Following his 2015 divorce, far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is embroiled in an ugly and somewhat bizarre custody battle.
In response to his ex-wife’s claims that the InfoWars founder and Pizzagate controversy propagator is “not a stable person” ― and therefore should not receive custody of their children ― Jones is arguing that his publicly jacked-up, trumped-up, vitriolic rants are merely instances of “performance art.”
Jones’ lawyer Randall Wilhite outlined the novel defense, telling those present at a recent pretrial hearing that Jones’ InfoWars persona does not reflect who he is as a person. “He’s playing a character,” Wilhite said. “He is a performance artist.”
Jones himself made a similar claim in early April while facing criticism ― and potential criminal proceedings ― after calling Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) an “archetypal cocksucker” and threatening in an expletive-laden rant to “beat [his] goddamn ass.” Jones later posted a follow-up video describing the comments as “clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance, as I do in my rants, which I admit I do, as a form of art.”
Jones’ most famed “performances” to date include calling the 9/11 attacks an inside job, claiming the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was “completely fake with actors,” and suggesting that the American government is “encouraging homosexuality with chemicals so that people don’t have children.” Is it possible that Jones has been putting on some sort of persona to stir up controversy and garner public attention? Of course. It is unlikely, however, and ultimately dangerous, that Jones’ approximately 2 million listeners ― including his most famed fan, President Donald Trump ― were all aware that Jones’ red-faced tirades are for show.
In calling himself a performance artist, Jones is referencing a controversial live art tradition with roots in the 1950s and ‘60s, involving movements like Gutai and Fluxus and individuals like Marina Abramović and Vito Acconci. One of the earliest artists recognized for her performances is Carolee Schneemann, who was recently awarded the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. In one of her most iconic performances, 1975’s “Interior Scroll,” Schneemann stood nude on a table, painted her body with mud, and extracted a scroll from her vagina, from which she proceeded to read.
When asked about Jones’ performance art defense, Schneemann responded swiftly: “I think it’s all a load of crap,” she told The Huffington Post. But ultimately, any attempts to strictly classify what is or is not performance art, she clarified, are futile.
“Anything can be considered performance art, even if it is not part of some recognizable set of conventions,” she added. “One time I fell down and got a concussion at a museum in LA. Afterwards people said, ‘Way to go Carolee, great work.’ The terminology is decrepit and imprecise and has no true relationship to the originating visions of early performance art that evolved from Happenings and Fluxus. Many things that are embarrassing or regrettable, people say, ‘Oh, it must be performance art.’”
This much seems to be true. In 2015, a man named Joe Gibbons was sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree felony robbery for stealing $1,002 from a New York bank and filming it on a pocket-size video camera. Gibbons claimed the flubbed heist was “an act of performance art coupled with dire financial straits.”
Gibbons, unlike Jones, had a solid reputation in the performance art world prior to the event in question. He’d produced work featured in the Whitney Biennial and served as an art lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though his bank robbery certainly smudged the line between critical performance and “real life,” that was precisely Gibbons’ schtick ― “blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, self and persona.”
Another recent, calamitous attempt at purported performance art took place in August 2016 when a woman named Zaida Pugh feigned a mental breakdown on a New York subway car, wreaking havoc. Pugh spilled a box filled with 300 crickets and 300 worms onto the train, urinated on the floor, and threatened to defecate while screaming and hitting herself, as panicked passengers tried to calm her down.
“I did this to show how people react to situations with homeless people and people with mental health,” Pugh told Fusion after revealing the incident, which went viral, was all an elaborate act. “How they’re more likely to pull out their phone than help.”
While Pugh was largely condemned for exploiting the epidemics of homelessness and mental illness for her project ― along with trapping innocent people in a crowded subway car filled with live bugs for half an hour ― few could argue against the fact that she did, in fact, organize a performance and execute it as planned.
It might not have been good performance art, but it was performance art.
According to multidisciplinary artist Kalup Linzy (a former James Franco collaborator) there are a few aspects one must consider when attempting to understand an event as performance art: the artist’s intention, the work’s “awareness factor” and its ability to raise questions or reveal a larger truth.
