Performance Art Explained: Hennessy Youngman to the Rescue

Love him or leave him-- Hennessy Youngman explains difficult art concepts to the social media generation.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia
When I first started my blog a year and a half ago, I was looking to add some value to my lectures, especially those that dealt with more challenging or even potentially controversial topics. Just this past week, I finally arrived at one of those threshold moments in a modern/contemporary art lecture that deals with the subject of performance art. I had learned from past years introducing this material that the road to this particular lecture has to be paved with a great deal of relevant context and information about the reasons/rationale for such a hard-to-understand approach to art. For many students, the idea of the dematerialization of the art object is already a difficult enough concept to grasp—so adding the body as medium to that mix often leads to unpredictable reactions. I also endeavour to provide the requisite warnings that some of the material will be graphic and involve the necessary elements that make performance art push the boundaries of the intimate, sexual, psychological dimensions of the body.  As in most years, there are a handful of students who walk out on this lecture, concluding that the their definition of art has been severely transgressed by the projects I discuss (usually some combination of the Gutai, Carolee Schneemann, Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Orlan, and of course Marina Abramovic who I have made no secret of admiring in several blog posts).

Ironically enough (or not—I have a feeling this is no coincidence), I stumbled across one of the more recent videos posted by Hennessy Youngman on his “Art Thoughtz” series focused on defining and explaining performance art (check it out below). For those of you unfamiliar with Youngman, he is a persona created and performed by Brooklyn based artist Jayson Musson and his “Art Thoughtz” exist as a YouTube series while his lectures have also been performed in a number of academic/artistic venues (including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago—see that performance also embedded below). He came to my attention around the same time I started my blog and I began posting his monologues, along with a number of my students who also found his work online, on the blog’s Facebook page as a kind of reflective subtext and running dialogue to the ideas I raised in my lecture and were discussed in seminars. After watching this most recent video, I decided to share it here on the main blog in an effort to reach those students who still “don’t get” how and why performance art is. I also offer it up in the spirit of adding value and some humour to a lecture that sometimes gets sidelined by the discomfort of having to consider a new idea that challenges established beliefs about the art as process/practice. If nothing else, it is a great mind-bending example of a performance artist performing the task of describing performance (say that ten times fast). Enjoy or be offended—but be prepared to be challenged.

Further Reading:

Alexander Cavaluzzo, "Jayson Musson Is More Than Hennessy Youngman" in Interview Magazine (2012).