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8. Art and Music in the 1970s: Part Two

Clayton Funk

Site-Specific Art, Earthworks, and Performance Art

In this chapter, we continue our discussion of art and music in the 1970s. The last chapter explained Minimal Art and Conceptual Art, which broke away from subject matter you would recognize in the surroundings you see. The next three genres are Site Specific Works, which are any forms created for specific sites, and Earthworks, which use the earth (soil, rocks, etc.) or the altered landscape as media, rather than manufactured art materials. We will also discuss Performance Art, which expresses a narrative through bodily movements and behaviors, using the body as what performance artists might consider the most authentic and direct kind of expression. The summaries will lead you to biographies and more information about the artists for you to study.

Site-Specific Art and Earthworks

This video shows the construction and a walk within an Earthworks. link to this video at:

Site-Specific Art is art that has been designed and built for a specific place. Such art had a long history before the twentieth century, usually in relation to architecture or as architecture itself. Certainly, most large buildings are designed for specific places and works commissioned on or in those buildings are also site specific. A good example of a historical site-specific work of art is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, located in the Vatican in Rome and painted by Michelangelo during the 16th century.

Not all Earthworks are site-specific. These works of art use the earth as the medium and either bring elements of the earth inside or use outside elements as the medium for works that are site-specific.

Earthworks also have a long history before the twentieth century. Ancient people in various parts of the world built mounds from earth and in doing so inscribed designs on the ground. It is assumed by many that they had some ancestral significance to the those who worked on them.

In the 1960s and early 1970s a number of artists turned their attention to making site-specific paintings, drawings and sculptures and many of them became interested in the environment, the sometimes powerful and sometimes subtle forces of nature, and the earth as a medium for their artistic expression.

Working inside, Sol LeWitt, began to create large wall drawings for specific places. Daniel Buren, working both inside and out of doors, began to paint stripes on specific pieces of architecture. In the late 1960’s, Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer began to move elements of the earth indoors and in an even more radical move, began moving their art out of museums and galleries altogether and into the landscape, using the earth itself as a medium for extremely large works of sculpture.

Both Site-Specific and Earthwork artists were influenced by the turbulent political culture in the 1960s and both groups of artists attempted to get beyond the art establishment as represented by galleries and museums and the business aspects of the art world. In many respects, their motives in getting out of the traditional art system with art as a commodity were similar to those of the artists involved in Performance art (as discussed below). Both groups intended to produce art that was difficult or impossible to collect. Earthworks and Site-Specific sculptures were often so large that they could not be contained in any museum.

Michael Heizer’s “Nine Nevada Depressions” are placed intermittently over a span of 520 miles. Robert Smithson‘s “Spiral Jetty” is a 1,500-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide spiral sculpture made from almost 7,000 tons of rock that projects into Utah’s Great Salt Lake, not too far from Salt Lake City. Christo‘s “Running Fence” was 24 miles long, eighteen feet high and was in place for only two weeks. Obviously, all of these works, as well as many others, defied the conventional notion of collecting, purchasing and possessing.

Many of these works are intended to help us to better see and understand our environment and our impact upon it. Some demonstrate the rather extreme differences between nature and human endeavor, often revealing our desire to understand, control, and conquer natural processes. Since they are aesthetically motivated and show great care for the environment, they present a dramatic contrast to the willful destruction of the environment that has been part of human progress.

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Performance Art

This video provides a vivid cross-section of performance art and presents some perspectives that are easier to explain in video than in writing. The video pulls together performances in music, dance and experimental theater and puts them under the umbrella of performance art, along with artists who describe themselves that way. Link to this video at:

Throughout the twentieth century artists have used their body as an artistic medium, and this practice became a dominant force in the creative expression in the 1960s and 1970s with Performance art. Performance Art is a general term that applies to an extremely broad range of categories such as film/video, dance, music, and spoken word, elements of which are often combined within a single piece. Other terms used to define performance art are body art, action art, live art, or temporal art, because the artist is physically expressing concepts and ideas with their body, the events take place in “real time” and for this reason only exist temporarily.

