Performance art, or performance for short in the German-speaking world, is a situational, action-oriented and ephemeral artistic presentation by a performer or a performance group. The art form questions the separability of artist and work as well as the commodity form of traditional works of art.
In the 1960s, initially in the USA, the term "performance art" became a collective term for artistic events that went beyond the usual context of "performing arts" and "visual arts": happenings, "live events", Fluxus concerts, street actions and demonstrations as public artistic events.
Influenced by Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationist International and Conceptual Art, "Performance Art" was increasingly formulated around 1970 in the USA by artists such as Allan Kaprow as an antithesis to theatre and increasingly understood as a conceptually independent art form. In "performance art" of this type, an artistic event should never be repeated in the same way and never have a structure like a piece from the performing arts. In German, the art form defined in this way is often referred to by the short form "Performance" or "Kunstperformance". In the English-speaking world, the use of the short form is not possible, since the word here only has the general meaning of "performance".
Theorists and artists distinguish performances that have developed from concepts in the visual arts from forms that come from the performing arts, such as theatre performance, music performance or literary performance. A theatre performance, however, is not pre-structured like a drama or a theatre performance. In it, the artistic process becomes the work itself, in the form of an immediate action and presence. The body of the artist or (more rarely) the bodies of the performers commissioned by the artist become the artistic medium. No theatrical role is played, but what is presented is truly lived through in the moment of the event. In the performing arts, on the other hand (which have been increasingly influenced by performance concepts since the last few decades, vice versa), the mime takes a back seat to the role he plays in a play, just as in classical ballet the dancer takes a back seat to the figure he dances in a choreography.
The art movement is inherent in the overcoming of any aesthetic of rules. It overcomes notions according to which only permanent, valuable objects that can be moved and sold at will, such as paintings and sculptures, are relevant art.
Performances can be associated with other currents, art movements and art theories, such as body art, happening and Fluxus performance. There are overlaps with action art. However, the Viennese Actionists and the Neo-Dadaists preferred terms such as Live Art, Action Art, Intervention or even Manoeuvre to describe their activities, even if some of these performances would fulfil a narrow definition of "performance".
Performance is often site-specific, but can take place anywhere, at any time and without time limits. Four basic elements come into play: time, space, the body of the artist and a relationship between the artist and the spectator. Although there are performances whose sequence or concept follow a precise dramaturgy, the sociological and philosophical contingency of the development in the course of a performance is an essential element. It is not uncommon for performances to be open-ended artistic experimental arrangements without a flow concept.
Some spectators think they recognise elements of performing arts, circus, entertainment or experimental music in a performance, although the inspiration came from the audio-visual context of the visual arts, from a relationship to propaganda and agitation (Dada and Neoism) or from performance-own concepts. Other performances are actually performing arts or music, for example the music performances in the tradition of John Cage. The art-historically accurate interpretation of a significant performance can therefore be as complex as the interpretation of major works in other art disciplines.
Since a performance, if it was a one-time expression of an artistic life situation, could be repeated as a played role, a kind of forgery, many well-known performers and performance groups attach importance to the media documentation and reception of their performances in the art world. Documentations in video technology or performances directly as video art or film, as well as performance photography, are shown in exhibitions and traded on the art market, sometimes ironically or provocatively as relics or souvenirs. Likewise, performance is usually embedded in the art world through announced events, descriptions and critiques.
In the digitalised media society, performers such as Marina Abramović ask whether performance as ephemeral art needs to be more oriented towards repeatability so that cultural knowledge encoded in performances since the beginning of the art form is not lost and cannot be falsified and misused.