“How to Do Things With Art”: In the Thick of the Action

Detail of the cover of Dorothea von Hantelmann’s “How to Do Things With Art. Zur Bedeutsamkeit der Performativität von Kunst”
Detail of the cover of Dorothea von Hantelmann’s “How to Do Things With Art. Zur Bedeutsamkeit der Performativität von Kunst” | © Zürich: diaphanes 2007

Few other words coined in recent years have spread as far and as fast as “performativity”. As so often when it comes to defining terms and concepts, however, the exact meaning is often vague.

Whether in the field of management and economics, theatre and dance studies, art criticism or sociology, one always has to think what is actually meant when something is termed “performative” or when, more generally, people talk of “performance” because the term can be used just as well to refer to the quarterly results of a DAX-listed company as it can to a play at the theatre, an academic lecture or the management of an event. Not that there is any dearth of specialist literature on “performativity”. One book published by the Zürich publishing house diaphanes in 2007, however, presents an in-depth account of the concept.

Art as the power to act

In her study How to Do Things With Art. Zur Bedeutsamkeit der Performativität von Kunst , art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann develops a well-founded, far-reaching analytical approach to modern and contemporary art, in particular the art of European and American post-war modernism. She interprets the performative as being a novel instrument of critical artistic practice that does not so much seek to break with existing structures of art and its institutions like an avant-garde movement, as to analyse their effectiveness and, at the same time, to beat them at their own game.

‘Saying’ and ‘doing’

The concept of the performative derives from linguistics and deals with the phenomenon that language not only has a representative or communicative function, but can also perform actions. Declarations such as “I swear“ or “You are sentenced” are not simply descriptions of reality, but speech acts that create reality. This ability of language to perform speech acts serves von Hantelmann as the starting point of her further analysis of how language can create realities. Sociologist and gender researcher Judith Butler sees this ability of language to perform speech acts rather than merely to make literal statements as an area of social activity that is determined by conventions and rules of which individual speakers are unaware. It is an inescapable fact that we as speakers are continually creating things. Von Hantelmann sums up Butler’s theory by saying that she uses the word ‘performative’ to refer to actions that create reality, but not exactly because that was what an individual intended, but because it derives from conventions”.

In her further studies of contemporary art, to which she devotes four chapters of her book, von Hantelmann applies this model of the power to act to artworks themselves. The aim is less to place the focus of observation (and criticism) on aesthetic categories, such as a work’s form, medium or appeal, and instead to ask how the artwork “acts” within the context of conventions. “The model of performativity ... places the main emphasis on the conventions of its production, presentation and reception, [it] shows how each individual work of art helps to produce these conventions and how, in so doing, possibilities are created for changing them.“ While the many strands of immanent critique that evaluate artworks’ status (such as conceptual art, Fluxus and minimalism) did change the materiality of the artwork, making it a more intellectual process that presents ideas rather than creating aesthetic objects, they were still tied to an approach that saw artworks as museum pieces. According to von Hantelmann, that is why these critical approaches were ultimately of no consequence – they only confirmed the institutional power of the museums, market and art history.

Bodies in the museum

How to Do Things With Art illustrates these connections by reference to the examples of James Coleman, Daniel Buren, Tino Sehgal and Jeff Koons, all of whom are renowned artists whose success on the market is in no doubt. At the same time, their oeuvre, each in its own way, point to a functional connection that allows criticism without manoeuvring itself into a kind of helplessness. That is why this book is still very topical even five years after it was published.

As someone who has observed the artistic progress of Tino Sehgal for a long time, von Hantelmann devotes an extensive section of her analysis to his career. It consists of reducing the material composition of an artwork and allowing it to exist only in live interaction. Sehgal’s body-based works, which, incidentally are often incorrectly referred to as “performances”, use all the conventions of the art business except one: material appearance and capturability. Because Sehgal’s works of the last ten years have always been developed and shown only in very specific museums and only with the physical presence of actors, their only form of existence consists of self-production. It is possible to remember, describe or copy them, but they can never be possessed except during the moment of their self-realisation. Von Hantelmann believes that this enables the artist to underline the power to act against which people have polemicized again and again with more or less helpless means of criticism. But rather than attempting to undermine such “conventions”, Sehgal transforms them and uses them to attempt to redefine what comprises a performative artwork – the ability and potential to produce itself within a framework, a framework which itself has always been part of the action.

Dorothea von Hantelmann: “How to Do Things With Art. Zur Bedeutsamkeit der Performativität von Kunst”. Zürich: diaphanes 2007