Great American Performance Artists of the Past

can canStill from Jean Renoir’s immortal 1954 French Cancan

I’m aware that some of the readers of this blog have been insulted that I’m less than enthusiastic about Performance Art. And I’ve taken the criticism to heart. I’ve actually begun looking into some of the early American practitioners of the form dating back to the last 1880s in the Southwest region of the country, where one was likely to find much of the refined culture that America was in the process of developing and which would come into full bloom in the later part of the 20th century.

In some ways I think these early Performance Artists were far greater than what is going on in the Art World of Today. This comes as no surprise to me as I’ve long felt that the art done in the latter part of the 19th century is in all ways superior to that of the latter part of the twentieth. I thus ask: Why would Performance Art have escaped the decline that has occurred to the fine art of painting?

It’s also unfortunate that American ingenuity with technology (which for many of us has fortunately replaced handmade art) hadn’t arrived in the streets of Tucson, AZ in the year 1884 as all we have of these master Performances Artists of the day is the descriptions of the writer from the Arizona Star. We must rely on our imaginations to construct the scene from his stirring account:

“The curtain rises about nine PM and falls on a climax of obscenity about one o’clock in the morning following. Prior to the opening of the theater its patrons… are worked for all they are worth by… girls, some young some old, in tight fitting abbreviated dresses. To drink with them is an esteemed favor, not to be enjoyed by the impecunious. The man of money…is their delight. If he be coy and bashful, he is coddled until he gives down to his last nickel. In the curtained boxes the game is successfully played. Here screened from the observations of the curious, men…yield readily to the wheedling caresses, naked bosoms, bare arms, shapely legs and would-be winsome smiles of the fair professionals.”

And, folks, this is just what’s going on in the audience! Wait until you get a description of the stage act. Matthew Barney and Marina Abramovic pale in comparison to the early innovators of the form.:

“Here the entertainment was varied. A young woman, Miss Sallie Clinetop,  dressed in slate colored tights created quite a hit by dancing around the stage on her toes…She was followed by Stanley sisters, two comely young women in short dresses and pink stockings. They sang several duets and were repeatedly applauded. They were succeeded by Miss Trixie Vernon similarly attired. She sang one or two plantation melodies and then retired to give place to another young woman in striped tights, who recounted the mishaps which befell a certain young lady when sliding down a bannister upon which her brother had placed a piece of barbed wire.”

“Shortly after midnight, however, the curtain rang up and the can-can came on in all its glory. First three young women in pink tights with dresses not of sufficient length to cover the hips danced the can-can through with barbaric vigor. As they retired amid the plaudits of an admiring crowd, three men blackened like negroes, clad in tights, with women’s undergarments over them, sprang on the stage and vied with each other in the obscenity of their actions. Three times this performance was repeated by the women and a like number of times by the men, and at each repetition they strove to outdo if possible the filthiness of their previous actions, and to cap the climax both men and women joined in the debasing exhibition together…”

So wake up, American Performance Art community!!! We can do better than this! We need to look back to the glory days of the past when not only were we a more imaginative artistic community but the hi-jinks mixed with transcendent aesthetic revelations were easily more sensually and intellectually overpowering than these banal and quaint sideshows staged by boring Chris Burden and John Baldessari types. Enough of the banality! More “barbaric vigor”!


About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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