If life is the greatest form of art, then it seems only natural for artists to use the physical body as a medium. This is exactly what many Performance artists did to express their distinctive views and make their voices heard in the newly liberated social, political, and sexual climate that emerged in the 1960s. It was a freeing time where artists felt empowered to make art ever more personal by dropping traditional mores of art making and opted to using themselves as living sculpture or canvas. This resulted in direct confrontation between artist and audience, producing a startlingly intimate new way to experience art.
The body artists were a loose group – mostly categorized as a group by critics and art historians – which developed early within the Performance Art movement. The larger movement’s main impetus was to evolve definitions of art to include situations in which time, space, the artist’s presence, and the relationship between artist and viewer constituted an artwork. To the body artists, the artist’s presence translated to an artist’s physicality; not only did they need to personally fulfill a role in the presentation of an artwork, their own flesh and blood would become a key figure in the work as well.
- Body art diffused the veil between artist and artwork by placing the body front and center as actor, medium, performance, and canvas. Lines were erased between message and messenger or creator and creation, giving new meaning to, and amplifying the idea of, authentic first person perspective.
- In the post-1960s atmosphere of changing social mores and thawed attitudes toward nudity, the body became a perfect tool to make the political personal. What else could be more demonstrative of an artist’s passions, opinions, and voice than a direct, literal representation of the self as the prime channel of communication in making a point? Especially in matters of the hot button issues of the time, using the body became a way for an artist to connect the individual with the universal human experience – one person asking others to resonate as a whole.
- By forcing audiences to partake in oftentimes violent, jarring, shocking, or unimaginable experience, Body art asked its viewers to consider the role they were playing in the dark and uncomfortable spaces between innocent bystander and culpable voyeur.
- Whether regarded as a temple and honored as a sacred vessel or treated as an object to test, wield, or destruct, the body was placed on a pedestal and became a literal (rather than just appropriated, imagined, or created by the artist’s hand) collaborator in the art making process. This focus so narrowly directed toward the body, ultimately forced viewers to hone a spotlight on their own physicality and its role in their fleeting existence.
- Body art can be seen as a forebear to today’s general mainstream acceptance of tattooing, piercing, scarring, or otherwise adorning the body as a means to establish one’s own individuality as well as connections to certain forms of community and likeminded mentality.