Last summer, sometime between Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” event and whatever James Franco was up to that drove up my personal Franco Fatigue to previously uncharted levels, I had gotten my fill of performance art. Well, that’s not entirely true; I like performance art, or at least real performance art — the kind that is performed by actual artists rather than people who are already famous and have decided to do something wild and wacky for the attention of their fans who like to share funny videos of their favorite stars on Facebook. But suddenly, everyone is making performance art. The trend goes as far back as, oh, 2009, when Joaquin Phoenix grew a beard and acted like an asshole at public appearances in an effort to say, uh, something about celebrity.
The truth is that these moments are rarely performance art; they’re simply a different way for celebrities to clamor for attention. In the case of Phoenix, that weird year was just the basis for a poorly received mockumentary directed by Casey Affleck. When Lady Gaga showed up to the VMAs in September 2011 and performed “Yoü and I” after a long-winded monologue in character as her “alter ego” Jo Calderone, she only confused people who had to sit through an insufferable faux-Lenny Bruce act — proving that she’s not an accomplished performance artist so much as a pretty bad actress. And then there’s the aforementioned James Franco, who is arguably just a big-screen idol with the good fortune of being pretty enough that people will pay attention to his vapid passion projects. None of this counts as performance art, though, because these people are rarely saying anything.
Part of the blame is on us, the media and the public, because we feed it. Take, for example, Shia LaBeouf’s erratic public behavior in the last year, including his ongoing plagiarism of literally everything he produces. “Is Shia LaBeouf doing some sort of performance art?” I saw plenty of people post on Twitter last month. And what do you know? Soon after that, he started explaining his simultaneous public self-expression and so-called retirement from the public eye as “performance art,” meaning he’s now plagiarizing what bloggers wrote as a joke. And this weekend, he showed up to the Berlin Film Festival premiere of the first half of Lars Von Trier’s psychosexual drama Nymphomaniac with a brown paper bag over his head, printed with the words, “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” The statement must have been instantly familiar to anyone following LaBeouf on Twitter, because he’s been tweeting it on a daily basis since mid-January.
He also tweeted — then deleted — some insane screeds about his “art,” which, of course, were screencapped by those who have chosen to pay attention to him:
Exhausting, right? Or is it all making you think about the nature of celebrity in our culture? (Be honest: it’s not really making you think very much about the nature of celebrity in our culture, is it?)
Someone famous said that all the world’s a stage. (Can’t quite remember who, though.) And, sure, we’re all “acting,” but if acting like an asshole in public is now performance art, then performance art doesn’t exist. If everyone’s a performance artist, then nobody is a performance artist. And, really, the internet is not a stage or an art gallery just waiting to provide you with an audience’s undivided attention. The internet is an extension of the real world, a place where no one can hear themselves think above the mindless chatter of everyone, constantly shouting over one another and, basically, ignoring everyone but themselves. Is that performance art? Is this blog post performance art? Is everything that anyone does in public performance art? Is asking rhetorical questions performance art? Nah, it’s all just life.