From Happening to Activist Art

Could the position of artists in the world mean more than aesthetic isolation?
Art is a form of expression and connection with the world around us. Through their works, artists create dialogues with the community, dealing with present-day sensitive or controversial issues. Art removes barriers and opens minds and hearts. Art, like any man-made thing, is inevitably influenced by society and events that impact on humanity.

Once art had been freed from the religious and political constraints – a process that lasted several centuries – the artist enjoyed a higher degree of liberty with the avant-garde, which unconventional performances of artists concerned with creation as a process, autonomy and the refusal to meet the public’s expectations by the violent denial of established art forms and the proclamation of novelty. Artists assume the role of civic activists who take vigorous action in times of political and social crisis, in a determined attempt to shock and break patterns.

The happening, an event combining elements of painting, poetry, music, dance and theatre, aimed to eliminate the distance between viewer and artistic creation. This art form had its roots in Hugo Ball’s Dada Cabaret Voltaire, the surreal performances and Italian Futurists in the early years of the twentieth century. Important references to happenings are Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus experiments in the Abstract Theatre, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty or the Theatre of the Absurd and the simultaneous activities coordinated by John Cage and the Fluxus group.

Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution), performed by a group of Viennese artists on 5 June 1968, is one of the most famous post-war performances in Vienna’s art history. It concentrates several taboos at the same time: nudity, masturbation, whipping, self-mutilation – all this done while singing the national anthem of Austria. According to Johannes Grenzfurthner, Kunst und Revolution is a classic example of radical art in a disciplined, conservative society and should be viewed in a historical context, because 50 years later, in a neoliberal control society, the performance would not cause such a vehement reaction.

Despite their occasional aesthetic similarities, Happening and Performance art did not have a common cause or style, although everybody expressed their desire to start a dialogue between art and everyday life. Performance art has progressively moved towards the centrality of the artist’s body and life. Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists engaged in self-mutilation rituals, seeking catharsis and the purity of the self. Inspired by this, Marina Abramović created Rhythm 0, a work in which she allowed the viewers in a gallery in Naples to interact with her at will for six hours, using one of the 72 objects placed on a table near her. Among the objects were a rose, grapes, wine, bread, but also scissors, a knife, a rope, a razor blade, a gun and one bullet. After three hours, her clothes had been cut off her body with the razor blade, her skin had been scratched, the gun had been loaded and pointed to her head. Six hours later, at two in the morning, the gallery announced that the performance was over. Having returned to the hotel, Abramović noticed she had a lock of gray hair.

It follows that artists’ expression in performance art language revealed a great deal of the vast cultural developments experienced in the twentieth century, as well as the changing nature of practicing art itself.

Gradually, the concern for the artist’s life was replaced by that for social and global issues. Activist art, which began to develop in the 1990’s, is a combination of strategic actions for social change. The aim of activist artists is to use art to initiate a form of dialogue on a political or social theme that actively addresses the power structures in the cultural system. Activist art advocates for the empowerment of individuals and communities and is generally accessible and hosted in public spaces, both online and physically.
Activist art is an expression of global artistic initiatives coming from different backgrounds and theories and having different social causes. Consequently, it can be defined in various ways: socially engaged art, community art, dialogical art, art intervention, relational art, feminist art, Queer art, environmental art, artivism.

A number of socially concerned artists are also involved in direct action, an example being the Women on Waves Foundation, a group of female artists who run an abortion clinic on board a boat and offer free services to women in countries where abortion is legal. This is a key tendency in contemporary art practices, as activist art projects aim to demonstrate the inextricable relationship between art and everyday life. Artists involved in such practices describe their art as an interpersonal exchange, people being part of their artworks. A relevant example is relational art, which involves the viewers, who thus can assimilate and understand the artist’s specific impulse or message. Relational artworks are usually based on the artist’s communication of his mission in a public space. By exposing them to a broader vision, they are often considered examples of temporary democracies.

At the seventh edition of the Periferic Festival in Iaşi, Mircea Cantor proposed a relational art work: the Ping Pang Pong championship in which the artist invites children to play ping-pong by certain rules. The 2006 edition of the festival highlighted the concept of relational art. Conceived by Attila Tordai and entitled Why children?, the project involved groups of children active in the programmes designed by participating artists. In the presentation of relational works, the experience itself and the participants join together to determine the general tone and final meaning of the work.

The job of an artist or content creator has never been easy. It requires them to assume the message conveyed by the artwork. Placing creation in the category of social and environmental issues often raises the question of whether art triggers true commitment and has an impact on the world. From avant-garde art, which was a reaction against political events and their consequences, to social or environmental art, which supports global issues, the artists’ concern has been to question what is truly important and urgent for their contemporary society.

“In any case, art is… about morality, about our faith in humanity. Without this, there is no art.”
Ai Weiwei