor of religious vows in general, and with one called the Beast Vow in particular. Among the Pasupatas of India (the same who formalized the Seeking of Dishonor), the male practitioner commonly took the bull vow. (The bull is the most common shamanic animal by far.) He would spend a good part of each day bellowing like a bull and in general trying to transform his consciousness into that of a bull. Such behavior was usually vowed for a specific length of time, most frequently either for a year or for the rest of one’s life. A person who took the frog vow would move for a year only by squatting and hopping; the snake vower would slither.34 Such vows are very precise and demanding. The novice, for example, may pick a certain cow and vow to imitate its every action. During the time of the vow the novice follows the cow everywhere: when the cow eats, the novice eats; when the cow sleeps, the novice sleeps; when the cow moos, the novice moos—and so on. (In ancient Mesopotamia cow-vowers were known as “grazers.”) By such actions the paleolithic shaman attempts to affect ecology by infiltrating an animal species which can then be manipulated. The yogic practitioner hopes to escape from his or her own intentional horizon by entering into that of another species.

These activities are echoed in performance pieces in various ways. Bill Gordh, as Dead Dog, spent two years learning how to bark with a sense of expressiveness. James Lee Byars wore a pink silk tail everywhere he went for six months. Vito Acconci, in his Following Piece, 1969, would pick a passerby at random on the street and follow him or her till it was no longer possible to do so.

What I am especially concerned to point out in activities like this is a quality of decision-making that involves apparent aimlessness along with fine focus and rigor of execution. This is a mode of willing which is absolutely creative in the sense that it assumes that it is reasonable to do anything at all with life; all options are open and none is more meaningful or meaningless than any other. A Jain monk in India may vow to sit for a year and then follow that by standing up for a year—a practice attested to in the Atharva Veda (about 1000–800 B.C.)35 and still done today. In performance art the subgenre known as Endurance Art is similar in style, though the scale is much reduced.

In 1965 Beuys alternately stood and knelt on a small wooden platform for 24 hours during which he performed various symbolic gestures in immobile positions. In 1971 Burden, a major explorer of the Ordeal or Endurance genre, spent five days and nights fetally enclosed in a tiny metal locker (2 feet by 2 feet by 3 feet). In 1974 he combined the immobility vow with the keynote theme of the artist’s person by sitting on an upright chair on a sculpture pedestal until, 48 hours later, he fell off from exhaustion (Sculpture in Three Parts). In White Light/White Heat, 1975, he spent 22 days alone and invisible to the public on a high shelflike platform in a gallery, neither eating nor speaking nor seeing, nor seen by, another human being.36

The first thing to notice about these artists is that no one is making them do it and usually no one is paying them to do it. The second is the absolute rigor with which, in the classic performance pieces, these very unpragmatic activities are carried out. This peculiar quality of decision-making has become a basic element of performance poetics. To a degree (which I do not wish to exaggerate) it underscores the relationship between this type of activity and the religious vocation. A good deal of performance art, in fact, might be called “Vow Art,” as might a good deal of religious practice. (Kafka’s term “hunger artist” is not unrelated. )

Enthusiasms of this type have passed through cultures before, but usually in the provinces of religion or, more occasionally, philosophy. What is remarkable about our time is that it is happening in the realm of art, and being performed, often, by graduates of art schools rather than seminaries. In our time religion and philosophy have been more successful (or intransigent) than art in defending their traditional boundaries and preventing universal overflow with its harrowing responsibilities and consequences.

A classic source on the subject of Ordeal Art is a book called the Path of Purification by Buddhaghosa, a fifth century A.D. Ceylonese Buddhist.37 It includes an intricately categorized compendium of behavioral vows designed to undermine the conditioned response systems that govern ordinary life. Among the most common are the vows of homelessness—the vow, for example to live out of doors for a year. This vow was acted out in New York recently by Tehching Hsieh, who stayed out of doors in Manhattan for a year as a work of art. Hsieh (who also has leapt from the second story of a building in emulation of Klein’s leap) has specialized, in fact, in year-long vows acted out with great rigor. For one year he punched in hourly on a time clock in his studio, a device not unlike some used by forest yogis in India to restrict their physical movements and thus their intentional horizons. The performance piece of this type done on the largest scale was Hsieh’s year of isolation in a cell built in his Soho studio, a year in which he neither left the cell nor spoke nor read. Even the scale of this piece, however, does not approach that of similar vows in traditional religious settings. Himalayan yogis as recently as a generation ago were apt to spend seven years in a light-tight cave, while Simeon Stylites, an early Christian ascetic in the Syrian desert, lived for the last 37 years of his life on a small platform on top of a pole.

