Theses Doctoral

Unreliable Narrators: Staging Performance in the 1970s

Damman, Catherine J.

The 1970s are widely considered the decade of performance, with both the formulation of the term “performance” and fierce debates about its precise definition. Championing this novel genre, critics and artists sought to distinguish performance from the conventions of theater and the prescriptions of commercial entertainment. In the definition that has since dominated art history, performance implied the exclusion of narrative, script, artifice, and theatricality. However, this understanding of performance relies on a caricature of the genre that excludes much of the work made in downtown New York City in the 70s: performance’s constitutive moment. Drawing on original archival research, the dissertation is a critical study of this important but heretofore neglected history. Structured around case studies of pivotal works by Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, and Jill Kroesen, pioneering figures in the downtown milieu, the project considers how artists melded narrative forms, theatrical devices, and charismatic onstage personae with biting social critique. Often challenging television, rock music, and advanced art alike, the performances at hand exemplify the period’s complicated matrix of “selling out” and “crossing over,” adding new dimensions to a longstanding conversation about the relationship between the avant-garde and mass culture. Rather than a total denial or negation of the elements of theater, as has often been proposed, “performance” I argue, emerges in the 1970s, in a complex dialectical relation with theater’s elements (while often nonetheless rhetorically distancing itself from theater tout court). “Performance” as a genre, I argue, emerged in the 70s as something to be fundamentally staged.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Joseph, Branden Wayne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2018