Middlebrow vs. Performance Art
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Browbeating

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If Middlebrow is forever working to naturalize the unnatural, eternalize the temporary, and make the contingent seem inevitable, performance art does the opposite. Performance art is an anti-middlebrow artform, one which (in more or less compelling and engaging ways) signals the artist’s rejection of the terms and conditions of modern life by treating everyday reality as though it were theater.

This post is excerpted from yesterday’s post on the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation.

Performance art emerged in the Sixties with the work of Postmodernist artists such as Yves Klein, Wolf Vostell, and Allan Kaprow, as well as Anti-Anti-Utopian artists like Vito Acconci, Hermann Nitsch, Carolee Schneemann, and honorary Anti-Anti-Utopian Yoko Ono. (Joseph Beuys is a New God, which explains why he fell out with Fluxus, if you ask me; and Chris Burden is a Boomer.) Gilbert and George are also Anti-Anti-Utopians.

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Middlebrows despise performance art, and mock it viciously whenever possible. Two years ago this month, for example, when Star Simpson, an electrical engineering major at MIT, was arrested for innocently walking into Boston’s Logan Airport (where she was meeting her boyfriend’s plane) wearing a sweatshirt adorned with a plastic circuit board on which a handful of glowing green lights in the shape of a star were wired to a 9-volt battery, middlebrow pundits snarkily accused Simpson of the crime of performance art.

The Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby described Simpson’s actions as a “public display,” an “immature stunt,” and a “juvenile prank.” Meanwhile, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote: “The First Amendment does not give you the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. Or don’t bring what looks like a bomb into Logan Airport….” Carr’s Herald colleage Peter Gelzinis scoffed: “Maybe Star Anna Simpson thought she could saunter through Logan and return to Cambridge with a helluva tale about how no one said a word to her.” The Herald‘s Michele McPhee agreed 110%: “There is absolutely nothing artistic about scaring people in public places.”

Star Simpson's sweatshirt

Star Simpson's sweatshirt

A blogger at the grass-roots conservative website Free Republic, sarcastically ventriloquizing (nonexistent) supporters of Simpson’s (unintentional) performance art, articulated the anxiety expressed in slightly more subtle ways by these middlebrow critics: “Lighten up! It was performance art, everybody! It was a brilliant illustration of the gestapo tactics of the Bush Administration to any law-abiding citizen strolling through an airport with something that looks like a bomb…. It was a stunning performance and I hope she gets an ‘A.’” Though Simpson wasn’t doing any such thing, middlebrows are apparently so afraid that a performance artist might succeed in waking us up to the possibility of radical change that they responded instinctively with a tsunami of mocking hostility.

Performance art, in which so many (Lennon, Dylan, Cleaver, Hoffman, Kesey, Thompson, Crumb, Pynchon, Solanas, Allen) of our favorite Anti-Anti-Utopians engaged, is — like Dada and Neo-Dada — unheimlich. Whenever possible, Middlebrow seeks to coopt and suborn the unheimlich, transforming it into something cuter and cuddlier: cheese, quatsch. If unable to do so, Middlebrow turns performance art’s japery back on itself, a thousand-fold.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s most recent books (2012) are UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.