Performance Art as Property

Pity the avant garde performance artist! Marina Abramovic has carved a star into her stomach, fasted for ten days while living on a shelf in a Chelsea art gallery, and stood mute in an Italian gallery while random visitors were invited to do anything to her body with knives, scissors and needles. Very edgy, very calculated to shock. But the ultimate taboo, one that even provocateur Abramovic declined to challenge, was…art as private property.

A recent New York Times profile of Abramovic (November 6, 2005) described her plans to re-interpret famous performance art pieces of artists from the 1970s and 1980s at an upcoming set of performances at the Guggenheim Museum. The idea is to do “cover” versions of performances, much as dozens of musicians do their own versions of Beatles songs. But in re-creating memorable performance art — which, by definition, consists of one-off, one-time real-life events — does Abramovic need the permission of prior artists? Does she need to pay them?

While music and visual arts enjoy an elaborate set of copyright protections, live performances of a woman screaming until she loses her voice or brushing and combing her hair until her scalp bleeds — both of which Abramovic has “performed” — are not protected by copyright. Abramovic thinks they should be. As she complained to a Times reporter: “Anybody can take anything, and we can’t do a thing about it.” The original idea behind performance art, of course, was its raw immediacy and ephemeral nature. Performance art is fundamentally about human presence and its singular, irreproducible transience — quite the opposite of property.

But the siren call of commercial culture is apparently corrupting even such uncompromising pioneers as Abramovic. She became irritated that advertisers and fashion designers began to emulate her performance without even giving credit. So for her Guggenheim performances, she has refused to re-interpret famous performance art of the past without first obtaining the permission of the original artists or their estates.

In some respects, I find this admirable. Abramovic wants to honor her artistic predecessors and give credit where credit is due. In other respects, however, she is inviting the kudzu-like organism of property law to seize control of performance art, one of the last redoubts of non-commodified expression. They say that art tends to reflect its times. Maybe that’s what Abramovic is all about: acting out the property obsessions of the 21st century.