Ritual has been an important influence on the development of performance art, such as the primitivism in the avant-garde performative practices of Dada and Surrealism, the Zen-influenced performances of Fluxus, and the transgressive performances of the Viennese Actionists and the 1970s body artists informed by psychoanalytic theory. However, more recent scholarship, such as that by Australian art historian Anne Marsh, has highlighted important differences between traditional ritual and performance art, as well as the problems of appropriating so-called “primitive” cultural practices. Nonetheless, comparisons with and allusions to ritual remain popular for artists and art critics. To what can we attribute the continued interest in ritual despite these criticisms?
US anthropologist Roy Rappaport theorised, in his seminal work Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999), that ritual ameliorates the problem of alienation which is an effect of humanity’s acquisition of language. In my research I propose that this problem of alienation has been the primary driver of the use of ritual in performance art and avant-garde performative practices. Alienation can also be understood through the writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, particularly his development of Freud’s theories of the Oedipal scenario, the death drive and jouissance. By analysing performance artworks through the theories of Rappaport and Lacan, I aim to show that performance art, and body art in particular, is intimately concerned with the problem of alienation.