A photo of Eschatology by Arthur Berzinsh. Two performers, a woman and a man, sit with their backs to the audience. The man is shirtless. The woman has a slit in the back of her shirt. Both performers have a bleeding cut on the right side of their backs. The performers face a woman wearing srubs who is frying their flesh in a pan. They are surrounded by candles on pedestals and there is a photo of a thunderstorm on the wall behind them.

The Dangers of Challenge

CW: This essay contains the discussion cannibalism, blood, and gore.

In March of 2018, Latvian artist Arthur Berzinsh live-streamed his performance piece, Eschatology, where a “surgeon” sliced off pieces of two performers’ flesh, fried it, and fed it to them. This cannibalistic performance faced large amounts of backlash from audiences who claimed it glorified cannibalism, was unnecessarily graphic, and, overall, seemed pointless. However, Berzinsh responded to these claims by berating audiences, claiming they were too ignorant and blinded by the gore of the performance to see its true meaning behind it.

Similar to Carol Duncan’s theory surrounding the ritualistic nature of museums, performance art often consists of a certain structure that is meant to guide audiences through the piece. Duncan claimed that the structure and history behind museums often control the ways that audience members perceive and interpret art. This ritual of structure controlling audiences can be extended to performances. Modern performance art often starts with a shock value of some sort. An artist will take something traditional and transform it in some capacity to intrigue audiences more. For instance, Berzinsh’s performers all held a very stoic nature while performing, keeping the tradition of separating performers from audience members. This coupled with the gallery-like space brought a sense of familiarity to audiences. Then, Berzinsh completely shocked audiences by doing something very rarely found in art: intentionally harming your performers. Then shocked audiences even further by having the performers eat their own fried flesh.

Ideally, the shock factor of a performance piece would cause audience members to reflect on the intent of the piece. Yet, Eschatology did not receive that response. Many audience members, myself included, were too shocked at the gore and cannibalism in the piece to consider what Berzinsh might have been intending other than normalizing cannibalism. This shock factor, this challenge to audience members, can be taken to the extreme with modern performance pieces. Although Berzinsh may have an intended meaning behind pieces like these, the meaning behind Eschatology was completely lost among audiences. The piece came across as shocking, purely for the sake of being shocking. This challenge to audience members has in and of itself become a ritual. As performance pieces have strayed farther away from tradition over time, the ritual of shocking and challenging audiences for a purpose seems to have transformed into a ritual of challenging audiences to be more challenging than other artists.

Although one may argue that it is necessary to challenge audiences as much as possible as we are continuously adapting to the challenging nature of art, I do believe there is a line to be drawn between provoking thought in audience members and scarring them with self-cannibalism. These jarringly shocking performances often make any potential intended meaning behind a piece, completely lost from audiences. When intending to challenge audiences, artists should also consider whether their challenge will mask the meaning behind the piece, or if the piece is only intended to challenge.

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The art assignments and essays collected here, written by students in Stanford’s ITALIC program, focus on art that presents a challenge, whether to audiences, society, or themselves.

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