In 1971, performance artist Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm. In 1974, Burden was crucified on the top of a Volkswagen bug.
Also in 1974, Marina Abramovic installed herself in a gallery with 72 objects that people could use to manipulate her (scissors, a whip, a gun with a bullet) and was shocked (shocked!) when people took her up on her offer: "I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away."
In 1999, a struggling artist and writer named Johnny Knoxville invented the idea of Jackass, in which he and a group of friends would make Burden and Abramovic look like amateurs: Knoxville and company would get shot with guns, then get stung by wasps, then ride their skateboards into walls, then be dropped from stupid heights. MTV won a bidding war for the rights to produce the TV show.
The show was okay, as was the first Jackass movie—just the guys figuring out their calibration between pop culture, Caligula-worthy S&M, and the history of performance art. But the 2006 film Jackass Number Two raised the stakes a thousandfold, making pikers not only of Burden and Abramovic, but of the Jackass franchise as it had been known so far.
Though they never claimed to be "performance artists," Knoxville and company contributed heavily to the field. They staged a running of the bulls in a suburban neighborhood; allowed their cocks to be attacked by snakes (the symbolism! the irony!); launched themselves off ramps in shopping carts equipped with rocket-launchers (the best critique of runaway consumerism before or since—and I'm looking at you, Jan Fabre, and your stupid stage picture of women in shopping carts giving birth to rolls of toilet paper).
In the film's coup de grace, actor Steve-O shoved a giant fishhook through his cheek (which was attached to a fishing rod) and went swimming with sharks, using himself as bait.
Narratives that climax in extreme pain are the narratives we remember: the Oresteia, the New Testament, Hamlet. The Jackass concept was Western narrative on rocket-propelled roller skates. While violence and pain is the peak of any given story in the Western tradition, Jackass created a story where violence and pain were the baselines—its dramatic tension was built entirely out of pain-peaks but still had to peak somewhere. After folding in the cultural commentary (bulls in suburbia, snakes-on-snakes, a man fishing with his own body as bait), Jackass Number Two became a multifaceted jewel of populist performance art. (Plus, Lieberman hated it—to its credit.)
But Jackass 3-D doesn't push this project anywhere. It may be the most conservative Jackass yet. Its crew—some are parents now, some have gone around the bend and then gotten sober (when Johnny Knoxville orchestrates your intervention, you know you have problems), and some seem saggy and haggard. Its stunts are thin. Its sap has run dry. Where Jackass Number Two was an apotheosis of bodily sacrifice in the name of cultural commentary, Jackass 3-D is just guys getting socked in the nuts.
None of its moments rise to the level of art, but a few reach towards art criticism: a slow-motion shot of a dildo fired from a cannon and slamming through a glass of milk (and, of course, eventually hitting a man's face) recalls Harold Edgerton's photographs of a bullet piercing an apple. A fartiste plays the trumpet with his asshole and fires a dart at a balloon like Le Petomane. Knoxville climbs a pole and a dog bites his ass (perhaps a Joseph Beuys reference?). One of the film's videographers pukes repeatedly (when Steve-O drinks a glass of sweat, when Steve-O installs himself in a Honey Bucket full of dog shit and is slung around by bungee cords, and one or two other times).
Jackass 3-D has a few poetic images. One guy pisses in the wind—the wind being the exhaust of a jet engine that not only showers the guy with his own piss, but sends him flying backwards ass over teakettle. One scene has a Marquis de Sade human-torture-machine, in which two dudes jump off a platform, land on a lever that launches another dude into the air, where he is shot at by other dudes with paint-ball guns.
But Jackass 3-D does not improve on Jackass Number Two. The latter was an epic of bored dudes getting bruised and bloody to makes jokes about (and show up the heroes of) art history. The former is, at its heart, just a souped-up game of grab-ass.
The air has gone out of the whoopee cushion.