In Defense of Performance Art in the Digital Age

James Westcott, the author of the excellent biography When Marina Abramovic Dies, wrote an op-ed for the Times this week called “Did YouTube Kill Performance Art?” Mr. Westcott opens by talking about the self-flagellation of performance artist Chris Burden in a piece called “Through The Night Softly,” which the artist broadcast on television in a series of 10-second ads in 1973.

“The shock value of those 10-second ads,” Mr. Westcott writes, “Appearing from nowhere in a string of cheerful commercials, would be drowned out now — and ridiculed — in our YouTube world. The ubiquity of digital spectacles and curiosities today is one reason performance art has had its thunder stolen. Another is more insidious — a new form of subjectivity prompted by platforms like Facebook: the constant need to Perform Yourself (which could be YouTube’s slogan, rather than ‘Broadcast Yourself’).”

To call the ephemera that circulates by the minute on the internet “overwhelming” would be an understatement indeed, but Mr. Westcott’s argument leaves out the alternative idea that performance art itself—which whittled down to its essentials is about the strangeness of being alive at any given moment—should have to adapt and respond to a changing culture. That’s not particularly easy, though. Mr. Westcott discusses “two Web pranksters, Franco and Eva Mattes,” and their recent staging of a suicide on Chatroulette. Mr. Westcott calls this a regression. The Observer agrees, not only for its tastelessness, but also for the alarmingly insensitive reactions of the audience (laughing, taking photos), which became assimilated into the performance.

How can one be provocative in a time when people watch videos of beheadings, simply because they are bored? Perhaps the idea of what “provocative” means should change.

Anyway, the Internet’s not going anywhere. “Through The Night Softly” is on YouTube.

In Defense of Performance Art in the Digital Age