The New Stars of Performance Art

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It used to be that if a famous actor wanted to extend their artistic brand, they'd form a rock group. These days, the cool kids who want to be even cooler are taking up performance art. At this year’s South by Southwest, Lady Gaga had an artist vomit soy milk all over her, which she later described as “art in its purest form.” Jay Z performed “Picasso Baby” at a Manhattan art gallery for six hours straight, and Marina Abramović, considered the godmother of performance art, came to dance with him. In another video, Abramović covers James Franco’s body in gold leaf to a soundtrack of spa music.

But what if you’re a full-time performance artist — broke, obscure, getting naked for grant money? Are you bitter about the interlopers, or happy that more people are paying attention to performance art?

“Whenever someone does something weird it’s ‘performance art,’” says Carol Cheh. Cheh is an art critic for LA Weekly and co-curator of the Perform Chinatown festival. “That’s a misperception of the term.” But defining performance art is a challenge, even for a practitioner like Nao Bustamante. “It’s very difficult to describe,” she says, “and maybe that’s what makes it so easy for so many people to enter.” Bustamante might not like what the celebrities are performing, “but they’re doing it,” she says. “It seems like a bunch of crybabies when [artists] stamp their feet and say, “No, no, no! We’re the artists. They’re the celebrities. You stay over here. We’re going to stay over here.”

Park Doing, a philosophy student at Cornell University, finds that celebrity art disrupts our experiences of art and the art world for the better. He was in the crowd for a Shia LaBeouf exhibition in Los Angeles that people lined up to see for days. He never got in. “This breach of worlds was very interesting to me. And the kind of gumption, or entitlement — however you want to say it — did have the effect of this disruption.”

“The fact that these people make bad art is irritating, but that is not really the issue, because bad art is everywhere,” Carol Cheh, the critic, sums up. “The issue really is their level of access. One of my artist friends said, ‘Artists have to work so hard just to get one tiny write-up in one little weekly newspaper and all Shia LaBeouf has to do is sneeze and he’s got the Wall Street Journal.’”

Music Playlist

  1. Swine

    Artist: Lady Gaga
    Album: Artpop
    Label: Streamline/Interscope
  2. Across the Universe

    Artist: The Beatles
    Album: Let It Be
    Label: Capitol Records
  3. Picasso Baby

    Artist: Jay Z
    Album: Magna Carta... Holy Grail
    Label: Roc Nation / IDJ
  4. Theme from Work of Art

  5. Theme from The Gong Show

  6. The Man Who Sold The World

    Artist: David Bowie
    Album: The Man Who Sold The World
    Label: Parlophone UK