The reduced scale of such vows in the art context reflects the difference in motivation between the religious ascetic and the performance artist. Religious vows are undertaken for pragmatic purposes. The shaman seeking the ability to fly, the yogi seeking the effacement of ego, the monk seeking salvation and eternal bliss, are all working within intricately formulated belief systems in pursuit of clearly defined and massively significant rewards. Less is at stake for the performance artist than for the pious believer; yet still something is at stake. An act that lacks any intention whatever is probably a contradiction in terms. For some artists (for example, Burden) work of this type has functioned as a personal initiation or catharsis, as well as an investigation of the limits of one’s will; others (including Nitsch) are convinced that their performance work is cathartic for the audience as well and in that sense serves a social and therapeutic purpose. Rachel Rosenthal describes her performance work as “sucking diseases from society.”38

But in most work of this type attention is directed toward the exercise of will as an object of contemplation in itself. Appropriation art in general (and Vow Art in particular) is based on an esthetic of choosing and willing rather than conceiving and making. Personalsensibility is active in the selection of the area of the universe to be appropriated, and in the specific, often highly individual character of the vow undertaken; the rigor with which the vow is maintained is, then, like a crafts devotion to perfection of form. Beyond this, the performance is often based on a suspension of judgment about whether or not the act has any value in itself, and a concentration on the purity of the doing. This activity posits as an ideal (though never of course perfectly attaining it) the purity of doing something with no pragmatic motivation. Like the Buddhist paradox of desiring not to desire, it requires a motivation to perform feats of motivelessness. It shares something of Arnold Toynbee’s opinion that the highest cultures are the least pragmatic.

In this mode of decision and execution the conspicuously free exercise of will is framed as a kind of absolute. Displays of this type are attempts to break up the standard weave of everyday motivations and create openings in it through which new options may make their way to the light. These options are necessarily undefined, since no surrounding belief system is in place (or acknowledged). The radicality of work in this genre can be appraised precisely by how far it has allowed the boundaries of the art category to dissolve. Many works of the last twenty-five years have reached to the limits of life itself. Such activities have necessarily involved artists in areas where usually the psychoanalyst or anthropologist presides. The early explorations discussed here required the explicit demonstration of several daring strategies that had to be brought clearly into the light. Extreme actions seemed justified or even required, by the cultural moment. But the moment changes, and the mind becomes desensitized to such direct demonstrations after their first shock of brilliant simplicity. When an artist in 1983 announces that his or her entire life is designated as performance, the unadorned gesture cannot expect to be met with the enthusiastic interest with which its prototypes were greeted a generation ago.

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



1. See Thomas McEvilley, “Diogenes of Sinope (c. 410–c. 320 B.C): Selected Performance Pieces,” Artforum, March 1983.

2. For a more detailed discussion of this process see Timothy Binkley. “Piece: Contra Aesthetics,” in Joseph Margolis, ed.. Philosophy Looks at the Arts, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978, pp. 25–44.

3. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, New York: Grove Press, 1965, p 43.

4. For this and other references to Klein the most convenient source is Thomas McEvilley, “Yves Klein, Conquistador of the Void,” in exh. cat. Yves Klein (1928–1962), A Retrospective_, Houston, Texas, and New York, 1982.

5. Allan Kaprow, Assemblages, Environments, Happenings, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1966, p. 188.

6. For the image of the Net of Indra see Garma C.C. Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality, University Park, Pa., and London, 1974, pp. 165–66.

7. In English, see. eg., Hermann Nitsch, in exh. cat. The Spirit of Vienna, New York: René Block Gallery, 1977, p. 64.

8. For the sparagmos see W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods, Boston: Beacon Press, 1950, pp 45, 149, 171–72; and Walter F. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 192 ff., etc. For the presence of various drugs in ancient wines, see Carl A.P. Ruck’s essay in R. Gordon Wasson, The Road to Eleusis, New York Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1978.

9. The Spirit of Vienna, pp. 31–32.

10. For the taurobolium see Franz Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, New York: Dover Publications, 1956, p. 66.

11. Brus in The Spirit of Vienna, p. 8.

12. Carolee Schneemann, More than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings, New Paltz, N Y.: Documentex, 1979, p. 66.

13. “As Above, So Below,” 1981: see High Performance 15. vol. 4. no 3. Fall 1981, pp. 19–25. Many of the performance works mentioned in this essay were first documented in High Performance, a basic source on the subject.

14. I have written about the history of Klein’s leaps elsewhere (see note 4 above). The famous photograph is a photomontage of a leap made over a net (tarpaulin, really). But the evidence is indisputable that Klein did, on two occasions before the photographed event, make leaps from comparable heights, sustaining injury both times. It is intriguing to note how resistant people are to accepting this fact; at a panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York after the opening of the Klein retrospective (Nov. 21, 1982), this was the central, and often heated, topic of discussion.

15. The making of blood imprints, which was found also in Schneemann’s work and parodied in McCarthy’s performances of painting with his penis dipped in ketchup, reverts of course to Yves Klein. In addition to his body prints in ultramarine blue, Klein on two occasions made blood prints of women’s naked bodies (once using the model’s own menstrual blood), which he subsequently destroyed for fear of their negative magic. The directness of the imprint method influenced neo-primitive performance widely. Recently the Italian performance artist Giuditta Tornetta has made blood imprints of her own pregnant body as performance works.