The roots of performance can be found in theater, dance, literature, ancient spiritual and religious rituals, and cross-cultural traditions of body adornment and manipulation. However, contemporary performance art finds its most specific origins in the work of avant-garde artists (Marcel Duchamp) and movements of the twentieth century such as Dada, Fluxus, and Happenings of the late 1950s (Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine).

Performance art is intentionally confrontational, spontaneous, improvisational, and usually requires the presence of an audience who often becomes part of the work. Similar to Conceptual art, Performance art is not concerned with the art object of finished product but rather the creative process and issues raised as a result of witnessing the event.

Additionally, many performance works were documented through video, film and photography. However, like some aspects of conceptual art, these byproducts are usually nothing more than evidence of the event having taken place. We can observe photographs of  Vito Acconci pulling the hairs from his navel, or we can buy a can of chocolate frosting that Karen Finley used to smear over her body, and we can discuss the reasons why an audience licked jelly off a Volkswagen, but we can never physically view these works, since we were not there.

Performance Art becomes complicated by the fact that artifacts from performances are often collected and valued as works of art. Whether they are works of art or souvenirs is a matter of considerable debate within the art world and the issue resists an easy solution. In some cases, let’s say when a performance takes place in private and there is no audience, the artist intends the documentation to become the work of art, and as such, the documentation should be considered art.

Performance art of the 1970s was also influenced by the simplicity of Minimal Art. Often performance works involved few props or objects beyond the artists’ own body and were written, directed and performed by one person. The fact that many performances were unrehearsed accounted for their impulsive and unrefined quality. Additionally, performance works were raw and often disturbing, if not unnerving; incorporating social criticism, protest and shocking displays of violence and sexuality.

Nudity was a common element of 1970s performance works as both men and women shed their clothes to communicate ideas pertaining to sex, gender roles and most notably feminism. Like fighting fire with fire, performance works functioned as an affront to accepted values in art and society although audiences and critics were often offended (perhaps deliberately so) by this more confrontational and controversial aspect of performance works.

The radically innovative, experimental and often controversial methods by which performance artists expressed ideas is still viewed with a degree of skepticism, however, it has revolutionized traditional concepts of what art can and should be and continues to influence a broad scope of media and artistic disciplines.

The performance artists we will cover in this course are Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Hannah Wilke. Other important performance artists include Eleanor Antin, Dennis Oppenheim, Karen Findley, Otto Muehl, Herman Nitsch, Rebecca Horn, Gilbert and George, and Carolee Schneemann.

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Popular music in the 1970s also shifted from narratives that addressed social problems to musicians producing for the sake of making music. The economy was prosperous and the recording industry was expanding more than ever. The 1970s were a complicated time, as well. In one layer you had Disco and Funk and the glamour that went with it. Then you had the spectacle of Rock music with block buster concerts in stadiums.

Disco and Funk

While the soft rock sounds of The Carpenters, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow dominated radio stations and topped the charts in the mid 1970s, disco was emerging from the clubs of New York City as the epitome of 1970s excess. Although dance clubs referred to as “disco’s”  (originallly discotheque in French), had been around since the mid-1960s, in the 1970s the term disco came to define not only to a place, but a style of music, dress, and an 8 billion dollar industry that defined an era that some would call decadent.

At first disco music consisted of DJ’s playing twenty minute extended mixes and medleys in dance clubs created by using samples and segments of songs by rhythm and blues artists such as Diana Ross (of The Supremes), the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and James Brown.  Known as “party music”, early disco involved the sampling, or pirating, of song segments, which in the 1980s and 1990s became standard practice in nearly every type of music production.

Eventually, the style evolved into a more eclectic funky and danecable sound that focused on a solid, almost mesmerizing beat.  From Latin music, Disco took its percolating percussion, and its sensuous and throbbing rhythms.  From the 1960s Funk music of James Brown and Sly Stone, it borrowed a kicky bass-guitar line. From Afro-Cuban music it repeats simple lyric lines like voodoo chants and like early Rock ‘n’ Roll it exploits the honking saxophones of rhythm and blues.

