Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What is Art - Part Four

Next I want to explore who is doing the art, when, and how across several different types of art.

For instance, when a ballet is performed, who is the artist? The choreographer? The composer? The dancers? The musicians?

I've discussed this with my dear wife (a skilled classical musician), and I've irritated her with the way I break this down. I hope I do it better this time. I believe this is an important additional way to understand art, and I have some new application of it to other art forms.

I would maintain that the performing arts have at least two layers of "art" going on whenever a piece is performed. There are the artists who initially created the piece (composer, choreographer, playwright, movie director, etc.) and the artists who make the piece present for an audience by performing it (musicians, dancers, actors, etc.). The lines get blurred when the composer performs, or when the director changes the piece for every performance, or when performers improvise, but that's not what I find interesting in this structure. What's interesting to me is this two tiered art status and what it might mean if we apply my definition of art to it.

First, the initial work (musical composition, ballet, play, movie) can be art or not just as I described in the last post. Did the creator intend to move us, communicating more deeply than the simple content of the piece?

But what's new is the addition of the second layer of artists - the performers. Should their act/art be determined the same way? I think so. I would maintain, in addition, that they can create art on two levels when performing. First, they can perform well enough (with enough sensitivity to the work) to transmit the original artist's intentions and move us. This is powerful enough, but some performers go beyond this; by interpretation of the original piece they add more message, more meaning, and move us more or differently. In this scheme Shakespeare can move us, then the director of a current production can move us more, and the actors can move us still more... This partially explains the overwhelming power of the performing arts. Not only do they grip an audience for prolonged periods because they unfold in time (time is one of the elements, the materials of the performing arts) but they can hold us spellbound because of this artistic layering. I have attended performances where so much was happening at different levels artistically that I could hardly breathe due to the pleasure and awe I felt.

Now let's take this pattern and stretch it over the so called "plastic" arts - the arts that create physical objects. The artist who creates a sculpture is like the composer or playwright, creating a unique, original work.

Is there an analogous structure to the performance? I think there is. I believe the sculptor (or painter, etc.) is creating art when communicate something new, move us in a new way. Then they often explore the new idea with a series of works in the same style or vein. These additional works, I contend, are like the performance. For the first piece the artist acted as the composer, for subsequent pieces in the series the artist is acting as the performer. And the show should probably run for just so many performances and then close. What I'm saying is that a breakthrough piece is more important (artistically) than the rest in the series. And the rest are craft - unless the artist manages to give additional life and value to each new interpretation of the original breakthrough piece, much the way a performing artist can. It could be that a later example in the series portrays the intentions and message of the artist even better than the earliest work. It's this striving, this continued search, that makes the subsequent pieces still art. Without that, they are craft - still fine, beautiful, valuable, etc., but I don't believe art is taking place.

I think some artists would argue with this - but I have known some of those same artists to insist that a colleague was a "hack" because they just mindlessly churned out the same things over and over again for money... There is an important distinction here, and I think artists know full well what it is. As long as the hunt is real and fresh, art is happening. As soon as it fades, every additional piece lacks the life and vigor of art - it's become craft. And let's face it, the hunt can be exhausting and artists have to earn a living - so the craft of producing additional versions of the same message makes sense.

Reflecting this back on the performing arts, we can understand how a great work can be performed by craftsmen. I have heard some performers called "technicians." It's still Bach's Preludio in E, a moving work of art, but it can be performed so it loses the life and message. Bach's art hasn't failed, but the performer is either not attempting art (the yare doing something else), or is failing at the attempt. By the way, I've heard performances that struck me as one or the other, and I'd almost always rather listen to a failed attempt than a technically perfect, but lifeless, rendering.

In the next post I want to discuss the content of visual artworks. There are interesting points to make (given my definition of art) about portraits, abstract art, and more.

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