Book: APPRECIATING CONTEMPORARY ART

What are we to make of Liberace?

Was he a ‘performance artist’?

Jakob Zaaiman
11 min readOct 11, 2022

--

Photograph of Liberace in full regalia on stage.
‘Wait till they get a load of me’ could well have been Liberace’s secret mantra. (Public domain)

You don’t have to be a fan of high camp megastar Liberace to appreciate how illustrative he can be when it comes to the thorny question of the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’. Were he still alive, and if he could be bothered with any of the issues raised here, I’m sure he would say ‘You’ve got me completely wrong, I’m not trying to be transgressive — I’m a normal artiste — and to be honest I don’t know the point you’re trying to make.’

This article is following in the footsteps of an earlier intervention placing David Icke in the realms of performance art, despite the fact that Icke himself would see this kind of ‘repositioning’ as an illegitimate attempt to dismiss his core message — what is that message, exactly? — by deliberately misinterpreting it as well as failing — in the worst possible way — to take it seriously. Now to achieve this repositioning of Icke we needed to approach the entirety of the Icke phenomenon as a form of recreational theatre, and therefore as spectacle; so still not disregarding anything we might find there, but savouring its nonsensicality rather than the conspiratorial call to action. Art is, after all, strictly presentational and recreational, and although there are artists who like to blur the distinction between art and political and social activism, this blurring is really no more than an instance of categorical confusion.

But back to Liberace. Władziu Valentino Liberace (1919–1987) — pron. ‘Liba-rarchie’ — an American with Italian and Polish ancestry — was an extraverted stage performer and pianist, with sidelines in singing and cameo-role acting. Classically trained, he began his career playing concerti with symphony orchestras; but somewhere along the way he began to create and develop both a stage act and an ultra-camp persona that had more to do with the glitzy opulence of Las Vegas extravaganzas than with classical decorum and restraint. An ornate grand piano topped with a candelabra was his essential stage set-piece, and his successful musical stratagem was to mix standards with popular classics, the idea being that he was actually an exemplar of ‘high culture’ + fun. For a while he had his own regular TV show, and this was supplemented…

--

--