Unlike 1970s rock, which celebrated the over the top Rock star image with elaborate live performances and costly stage sets, Disco put the participants in the spotlight.  Since the music played in Disco’s was recorded, this allowing the dancers, dressed in platform shoes, gold chains, satin shirts, sequined tube tops, and lots of spandex, to become the star performers.  In addition to the music and attire, disco relied on psychedelic light shows, fog machines, mirror balls, and large quantities of pharmaceuticals to enhance and complete the frenzied effect of fantasy and orgasmic overindulgence.

Although Disco first became popular in 1975 with Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Say Goodbye”, followed by Donna Summer‘s “Love to Love You Baby” in 1976, it wasn’t until RSO record owner Robert Stigwood released the 1977 blockbuster movie, “Saturday Night Fever”, starring the young John Travolta, that the culture of disco was accepted by mainstream audiences.

Featuring a soundtrack written and performed by the Bee Gee’s, “Saturday Night Fever” became the best-selling record of all time and inspired “Discomania” which spread throughout the United States (and the world), transforming high school proms, Holiday Inn Lounges, roller rinks, and wedding receptions into Disco’s.  Previous to this time Disco was rarely played on the radio but managed to still achieve astonishing sales. But now Disco had become trendy and many radio stations scrambled to switch their format as 40 of billboards top 100 hits were classified as Disco.

Although Disco embraced multi-ethnic audiences and avoided any political message, because it originated in gay clubs it inspired a backlash among many Hard Rock listeners and conservative audiences. Slogans such as “Disco sucks” and “death to Disco”became rallying cries for homophobic and racist individuals who saw the popularity of disco as a threat to decency and the integrity of rock and roll itself.

In 1979 a riot broke out at Chicago’s Comiskey Park when a DJ from a local rock station organized “Disco demolition night.”  While fans poured onto the field to torch a huge pile of Disco records and clothing, the situation turned violent as fans were brutally beaten.  The second game of the scheduled double header was canceled and throughout the country tension was evident as Disco became the inspiration for violence, and the scapegoat for unresolved social issues.

In spite of the negative reactions to the disco era, it has endured as one of the most deliciously superficial, explicitly sexual, and mindlessly overindulgent in music history.  Many of the innovations and techniques employed by early DJ’s have had a tremendous impact on styles such as punk, rap, new wave, dance, hip-hop, techno, and even rock.  Aside from the Bee Gee’s and Donna Summer, there were few musicians affiliated with disco who were anymore than one hit wonders.  The artist we have chosen to exemplify the genre of disco is Donna Summer.

Author: A.E. C.F.

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The impact of activism in the late 1960s and 1970s also touched the music world. The Kent State Shootings of 1970 and the assassination of John Lennon, formerly of the Beatles, diffused the stream of counter culture and popular music regrouped in stronger numbers. Many musicians had succumbed to drug overdoses and other causes, but the murder of John Lennon impacted the heroic status of rock musicians and he was immortalized. The only other popular musician whose martyrdom remains most likely as vivid is Elvis Presley.

The categories of Rock music in the 1970s are complex, with bands like Queen, and KISS regarded as strong examples of glam rock, heavy metal and hard rock. For this discussion we will discuss them as Hard Rock. British Hard Rock groups included Led Zeppelin, Queen, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who, Jethro Tull, and Cream. The Beatles were also diverse, and they modified their rock‑and‑roll style into a psychedelic style, and as the progressive rock groups Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and Wings after they disbanded. The Rolling Stones continued recording long after the 1970s as a group, and then Mic Jagger continued his visibility as a solo performer. In this section we will discuss Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath as principle contributors to hard rock, and Queen serves as an example of Glam and classical influences. Reggae and Country are also represented in this broad spectrum.

The essential change was that most Rock musicians after the 1970s began to see themselves as artists playing music for its own passion, and less for the social change and counter culture of the 1960s. Musicians had become celebrity artists. The 1970s and 1960s left recordings that are still listened to, today, by some younger and older listeners alike.

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to Art, Music, and Culture Copyright © 2016 by Clayton Funk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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