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Performing Arts

  In some arts there is direct contact between creator and spectator. Writers of novels or painters of pictures speak directly to their audience, on a one-to-one level. The effects and meanings of the work of art are intended to be apparent in the work itself, and to yield themselves to the spectator either immediately or after reflection and consideration. Interventions by third parties—for example, critical exegesis—are handmaids to this process and not essential to it. In the performing arts, by contrast, the performer, the intermediary, is a crucial part of the process. He or she ‘realizes’ the work of art, and creators take this realization into account when they make the art. A play, for example, exists in its true form only as actors perform it for spectators; when we read it on the page we are missing (or supplying from memory or in imagination) a major part of the experience.

Similarly, the presence of other spectators is often essential to the true experience of a work of the performing arts. Obviously, plays, dances and pieces of music can be performed for single spectators, but usually a larger group of people is involved. Creative collusion between the author and spectator of the work, already modulated by the presence of the performer, thus depends also, in part, on the interaction of a group of people all responding, individually and collectively, to the same work at the same moment. The raptness, enthusiasm or hilarity of one\'s fellow-spectators can be a major determinant of one\'s appreciation, and enjoyment, of the show.

These factors raise questions about the exact nature of a given work of the performing arts, particularly nowadays when vast quantities not only of past works, but of past performances, are available to spectators in their own homes. What, for example, is the ‘real’ Oresteia or Pathétique sonata—the one witnessed by Aeschylus\' or Beethoven\'s original audience, the one envisaged by the creator, the ‘definitive’ performance hailed by critics in the past, the one in my mind as I read the work, or the one I hear and see today in the company of other people? Nowadays part of our experience of most works in the performing arts is, precisely, those works\' past lives. When I see X\'s performance in Swan Lake, my appreciation may partly depend on my view of Y\'s and Z\'s in earlier times (witnessed personally or reported). This raises problems of creative ownership. We hear about ‘Karajan\'s Otello’ or ‘Macready\'s Hamlet’, as if these performers had somehow collaborated in the creation of a work of art in a way of which all subsequent interpreters must take account—can this possibly be true? A ‘good’ performance can reveal, for this or that spectator, the power latent in a work of the performing arts, just as a ‘bad’ performance can mask it. In this, sense, however, the performer\'s role is analogous less to the creator\'s than to that of the critic of a book or painting.

Other questions arise. What is happening when I act out a play for myself, or play the Pathétique sonata on my own piano, alone at home? I become two parts of the troika of creation of that work of art on that occasion, the performer and the spectator. How does this differ, if at all, from my collusion with the creator of a work of non-performing art? Again, is a recording of a performance, whether sound, vision or both, an account of the actual work of art itself—or when I enjoy it, am I not, rather, enjoying a static work of art in its own right: that is, the record of that performance rather than the performance itself?

These philosophical conundrums, interesting though they may be, take us far from the actual experience of works of the performing arts. The enjoyment of all art demands collusion, and it can be argued that because the performing arts require the collusion of so many people, to make and enjoy the performance, they can offer some of the most polyvalent, if not richest, of all artistic experiences. The one thing they lack, in comparison with the static arts, is the opportunity for the spectator to reflect at the moment of perception itself. We may ponder afterwards what we have seen or heard, but unless we drift off into reverie during the show itself, so missing what comes next, our participation in the performing arts, however profound the experience, is of its essence momentary, fleeting and partial—something all creators of works of the performing arts must bear in mind as they plan their effects. KMcL

See also ballet; criticism; gesamtkunstwerk; music drama; opera; theatre.



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