Documentation of the work of these four artists suggests that there was no consciously developed sense of a movement or any cultivation of membership status in a "actionist" group. Rather, this name was one applied to various collaborative configurations among these four artists. Malcolm Green has quoted Hermann Nitsch's comment, "Vienna Actionism never was a group. A number of artists reacted to particular situations that they all encountered, within a particular time period, and with similar means and results.
The work of the Viennese Actionists is probably best remembered for the wilful transgressiveness of its naked bodies, destructiveness and violence. Often, brief jail terms were served by participants for violations of decency laws, and their works were targets of moral outrage. In June 1968 Günter Brus began serving a six-month prison sentence for the crime of "degrading symbols of the state", and later fled Austria to avoid a second arrest. Otto Mühl served a one month prison term after his participation in a public event, "Art and Revolution" in 1968. After his "Piss Action" before a Munich audience, Mühl became a fugitive from the West German police. Hermann Nitsch served a two week prison term in 1965 after his participation with Rudolph Schwarzkogler in the Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism. The "Destruction in Art Symposium", held in London in 1966, marked the first encounter between members of Fluxus and Actionists. It was a landmark of international recognition for the work of Brus, Mühl and Nitsch.
While the nature and content of each artist's work differed, there are distinct aesthetic and thematic threads connecting the Actions of Brus, Mühl, Nitsch and Schwarzkogler. Use of the body as both surface and site of art-making seems to have been a common point of origin for the Actionists in their earliest departures from conventional art practices in the late 50s and early 60s. Brus' "Hand Painting Head Painting" action of 1964, Mühl and Nitsch's "Degradation of a Female Body, Degradation of A Venus" of 1963 are characterized by their efforts to reconceive human bodies as surfaces for the production of art. The trajectories of the Actionists' work suggests more than just a precedent to later performance art and body art, rather, a drive toward a totalizing art-practice is inherent in their refusing to be confined within conventional ideas of painting, theatre and sculpture. Mühl's 1964 "Material Action Manifesto" offers some theoretical framework for understanding this:
...material action is painting that has spread beyond the picture surface. The human body, a laid table or a room becomes the picture surface. Time is added to the dimension of the body and space.A 1967 revision of the same manifesto Mühl wrote:
... material action promises the direct pleasures of the table. Material action satiates. Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough-beating to the extreme.Brus and Mühl participated in the "Kunst und Revolution" (Art and Revolution) event in Vienna, June 1968, issuing the following proclamation:
... our assimilatory democracy maintains art as a safety valve for enemies of the state ... the consumer state drives a wave of "art" before itself; it attempts to bribe the "artist" and thus to rehabilitate his revolutionising "art" as an art that supports the state. But "art" is not art. "Art" is politics that has created new styles of communication.