Is art fundamental to human living? Birth as Performance Art

Back in March of this year, Transpositions hosted an extended book review of John Carey’s What Good are the Arts?In the first chapter, Carey tackles the question ‘What is a work of art?’, eventually providing his own definition: ‘A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for that one person.’ [1] For Carey, this is the only feasible definition one can hold within a secular framework. A recent piece of performance art in New York City has raised the question of the definition of ‘art’, particularly in relation to the degree to which ‘artistry’ is fundamental to our humanity.

In late October, performance artist Marni Kotak gave birth to her baby boy in an art gallery in Brooklyn. The piece of performance art began weeks prior to her due date with the transformation of the gallery space to accommodate ‘The Birth of Baby X’, complete with a birthing room and midwife on hand to help with the labour. Spectators could sign up to receive notification when labour started in order to rush to the gallery to view the event.  The birth of her son sets the stage for her next piece of performance art, ‘Raising Baby X.’ [2]

Kotak offers her rationale for her art as this:

I hope that people will see that human life itself is the most profound work of art, and that therefore giving birth, the greatest expression of life, is the highest form of art. This child is the greatest work of art that Jason and I could ever make together. So often I find that people overlook how our lives are full of the most amazing, shocking, challenging, beautiful, and disturbing experiences — far more interesting than anything anyone could put together as a “performance.” [3] The overall message that we will communicate to the child is that he or she was born in an art gallery because, as artists, that is our sacred space, and in doing this we are telling the world and our child that his or her life is a precious work of art. [4]

While it’s clear that Kotak views her performance as art, the public had mixed reviews, including:

This isn’t art, its just a couple of sickos making money off a baby before and during it being born…giving birth is the most personal experience a woman can have, doing this in public for “art” is nothing short of disgusting….’

‘Is it truly the highest form of art if it happens millions of times a day all over the planet?’

‘I love it! I wish I could have seen it in person… Good for her! It’s too bad there are so many ignoramuses out there who don’t get how frickin’ cool this is.’

‘Wonderful for her! The more people that get to witness a “real” natural birth as a beautiful work of art…the better! I’m sure the people who witnessed this incredible moment would agree. [5]

One could use this example of contemporary performance art as a starting point for critiquing Carey’s definition, bemoan the state of the current art scene, or ask questions about whether the public is an appropriate ‘venue’ for something as private and special as a birth. One could also ask whether or not this is devaluing childbirth and the parenthood that follows by making it an object for consumption. However, I wonder if one can see Kotak making a profound theological statement about the relationship between humans and artistry.

To my knowledge, Kotak offers no reference to Christian theology in describing her reasons for her work.  And yet, to me, there seem to be natural links between her perspective and Christian theologians who would view art as fundamental to our human nature and a characteristic that is shared between humanity and God. [6] Perhaps Kotak has understood and demonstrated even more deeply that being an artist is what it means to be human, and embedded in human nature are opportunities for artistry that transcend our traditional categories.

What do you think? Is Kotak’s birth in a gallery to be lauded or discouraged? What are the implications of broadening the categories of ‘art’ to include a shared human experience such as childbirth?

Image Credit


[1] John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? (London: Faber, 2005), 29
[2] Childbirth as Performance Art (NY Times); Woman Gives Birth at Gallery as Part of Art Performance (NY Post); For a Gallery at the Edge, Fame is Born Tuesday (NY Times)
[3] Marni Kotak, Artist, Will Give Birth at Microscope Gallery, for Real (The Village Voice)
[4] NYC Woman Gives Birth on Stage, Calls it Performance Art (Opposing Views)
[5] Woman Gives Birth at Gallery as Part of Art Performance (NY Post) (comments section)
[6] See Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (London: Methuen & Co, 1941), 17.

6 Comments

  • matt ballou says:

    To my mind, all artworks function as evocative experiences set within certain contexts meant to delineate and differentiate them from baseline existential experiences. In this way art becomes a cipher or reflective conduit by which we examine and contemplate the meaning of our existential experiences. Birth is an existential experience which may be further contemplated (and complicated by) an evocative artwork. Yet it remains external to the delineation of context by which art embraces itself. By moving into the gallery, Kotak is attempting to modulate her existential experience, shifting it into an evocative art experience. We can debate on whether this is appropriate or inappropriate, whether it’s effective or not. To me, the attempt doesn’t seem particularly problematic. In some sense calling it art makes it art by drawing it into that art-context.

