Is Lady Gaga a Performance Artist?

Is Lady Gaga performer--or performance artist? (Getty Images)

Is Lady Gaga performer--or performance artist? (Getty Images)

The name of the exhibition says it all: “David Bowie, Artist.” The Museum of Arts and Design’s upcoming retrospective intends to demonstrate how Mr. Bowie’s work “has become the blueprint for contemporary artists working in performance.”

What does it mean for a contemporary recording artist to “work in performance”? Consider a star who has absorbed Mr. Bowie’s lessons in out-there dressing and adventurous music: Lady Gaga described her 2009 guest appearance on Gossip Girl as “like, a real coup d’état for me as a performance artist.” She’s merited praise from performance artist Marina Abramovic, who told a reporter, “I really appreciate her.” She’s earned criticism, too, from MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, who reportedly informed Lady Gaga that she was not a performance artist, quoting Susan Sontag to tell the pop star, “All we have is our opinion.”

If you think Lady Gaga’s is an egregious use of the term, pay no attention to the actor James Franco, who referred to his gig on the soap opera General Hospital as performance art, explaining it in a Wall Street Journal piece that name-checked Ms. Abramovic and the self-flagellating Chris Burden.

Then there is Daphne Guinness. She may be no gallery artist, but on the eve of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume institute gala in May, in honor of the museum’s exhibition of late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Barney’s asked the beer heiress to get dressed for the event in its windows. “[M]e as performance art!” Ms. Guinness crowed on Vogue.com. It raised the question: Was Ms. Guinness the art, or were the clothes by Mr. McQueen—who also transformed Lady Gaga from downtown princess to queen of the avant-garde in the “Bad Romance” music video—doing the performing?

Is this the true legacy of Mr. Bowie—the creep of the term “performance art” into the culture? The use of it to encompass any performance by a would-be artist? For what did Mr. Burden bleed while crucified to a Volkswagen in 1974 when Lady Gaga could claim his mantle with a dress made of steak at an MTV awards ceremony?

“I would think that Lady Gaga is performing art,” said Mr. Biesenbach, “and I think that Marina Abramovic is performance art. There’s a difference. If there’s a narrative, it’s performing art; if it’s an object, it’s performance art. It’s—to me—a clear distinction.” (The distinction gets muddier, though, considering that performance artists have taken to performing—Ms. Abramovic, for instance, is staging a musical on her life at this year’s Manchester International Festival.)

Mr. Biesenbach’s view is echoed by the artist Liz Magic Laser, who recently staged a performance piece in Times Square in which six actors chased one another on stairs to re-enact classic cinema. “They’re not performance artists,” said Ms. Magic Laser of Lady Gaga et al. “It doesn’t have to do with the intrinsic value of their performances—it’s all about context and target audience. A Lady Gaga concert … is not hailing the art world audience.” Lady Gaga’s success hardly rests on cornering the art crowd: she makes her money selling albums. “Lady Gaga is well equipped to enter the art world if she so chose—that requires aiming her performance at physical venues and social and theoretical conversations,” said Ms. Magic Laser.

But isn’t she doing so already? In 2009, Gaga performed at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, pounding away on a Damien Hirst-customized piano in a Frank Gehry-designed hat—the whole spectacle was coordinated by Francesco Vezzoli, an artist whose other work includes videos packed with celebrities. If Mr. Vezzoli is an artist, why isn’t his collaborator?

“I think performance art seems more desirable because what’s in a museum lasts for eternity, while performing art is very time-sensitive and might just be for a certain season,” said Mr. Biesenbach. Just by being featured at MoCA, Lady Gaga maybe got a little piece of the canon, something harder to achieve for a young artist than a hit single is for a singer. “I don’t know if Lady Gaga is eternal, but when a museum acquires something and shows it, it’s meant to be truth and beauty, but forever.”