16. The works most commonly mentioned as influential are Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, often in the abridgment and revision of Theodore Gaster, and Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, New York: Bollingen Foundation, dist. by Pantheon Books, 1964.

17. The parallels between tribal initiatory customs and the behavior of disturbed children are brought out by Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male, New York: Collier Books, 1962.

18. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, chapters 1 and 2.

19. See, for example. S.M. Shirokogoroff, Psychomental Complex of the Tungus, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner 8 Co., Ltd., 1935, p. 364; V.M. Michaelowski, “Shamanism in Siberia and European Russia, Being the Second Part of Shamanstro,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 24, 1894, p. 66.

20. Fokke Sierksma, Tibet’s Terrifying Deities, from “Art in its Context: Studies in Ethno-Aesthetics, Museum Series,” vol. 1, the Hague: Mouton, 1966, p 73.

21. For the Ajivika austerity of hanging by hooks inserted in the flesh see Richard Morris, “Notes and Queries,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1884, p. 95.

22. The classic source for shamanic transvestitism is Robert Briffault, The Mothers, London: Allen & Unwin, 1952, vol. 2, pp 532 ff. For speculations on the female origin of shamanism see Georg Nioradze, Der Schamanismus bei den sibirischen Völker, Stuttgart: Strecker and Schröder, 1925, pp. 51 ff., and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. Lokayatā: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1959. p. 285.

23. Waldemar G. Bogoras, The Chukchee, Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 11, vol XI, New York: G.E. Stechert, 1904–09, p. 448; Hans Findeisen, Schamanentum, dargestellt am Beispiel der Bessenheitspriester hordeurasiatischer Völker, Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1957, ch. XIII.

24. Cited by Chattopadhyaya, Lokayatā, p. 284.

25. Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds, pp. 109–121.

26. See, e.g., Sigmund Freud, “Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” Collected Papers, London: Hogarth Press, 1950, vol. 5.

27. Subincision is reported by Baldwin Spencer and Francis J. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan and Co, 1899, p. 263, and described in detail by M.F. Ashley-Montage, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines, London: G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1937, p. 293; varying psychoanalytical interpretations are given by Géza Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, New York: International Universities Press, 1945, and Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds.

28. Grant Showerman, The Great Mother of the Gods, Chicago, 1969, pp. 16–18. For a psychoanalytic interpretation see E. Weigert-Vowinkel, “The Cult and Mythology of the Magna Mater from the Standpoint of Psychoanalysis,” Psychiatry I, 1938, pp. 348–49.

29. The text as a whole is not available in English; for excerpts and summary see Daniel H.H. Ingalls, “Cynics and Pasupatas,” Harvard Theological Review 55, 1962.

30. Yoga is primarily a redefining of shamanic practices in terms of later forms of thought. See Thomas McEvilley, “An Archaeology of Yoga.” Res (Journal of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie, University of Paris) I, pp. 44–77.

31. Linda Montano, Art in Everyday Life, Los Angeles: Astro Artz Press, 1981.

32. Mary Beth Edelson, Seven Cycles: Public Rituals, New York, 1980. In the feminist branch of performance art this shamanic element has been widely explored. It is well to pause for a moment over the fact of there being a feminist branch at all. There is of course more than a little justification in the history of religion for this development. In fact the prevalence of transvestitism in shamanism has led to an intriguing (but untestable) hypothesis that shamanism was originally a female practice that was adopted by men through the mediation of female dress. Still, the explicitly feminist thrust of some of this work involves it in areas of politics that breach somewhat the neutrality of the appropriation zone.

33. Shirokogoroff, Psychomental Complex, p. 309; Wilhelm Radloff, Aus Sibirien, Leipzig: T.O. Weigel, 1884, vol. 2, pp. 20–50; Mary A. Czaplicka, Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914, pp. 171 ff.; Findeisen, Schamanentum, pp. 30 ff.; Adolph Friedrich and Georg Buddruss, joint eds. and translators, Schamanengeschichten aus Sibirien, Munich: O.W. Barth, 1955, p. 212.

34. On the Beast Vow see M.G. Bhagat, Ancient Indian Asceticism, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1976, p. 145; Chattopadhyay, Lokayatā, ch. 2; Ingalls, “Cynics and Pasupatas.”

35. Atharva Veda, XV. 3; and see Haripada Chakraborti, Asceticism in Ancient India, Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1973, pp. 368, 371, 437.

36. For the works by Chris Burden cited here see Chris Burden, 71–73, Los Angeles, 1974, and Chris Burden, 74–77, Los Angeles, 1978.

37. Bhikku Nyānamoli, trans., The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Berkeley, Calif.: Shambhala Publications, dist. Random House, 1976. For the parallels drawn here, see, for example, the “tree-root-dweller’s practice” (p. 74), and the “open-air-dweller’s practice” (p. 75).

38. There are countless other examples of artists who might describe their work in such terms; some are omitted due to considerations of space, others because their work seems sensationalistic in motivation.