In: Carolee Schneeman

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of performance art, which included live performances taking place daily in the rooms of the museum. I am talking about The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramović, which attracted thousands of visitors (700.000 according to The New Yorker).

The presence of performance in leading institutions such as the MoMA has definitely contributed to its acceptance into the mainstream during the last few decades. However, some people still question why performing in front of an audience can be considered art, and not drama/theatre. Abramović herself gave her opinion on this matter in an interview while promoting her MoMA show, stating that “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramović, ‘Rhythm 10’, 1973, performance, 60 min.

I am sure many actors –and perhaps some artists as well- would have many counterarguments to Abramović’s words, but her assertiveness shows that the performance vs. acting debate is still alive. The lines separating performance art and drama are certainly blurry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world where everything seems to be more and more interconnected. So instead of focusing on trying to define what performance is against other disciplines, I think it is much more interesting to examine here why its irruption in the world of visual arts has been so important for the development of contemporary culture.

The beginnings of performance art can be dated back at least to the early twentieth century, and particularly to the Dada movement. Dadaists defied conventional definitions of art by mixing poetry, music and visual arts in unconventional performances that took place in alternative spaces such as the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Between the 1940s and the early 1960s, a series of artistic actions (often derived from  “action painting”), interactive installations, and performative events organised by artists such as Yves Klein and groups like Gutai, anticipated some of the characteristics of what was to be labelled “Performance Art” from the 1960s onward.

The Japanese group Gutai was one of the first to take exhibitions and artistic actions outside the traditional spaces of the museum and the gallery. They organised many outdoor events, like the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition (Ashiya, Japan), where visitors were invited to take part in the artworks. The idea of opening up art to the participation of the public was also at the heart of Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which art became a collective experience.

Allan Kaprow's happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

Allan Kaprow’s happening ‘Fluids’, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

This new role of the public -who is no longer contemplative and passive as in traditional art exhibitions- that comes with performance art, disrupts the conventional relationship between the viewers and the artworks, and generates new dynamics between the viewers and the artists. Because, as the title of Abramović’s exhibition points out, one of the most important characteristics of performance is that the artist is present. In performance art, the body of the artist is the medium, and it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to express different narratives and ideas.

In opposition to an inert painting or sculpture, the presence of the very alive body of the artist means that art stops being a safe experience for the viewer, given the unpredictability of the situation. With performance, art invaded the “real world”, the here and now. Some artists have put the public in particularly difficult positions by putting themselves in danger in front of an audience. Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Chris Burden are some of the most prominent examples. The latter is known for his 1971 piece Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by a friend in front of a small audience.

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me. © Chris Burden. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Chris Burden, ‘Shoot’ (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. © Chris Burden.

In the 1970s, performance was already a quite established artistic practice, with Fluxus –an international, heterogeneous conglomeration of artists, designers, composers, dancers and other professionals that shaped a highly experimental artistic community- as one of its most important representatives.

Why was performance such a success at the time? One of the main reasons was the rise, particularly in the United States, of a series of social and political movements that demanded civil and social rights, equality, and justice. In such a politicised environment, many artists used performance as a means to address the concerns behind different social groups and communities. For instance, some of the most well-known performances from this period are linked to the rise of feminism and the Feminist art movement. This is the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which culminated with the artist extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading from it.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece Interior Scroll, 1975.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975.

These are just a few of the many artists and actions that contributed to the early developments of performance as an art form. It would be impossible to cite them all here, but the changes they introduced during the second half of the twentieth century -the organisation of artistic actions outside traditional spaces, the increasingly active role of the publics, and, most importantly, the use of the artist’s body as a medium- are essential in order to understand our current artistic context.

As back to school approaches, Art Versed explores the most prestigious and popular MFA programs in the U.S. Whether you’re thinking about returning to school or graduating this year and planning for the future, these programs will certainly guarantee artistic success. A mixture of Ivy League classics and schools specializing in art and design make the list, allowing for artists to choose the school environment best for them.

© 2011 Sandra Burns

Yale MFA Installation at Green Hall © 2011 Sandra Burns

Yale University— The classic dream school, Yale’s MFA program is incredibly impressive and popular, with notable alumni such as Eva Hesse and Chuck Close. This three year program is especially known for their graphic design and photography programs, proclaimed as the best in the country. The program is also very strong for sculpture, painting and printmaking. Like all Ivy League schools, the prestige that accompanies the Yale name comes at a cost, specifically $33,500 a year. However, with its distinguished faculty and alumni, the connections built within the Yale artistic community, as well as addition of the powerful name Yale to your CV, are worth every penny.