    Yet it seems to be confuse the human experience as such with the contemplation of human experience. I really love the distance art gives us from our baseline existential experiences… it allows us to contemplate them and reflect upon our experience of reality in ways that are inaccessible to us in the moments of direct experience.

    In many ways this art-birth must have been a transformative experience for the viewers… but is it really any more effective than some other form might have been? Do we need to see Marat being murdered to grasp the artwork? Does Kathe Kollwitz need to weep before us in real time, grasping her dead son, for us to sense the power of that work or the emotional affect it projects? Do we need to actually wander with Goya amid a wrecked landscape strewn with torn bodies to be repulsed by the disasters of war?

    I bring up death here as a foil to birth. While there have been many artists who work with death, bringing it very very close to the audience (Herman Nitsche for instance), we usually don’t need the direct experience to attain the evocation of understanding, emotion, or existential awe that art brings us. In fact, we may sense no redeeming thing within the direct experience of a thing. Art gives us a space of separation, a zone wherein we might do more than only feel or experience the things that happen. It is in this remove from real life that art may give us a realization of our state of being-ness. We become more spiritually, morally, physically, emotionally, (etc, etc, et al) AWARE through these art-experiences, and they help us to become more AWARE of our being-ness and the present-ness of our baseline experiences.

    I really believe that art is about translating for others an evocative experience of being. So yes, giving birth in a gallery may be art. But, on the other hand, I know that my prior art-experiences made me more able to be PRESENT and AWARE when I witnessed my daughter being born. I don’t view that event as art so much as a miracle, and so I reflect upon it in art. The art is never the direct experience, but rather a translation of that evocative power. At least that’s the sort of energy I’m trying to tap into, and I think that’s part of what Imago Dei is for artists.

  • Michelle Roise says:

    Has anyone given thought to the question of why such “performance art” wasn’t accomplished in a theater rather than a museum— active and interactive, viewpoint-oriented and all as a birth must be? I am still cogitating on the whole concept here, but this is my first question.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      Thanks, Michelle, for raising an interesting question about this particular piece of ‘performance art’! In one of the articles, the artist gives an interview and answers how this piece is different than an ‘onstage performance’. She responds:

      ‘ performance art experience is more real than an onstage performance if it possesses a raw immediacy that cannot be captured, and therefore cannot be acted out, as in a work of theater.

      ​In an onstage play, the performers have scripted lines that they have memorized and they are playing roles. Performance art is essentially closer to real life in that it takes place in fleeting moments that can never be repeated, objectified, or commodified.

      In “The Birth of Baby X,” I will be completely engrossed in the act of giving birth before a live audience. I will be focused on delivering my child into the world in the healthiest manner possible, rather than on how I look or what the audience may think. Everything I have learned about the birth process is that the more you surrender your mind and don’t try to control the event, but let your body do what it naturally knows how to do, the better your labor progresses. This, to me, provides for the most authentic performance art situation. And the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!’

      To me, it seems that the gallery allowed for greater authenticity – Do you agree?

      • Sara Schumacher says:

        The full interview can be read here: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/10/marni_kotak_gives_birth.php

        • Michelle Roise says:

          I hear what she is saying, but feel echos of another modern day expression of the age-old phenomenon: “reality TV” (which I have to confess I have never watched, but heard of).

          For ages crowds have gathered to “experience” all manner of “real” life and death, including all sorts of tragic executions and exhibitions. Did that make the “performance” art, or did it make the observers actually participants in “performance art” or merely gawkers (whether or not it happened in theaters/colliseums or galleries)? On the other hand, Catharina Schrader, a Christian midwife in the Netherlands in the early 1700’s remarked in many of her notes the attendance of other women relatives and neighbors at the birthing bed.

          Again, were they experiencing life or art? Both? Is there a difference? Does “authenticity” define what is art or what is life? Why do we want to blur the lines? Is there a line? Where is it drawn?

          I agree that life presents us with glorious sights and experiences/miracles (as Matt Ballou alluded) every day, but are all meant for everyone to see or are some meant for few, or even two, lest we give license for all manner of diversion and perversion?

          Thanks for your reply and invitation for further comment, Sara. I’m sorry I don’t have answers, but I certainly have many questions. This sort of “performance art” seems to open a Pandora’s box of ethical issues, especially as the definition of “art” broadens into any area the artist chooses to portray and define as such. Your thoughts?

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    The full interview can be read here: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/10/marni_kotak_gives_birth.php

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