Performance art and performing arts: two sides of the same conceptual coin
It’s easy to look at the words performance art and performing arts and assume they’re the same thing—the two mediums do have a great deal in common. However, the key distinction between the two, despite their similarities, is the intention of the performance. If an artist is performing for the sake of art, with a more conceptual purpose, it is classified as performance art. Conversely, if the performance is based around rehearsed, learned skills, with the overarching intention to tell a story, it is classified as performing art.
The performing arts cover a wide range of skills including ballet, dance, opera, musical theatre, acting, and more. These are all skills that can be used in performance art. Take, for example, the cross section of dance, visual arts, and activism from the 1960s. While this piece incorporated elements of the performing arts, its ultimate focus was not the dance itself, but rather its underlying message. In the performing arts, the execution of these skills in a rehearsed, narrative focus literally takes center stage. That’s not to imply the acts in performance art do not require skill and technique, but the performing arts rely on extensive training to master the specific performance at hand. Performance art, conversely, defines itself as visual art with something to say.
This distinction can seem confusing. Another way to conceptualize the differing terms is to internalize that performance art, unlike the performing arts, depends on its viewing to be actualized. To illustrate this point, consider the performance art piece by Yoko Ono, titled “Cut Piece.”
In this performance, Yoko Ono sits alone on a stage. She is wearing a suit, and in front of her lies a pair of scissors. The audience is given instructions that they are permitted to cut a section of her clothing. Some participants cut small squares, while others took greater liberty and cut pieces of fabric to expose her breasts and body.
She performed “Cut Piece” several times, but no experience exactly replicated another. Each rendition was its own presentation of events.
The agency that Yoko Ono provides participants in the crafting of the show distinguishes “Cut Piece” as performance art. The distinction is made by the way the audience conceptualizes the task. Are they meant to expose her body fully? Or should there be an effort to protect her modesty? The conceptual idea around it, as well as the fact that Yoko Ono makes herself the piece of art, makes this a clear example of performance art.
Performance art relies on the audience to assign meaning to the piece. Viewers are asked to contribute their lived experiences that breathe context into provocative and poignant performances.
Another important distinction between the two art forms is the social ritual commonly associated with the performing arts. When audiences attend a musical or a ballet, there is a social expectation of what they are going to see. Of course, there is room for experimentation within the realms of these schemas, but it is commonly assumed that a script or a choreographed routine will follow established parameters of the performance, offering a sense of familiarity. This level of predictability leaves less conceptual room for debate about why the performance is happening.
In performance art, the boundaries that confine the performing arts to a particular script do not exist. This unconstrained perspective provides the artist with an unconventional medium to explore concepts in organic and electrifying ways.
Clearly, there is artistic value in both the performing arts and performance arts. Both offer reflective messages from performer to audience, but deliver different forms of intent and integrity in their manifestations. Neither category is necessarily superior, and they both have their place in the world of the arts. At the end of the day, the distinction mostly exists as a way to inform audiences of what they are about to experience and digest. But whether it be performing arts or performance arts, the final product still promises a memorable show—and the possibilities in this are endless.
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