Political Performance Art

Tania Bruguera, a performance artist, has taken on quite a project. She lives with five illegal immigrants and their six children in a small Queens’ apartment. She has given up her health insurance, and lives, like her fellow tenants, on minimum wage. She hopes to bring attention to their plight by temporarily sharing it. For Burguera, this is a comparatively small sacrifice for her art. Only consider what she has done in the past: “[she] has eaten dirt, hung a dead lamb from her neck and served trays of cocaine to a gallery audience.”

It occurs to me that I could do all three of these things: I could eat dirt, hang a carcass from my neck, and serve trays of cocaine to a gallery audience. (The “Oh, I could do that,” response to modern art is, of course, a bit disingenuous; the people who utter it, myself included, never justify their claims by producing a work equally incompetant.) Ms. Bruguera is undoubtedly aware that many people do not consider what she does art; they see it simply as a glorification of the outlandish. I tried to resist this predictable reaction, precisely because it is predictable and reflexive. Yes, Ms. Bruguera’s art may have no appeal to me, but could this be because I have never been initiated in it?

I suppose I cannot overcome the idea that art is not about trying to get a rise out of people, and Ms. Bruguera seems intent on doing only that. Like many artists of doubtful talent, she seems to have chosen the avant-garde precisely because the more traditional modes of expression—writing, painting—would expose her, or at least not bring her the recognition that one gets from hanging a carcass from one’s neck.