“Even if it is in the style of a prank or public intervention,” he told HuffPost, “you recognize the critique as it is happening, when it is over, or after the artist reveals [his or her] intentions.”
By Linzy’s definition, Jones barely qualifies as a performance artist. While he did eventually “reveal his intentions,” he only did so when he found himself up against the wall fighting for custody of his children. It was in 1995 when Jones accused the U.S. government of being involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, meaning “artist” Jones has failed to confront whether or not his audience was aware of his intentions for decades.
However, rather than simply shutting down Jones’ claim, most artists seem interested in his claim. If Jones is a performance artist, what would that mean? What is at stake? “I am interested in what his audience thinks,” Linzy said. “Were they duped? Even with the cruelest intentions, what universal truths have or will be revealed about his audience? About him? If he isn’t crazy, then that means his audience is.”
Emma Sulkowicz, the artist known for carrying her mattress around Columbia University’s campus to symbolize the weight she carried as a survivor of rape, believes that the art world should take Jones at his word.
“It would be terrible if a bunch of artists and academics said, ‘No, Alex Jones cannot claim to be a performance artist,’” she told HuffPost. “I would hate to see those with cultural capital acting as judges, picking who is/isn’t allowed to be a performance artist. Art-making should be open to anyone, no matter how dubious the circumstances.”
Sulkowicz emphasized, however, that accepting Jones as an artist does not mean letting him off the hook.
“In light of this, we must take performance art seriously; it has real effects,” she said. “So, if Jones claims to be a performance artist, he has not procured an excuse to do whatever he pleases. We must evaluate his actions through a critical lens. What cause does his work promote? Does it put people at risk? As a performance artist, Jones’ work is still harmful, and he should still be held responsible.”
Jones’ case is emblematic of our current age of “alternative facts,” echoing the surge of fake news that occurred around the time of the 2016 election. One of the most prominent disseminators of said fake news was a man named Paul Horner, whose past experiences include tricking the internet into thinking he was the famed anonymous street artist Banksy.
“There’s nothing you can’t write about now that people won’t believe,” Horner, who considered himself a satirical writer in the vein of The Onion, told The Washington Post. “I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it. I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff — like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line — and people went along with it!”
One of the last times performance art was a contentious topic of current events was when right-wing media outlets attacked the most well-known performance artist of all time, Abramović, mistaking her occult themed dinner party for a satanic ritual. Abramović’s connections to art collector Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, made her the target of a literal witch hunt, based off archival footage of her admittedly out-there ‘90s performance.
Jones is no Abramović. If anything, his antics more closely resemble satirical performers like Stephen Colbert, who discussed the parallels on his late-night show. While Colbert maintained a conservative persona on “The Colbert Report,” the program’s website made abundantly clear the fallacious nature of Colbert’s hijinks.
The inextricable overlap between comedy and gravity, reality and un-reality, has been a persistent theme in recent political events, which is perhaps what happens when a former reality TV star ― alleged by some to be a performance artist himself ― runs for, and eventually becomes, president. Though Trump has not yet outed himself as an artist in disguise, he has mocked the media for taking him seriously and at his word. He retroactively described unsavory moments throughout his campaign ― including his imitation of a reporter with a disability and his declaration that political commentator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” ― as jokes.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum made a solid case for comedy’s pivotal role in the 2016 election, but the spirit of art at its most experimental and bizarre loomed over the surreal proceedings as well. Long before hoaxes, personas and semi-ironic jabs became commonplace in the political arena, artists have been navigating the tenuous line between authenticity and artifice. From Schneemann to Sulkowicz, Abramović to Linzy, artists have used their bodies and identities as canvasses, exploring the ways personality could be mutated, projected, altered and disseminated.
If Alex Jones is the most recent performer to lay claim to this tradition, perhaps Sulkowicz is right: The responsibility of the public is not to shut him down, but to question his work in light of these new admissions. The label “artwork” does not make Jones’ statements any less dangerous or vitriolic. And as Linzy noted, the next question we should probably ask is: What does this teach us about Jones’ audience — including our president?