Hybridity, does it trivialise art?

Essay 2011 6 Pages

Art - Installation / Action/Performance Art / Modern Art


Hybridity, does it trivialize art?

“ If a painter also does performance art, the art world is extremely skeptical - it ʼ s considered a trivialization of one form by another. ” Carolee Schneemann, 1988 (Cited by Kaye,1996 a)

This essay will explore which philosophical outlooks might have lead to the statement above being true at the time of writing, assess whether these are still prevalent attitudes today and hypothesis how this might affect current and future practitioners. Within the text I aim to define some key terms, identify hybridity as an area of exciting development, indicate some interesting practitioners in the field and place current developments in a wider social context.

Performance art is a loose term ʻ often used simply to describe, identify or quantify a certain work of art as having a relation to performance or performance-like attributes ...

Performance art does not present the illusion of events, but rather presents actual events as art. ʼ (Hoffmann and Jonas, 2005) ʻ ... It can be any artistic manifestation or action that is presented in front of an audience, although, in contrast to theatre, it is not based on a pre- determined set of dialogues. (Hoffmann and Jonas, 2005, citing Goldberg, 1979) ʼ

To consider an art-form ʻtrivializedʼ, it is necessary for it to have been transformed from another state, one of greater importance. It is also necessary to accept that some critics believe the arts are more important when they are distinct from each other, when they are ʻpureʼ. This idea of artistic purity within a singular medium is one that Modernist, Abstract Expressionist painters and theorist Clement Greenberg explored (Marthinsen 2002), echoing Platoʼs discussions of art and what is desirable in his ideal society (Melling 1987).

Current, postmodern, artists are, by default, influenced by modernist thought.

‘Postmodern’ is also a loose term and many art movements can be included under its banner. Postmodern reactions to modernist ideas may include questioning ideas of originality, status and purity and a desire to break free from categorization. Bricolage is strongly associated with Postmodernism and it can be described as the joining together of fragments not previously associated with each other. Derrida (1967), suggested that we are all bricoleurs as we are all influenced by many things. (1)

It is against this well established background of critical thinking that hybrid and multi disciplinary artists such as Schnemann find themselves working. If ‘multi-disciplinary’ is taken to describe an artist who works with different genres in separate pieces, the term ‘hybrid’ could be used to describe one who uses different genres in the same piece of work.

Hybridity, perhaps, is an expanded form of bricolage, related but separate from Jorg Heiser’s (2010) ‘super-hybridity’. The concept of hybridity is closely linked to postmodern questions relating to modernist ideas such as purity and abstraction. It is a word with negative connotations (Cohen &Toninato, 2007) but Leah Marthensen (2002) and I argue that ʻ it can represent increased intensity, knowledge and experience.ʼ RoseLee Goldberg (1979) believes artists have always been multi-disciplinary and that the separation of the disciplines is relatively recent, suggesting that current hybrid practices are a return to an older, more holistic view of the creative arts.

ʻ If there is one generally acknowledged characteristic of post-modernism, it is profound skepticism about the universal validity of any single narrative, or theoretical ʻ story ʼ concerning human affairs.ʼ (Blake, 1996, citing Lyotard, 1979)

Modern Painters magazine (March 2011) wrote that ʻ theatricality has been a prominent mode of contemporary art since the decline of modernism... a reaction against the modernist emphasis on purity, abstraction, materiality and concept. ʼ They go on to say that much of the most interesting work, currently, is film and video, a medium which, due to itʼs nature and its relative newness, is hybrid in the extreme.

The problem with being someone who doesn ʼ t fit in one or the other form is that you get trashed from both sides. The visual arts people say it ʼ s not hip enough, but the theatre people think it ʼ s too cold. ʼ Ping Chong, 1990 (cited by Kaye, 1996 b)

Schneemannʼs comment implies a rejection of Modernist values such as purity and an attempt at breaking down traditional genre boundaries. This sentiment is echoed by theatre maker and artist Ping Chong who demands that the scenography associated with his productions is ʻ not just passively sitting there ... it ʼ s a statement that has it ʼ s own weight . ʼ As Penny Saunders of Forkbeard Fantasy says ʻ details have to say something to be pertinent (Crawley 2007 cited by Burnett 2007).ʼ Chong and Saunders are both expressing a need for the performances they are engaged with to be read as complete texts, the scenography is not simply a pretty backdrop to the ʻreal actionʼ, any visual or aural details have the same importance as the performed elements and can be read in similar terms to sculpture or painting. There are interesting questions here surrounding what can now be considered the defining factors within each genre when performances might be durational to the extent that the audience now needs to relate to them in a manner previously associated with the visual arts and sculptures may be presented as performances (Gaggie, 1986).(2)

Within Performance Art, attitudes have changed. Marina Abramovic has moved from describing theatre as ʻ the enemy ʼ (Kaye 1996 c) to re-creating her Performance Art history in a theatrical contex t, blurring boundaries between ʻpureʼ performance art and ʻpureʼ theatre. Staged...and yet real. Circus, a medium currently enjoying rapid growth (Micklem 2006) and being often incorporated in hybrid work (Wilson 2011), seems ideal for these explorations as, when circus skills are performed (3), to use a quote from Abramovic, ʻ the knife is real, the blood is real ʼ (Ayers 2010) and yet the event is (normally) thoroughly staged, presenting a dichotomy between usual distinctions in live arts - the ʻillusionʼ of theatre and the ʻtruthʼ of performance art.

Circus, Burlesque and many other entertainments are traditionally viewed as ʻlow browʼ despite, or indeed because of their popularity, in comparison to the ʻhigh cultureʼ arts such as opera, ballet and classical music where education is deemed to increase understanding and appreciation (Arts Council England 2005). There can be no comprehensive list of what may be considered low-brow but postmodernism has blurred the status boundaries and now ʻlow browʼ works have been accepted into the canon of high art, for example Robert Mapplethorpʼs photography, Annie Sprinkleʼs burlesque shows (Schneider 1997) and Rasp Thorneʼs performances (O ʼ Reilly 2010).


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Institution / College
University of the West of England, Bristol
Art Fine Art Performance Art Live Art Post-modernism Hybridity multi-disciplinary



Title: Hybridity,  does it trivialise art?