MoMA made headlines in 2009 when it acquired its first piece of live performance art, Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2003). Then there was last year’s blockbuster MoMA show “The Artist Is Present,” during which Ms. Abramovic sat motionless, staring at one attendee at a time. Attendees included Marisa Tomei, Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall and, naturally, Mr. Franco. “It was kind of the talk of the town or talk of the country; even when I traveled people mentioned it,” said Mr. Biesenbach. “It definitely made it more mainstream. Because nobody questioned it being at MoMA. It’s a change of the discourse.”

Asked about performance art versus other types of performing, RoseLee Goldberg, founder of the Performa biennial, told The Observer, “To be an artist is to be isolated, to work in a way which is original and highly experimental. The artist rarely knows where he or she is going, until he/she gets there.”

But consider Lady Gaga’s costumes. If they are not art, they are … something apart from the typical pop-star uniform. “When you observe her costumes,” said Leslie Tonkonow, the gallerist who works with artists like Laurel Nakadate, “there’s definitely an influence of actual history, even going back to the beginning of the 20th century. She’s definitely aware of the history of performance art—she’s influenced by it and incorporating it into her act.” Ms. Tonkonow cited the mid-1970s work of Pat Oleszko, whose costume of dozens of inflatable, red-nippled breasts Lady Gaga reappropriated as a custom-made body suit for a recent Harper’s Bazaar fashion spread. (Other examples might include the work of Carolee Schneemann, whose Meat Joy presaged that meat dress by decades.) That said, “I wouldn’t necessarily consider her a performance artist,” indicated Ms. Tonkonow, “but she definitely incorporates performance as an art form.”

Andrey Bartenev, a Russian performance artist whose outsize costumes look somewhat Gagavian, told The Observer that performance art is based upon “new visual ideas, new technology, new composition—everything new. It makes everything fresh, and that freshness made it interesting to pop culture. Pop culture wants to make everything fresh and promote happy future.” Those who prefer performances of “Born This Way” to performance art and thus don’t catch the Carolee Schneemann-esque dog-whistle in Lady Gaga’s meat dress can still appreciate it as a groundbreaking installation, if not art. “She’s great as an example of how crazy people should use ideas from other crazy people,” said Mr. Bartenev.

Fair enough. But is she a performance artist? “Performance art has destroyed the gap between the stage and the audience,” said Mr. Bartenev.

It is perhaps not so far-fetched to suggest that these days we might all at one point or another think of ourselves as performance artists. “We live in a time where everyone is updating the weather on your iPhone, your life on Facebook,” said Mr. Biesenbach. “I think it just makes it clear that things are in a constant flow, and performance art, the most amazing thing with Marina sitting in the atrium, it was constant updating. It was a clear expression of time, which seems kind of the golden trend of our time.”

Ms. Goldberg takes a less optimistic view of the use and abuse of the term “performance art” by popular media. “The term catches on and the media tends to use it for everything that is over the top or unconventional. A politician cries in public and the media declares—oh, that’s performance art! It has become part of everyday terminology.”

Performance art’s newfound ubiquity in the culture may generate more real performance art, as well as much performance art of the ersatz variety. Of Ms. Abramovic’s recent show, Mr. Biesenbach said, “I think it’ll have an impact on the following generations, right? I see many artists that were playing with sculpture and photography—they really allow themselves to do a piece that’s not object-related. When I saw Terence Koh at Mary Boone, I thought like, this is really a liberation, thanks to Marina, that a great artist is doing a show at a great gallery without even producing an object.” Mr. Koh appeared with Lady Gaga in a 2010 performance, entitled GAGAKOH!, at a Japanese club.

Mr. Biesenbach seems to prefer discussing the gallery art, and he’s not alone. The gap between artist and audience, if dented, remains intact. But is the work of past artists diminished by the latest would-be practitioners of the form? Of references to performance art made by popular performers like Lady Gaga, Ms. Goldberg told The Observer: “It’s a reference and an inspiration for sure. It’s essentially popularizing work that is made in a very different context.”

ddaddario@observer.com :: @DPD_