Columbia University of the City of New York— Another Ivy dream school, Columbia provides the beautiful traditional campus of an ivy league school in the heart of NYC, allowing students to explore the diverse cultural scene. Columbia’s MFA is incredibly selective, claiming an admissions rate of only 2%. Columbia also offers a speciality in “new genres” such as Sound Art, setting it apart from other MFA programs. Like Yale, this 2 year ivy program boasts an impressive list of faculty and alumni such as Jon Kessler, Georgia Sagri, Guy Ben-Ner, Lisi Raskin, but also comes with the hefty price tag of $51,676.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maclean Center

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maclean Center

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago— Focusing mainly on new media and the intersection of art and technology, SAIC offers a special program in film/video/new media and Sound art, as well as an MA in Visual and Critical Studies, which combines visual art and art theory. The SAIC alumni could not possibly get more impressive, so if you want to wander the same halls once populated by Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Claes Oldenburg, and Jeff Koons this is the school for you. Part of the Art Institute of Chicago, and located in the heart of the city, SAIC also provides an opportunity for students to explore the museum’s collection and the city’s art scene. The powerful alumni and great location tip the scales against the school’s big sticker price of $44,010. However, SAIC is known to give a substantial amount of grants and student funding.

The SMFA atrium

The SMFA atrium

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston— This artist founded institution was established in 1876 and is run through Tufts University in partnership with the MFA Boston. Students here have the unique and incredible opportunity of exhibiting their work at the MFA Boston during their 2 years at SMFA. This tiny, (less than 200 students per year) interdisciplinary program, attended by the likes of Jim Dine, Nan Goldin, and Ellsworth Kelly, prominent reputation can perhaps justify the price of $39,020.

Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design— Compared to some of the previous programs discussed, which combine technique with academic study, RISD stresses technical elements of artistic craft. Offering specialties in a huge variety of areas, RISD is the school for the artist’s artist, looking to work hard. Unlike many of the programs on this list at large universities, RISD has less than 400 graduate students in total, and the average class size is only 11 students. The program can be completed in anywhere between 1-3 years, which could make the price of $42,622 more manageable if you’re able to finish in just one year. Incredible alumni such as Andrea Zittel, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker certainly bolster the school’s prestige.

Bard College Fischer Center

Bard College Fischer Center

Bard College— This tiny school located in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York, offers a unique system allowing students to complete their MFA in three summer sessions and two independent-study sessions, allowing students to also work on building their portfolios while completing their degree. Many of Bard’s alumni return to teach classes, so students may have the chance to study with Amy Sillman, Paul Chan, Carolee Schneeman, David Horvitz, Herb Ritts, or Rachel Harrison at some point during their time at Bard. The chance to study with any of these greats, as well as work in an untraditional setting balances out the sticker shock the accompanies the $55,000 price tag.

admissions

Pratt School of Design

Pratt School of Design— Pratt offers its students some of the best and most extensive resources of the schools on this list. With wood, metal, and print shops, as well as ceramics studios and darkrooms, students students have access to a wide variety resources as well as exhibition space in Pratt’s own gallery spaces. If these resources don’t speak for themselves, the extensive list of successful Pratt alumni will, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mickalene Thomas, and Roxy Paine. All of these resources and prestige come at the lowest price of any of the schools on our list, $28,308 annually.

School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Thesis Exhibition

School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Thesis Exhibition

School of Visual Arts (SVA)— Excelling in the specialities of media arts, such as Computer and video art, as well as the more “traditional” media of painting and sculpture, SVA provides students with all the wonderful opportunities of going to school in NYC at a slightly lower price than Columbia– a refreshing $36,130. Despite its smaller price tag, SVA still boasts an incredible list of alumni such as Keith Haring, Sarah Sze, and Sol LeWitt. Also worth noting, SVA also offers a program called “visual narratives” which combines visual arts and creative writing.

SCAD, Savannah Poetter Hall

SCAD, Savannah Poetter Hall

Savannah College of Arts and Design— Heading South, the Savannah College of Arts & Design offers the largest variety of programs of any school specializing in art and design. Interestingly, many of SCAD’s programs are also available for completion online. With renowned faculty and alumni, many of which focused in photography and graphic design, SCAD provides great opportunities and resources in the charming city of Savannah for their students, at the slightly lower price of $34,250 annually.

CalArts; image courtesy of LA Times

CalArts; image courtesy of LA Times

CalArts— Transitioning to the West, CalArts is known to be “the best” visual arts program on the west coast. It’s location in sunny Valencia, California means that it has connections to the film and media industries of Hollywood, which are good for post-grad professional opportunities and connections. If alumni such as Mike Kelley and Jack Goldstein aren’t enough to sell you, maybe the fact that the school was “founded” by none other than Walt Disney will be enough to convince you CalArts is the place for you. However, all that sunshine and prestige comes at the expensive price of $41,700 a year.