Performance art has always inhabited an ambiguous space between everyday behavior and marked-off ‘art’ behavior.
And now ultra-conservative Infowars’ Alex Jones says that his vitriolic on-air personality is performance art. He refers to a recent incident 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.”
Now everyone is talking about whether or not he’s a performance artist.
My first reaction is: Hell no. Performance art does not justify fake news or the awful stuff he says. (And really, “clearly tongue-in-cheek”? Is that the conspiracy theory stuff that’s tongue-in-cheek? Or is that the threat-laden, insult-ridden veneer that’s tongue-in-cheek? In either case it seems doubtful, given the clearly not tongue-in-cheek followers he’s amassed.)
But that’s actually not the direction of this inquiry. He’s engaged in a custody battle. He’s claiming that his aggressive Infowars persona doesn’t make him an unfit to parent his children.
So, wait, why does it matter if it’s performance art or not?
Attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones’ on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in “Batman.” (link)
As far as I can tell the argument goes like this: If it’s performance art, then it’s all a show and deep down he doesn’t actually harbor these violent tendencies, so probably he doesn’t treat his kids the way he treats people on his show and stuff. But if it isn’t performance art, then he is awful and probably does threaten to break his kids’ necks and whatever.
Let’s all take a deep breath and do a little philosophy here.
Thesis: It doesn’t matter if it’s performance art.
Suppose it is performance art. That still doesn’t answer any of the questions one cares about. Maybe Marina Abramovic does stare in uncomfortable silence at people sitting across the table from her, even when she’s not in museums! So it’s still an open question whether, even if performance art, his behavior is any evidence of his personality outside his “art”.
But we can also raise the same questions even if the job in question isn’t some sort of performance art. Compare:
- Someone who works at a slaughterhouse. Should we be concerned that they go home and slaughter their pets?
- Someone who works as a social worker or therapist. Should we think they go home and constantly listen to their partner’s or children’s problems?
Does working at a slaughterhouse/being a therapist make these respective behaviors more likely? Maybe; maybe not. (I’m going to say not, at least in the former case…)
The point is: We don’t have to talk about performance art at all to think through those questions.
Is Jones’ Infowars persona evidence that he is a bad parent? This is where the real debate should be. And invoking performance art will simply not resolve that debate either way.
Conclusion: Maybe he is awful to his kids; maybe he isn’t. But the issue of performance art is neither here nor there, and is a ludicrous defense. But then again I’m no lawyer, just a philosopher. And maybe a performance artist, although I doubt it.