Works of Performing Art and their Performances

Works of Performing Art and their Performances

Philosophy December 13, 2011 / By Thomas Mark
Works of Performing Art and their Performances

Explains the difference between a work of performing art, an instance of that work, a performance of that work, and an interpretation of that work

In order to speak intelligibly about artistic performance, the general subject of these columns, we must make clear the relation between a work of performing art and a performance of that same work.  To do that we must establish some definitions and draw a number of distinctions, which will cause today’s column to be longer than average, and those impatient with philosophical theorizing may find it a bit dry.  I apologize for that, but promise to make the subsequent column read more like True Confessions.

Now, the precise nature of a work of performing art—the manner in which it exists (if “existence” is the proper term here)—is a controversial philosophical question.  Some people claim that a work of performing art is a kind of abstract entity, but others disagree.  Fortunately, we need not take sides.  Our interest is not in the works themselves but in performances of them, and it will be sufficient for us simply to point out that whatever they may be “in themselves,” works of performing art are not physical objects and they cannot be perceived by the bodily senses.  I shall explain both of these points.  

Let us take Chopin’s Fourth Ballade as an example of a work of performing art.  Chopin completed the Fourth Ballade in Paris in 1842 and it has been in existence continuously ever since (for want of a better term I continue to use the word “existence”).  But the ballade has not existed in Paris, or indeed, in any other place; it is not like the Statue of Liberty, which has existed in New York Harbor since 1886.  The Fourth Ballade does not have a location in space.

The ballade is not the same as any of its performances.  A performance has a beginning and an end, and lasts only a few minutes, whereas the ballade has existed for some 170 years.  Moreover, the ballade exists even at moments when it is not being performed, and could exist even if it never had been performed.  There are, in fact, works of performing art that have been completed but never performed.

The ballade is also not the same as the score, or any copy of the score, since it could exist if all copies of the score were lost or destroyed.  Many pianists know the Fourth Ballade from memory and could still play it even if all copies of the score somehow disappeared.  Therefore, existence of the ballade does not depend on existence of the score.  Nor does it even depend on a score having been prepared.  Mozart is said, in some accounts, to have composed entirely in his head and then to have written down the completed work afterwards.  If that is true, then the work existed, presumably in the same manner as other works of performing art, from the moment of mental completion, although it was not accessible to anyone but Mozart until Mozart either performed the work or prepared a score.  Mozart did, in fact, perform some of his piano concertos without having prepared a full score of the piano solo (though of course he had to provide scores for the orchestra).

Although a work of performing art does not have a physical location, a performance of that work occurs at a definite time and place.  When a performance occurs of the Fourth Ballade, it is surely correct to say that the ballade is present at that time and place.  But two pianists could play the Fourth Ballade simultaneously in different cities, in which case the ballade would be present in two places at once.  This simply reinforces the point that the ballade is not a physical object.  Physical objects cannot occupy two locations at once.

As a non-physical object, the ballade cannot be perceived by the bodily senses.  That is, however we characterize the elusive entity that has existed continuously for 170 years and can be present in different locations at the same time, we cannot perceive it directly.  Nevertheless, we do apprehend works of performing art through the bodily senses.  That is because works of performing art can be embodied, made perceptible to one or more of the senses, which is what occurs in performance.  In performance a work of music is presented as a series of actual sounds.  Unlike the work of music, sounds have a location in time and space.  Whether or not we consider them to be physical objects, they are certainly physical occurrences, perceptible to the sense of hearing.  Thus, when someone performs a work of music we can say that the work is presented in a manner perceptible to the sense of hearing, which is the manner of presentation for which it was composed.  The sounds that embody a musical work constitute what I shall call an instance of that work.  When a pianist plays the Fourth Ballade, the sounds emerging from the piano, taken together, are an instance of the Fourth Ballade.  A similar account applies in other performing arts.  A work of choreography is realized by a series of bodily movements.  Like sounds, movements are perceivable physical occurrences.  When a dancer performs a work of choreography, her movements constitute an instance of the work of choreography, which now occurs in a form perceptible to the sense of sight.  A play is realized when certain speeches occur accompanied by appropriate actions.  Those speeches and actions constitute an instance of the play.

My use of the word “instance” to designate individual realizations of works of performing art in an appropriate sensuous medium may seem idiosyncratic, but I do not know a better word.  We have no handy vernacular term with which to designate individual perceptible realizations of works of performing art.  So I am adopting the word “instance” to refer to those individual realizations.  Because there is no generally recognized term for referring to instances of works of performing art, people often use the word “performance” when they are really referring to an instance.  That can be a source of misunderstanding.

A work of performing art can receive any number of instances.  Different pianists can perform the Fourth Ballade, in various places, at various times or at the same time.  To do that, they push down the keys of a piano and produce sequences of sounds in accord with those indicated in the score.  Each of those sequences of sounds is an instance of the ballade.  Since each instance offers a sequence of all the sounds specified in the score, we can say that the ballade is fully present in any one of its instances.  If two instances occur simultaneously in different places, then although the ballade is present in two places at once, each instance is a separate occurrence.  All works of performing art have this feature.  A work of drama can be given numerous instances by being enacted on different occasions by different actors; a work of choreography can likewise be given instances on different occasions by different dancers.  Each instance is a presentation of the same work, but each instance is a unique occurrence.

I shall sometimes say that an instance of a work of performing art is that work, by which I simply mean that the instance offers the complete work.  If dancers execute the movements prescribed by Balanchine in Jewels, then there is nothing else that must occur, nothing else the dancers must do, in order for their movements to constitute Jewels.  No instance of a work of performing art is more truly an instance than any other, because anything that counts as instance gives the actual work of performing art.

Although two instances of the same work may not differ insofar as they are both instances, they can differ in other respects.  One pianist may play the Fourth Ballade faster than another pianist, with different dynamics, different tone quality, and different emphasis.  Two instances of a play may use different scenery and different stage direction; they may be utterly unlike one another visually and yet be instances of the same play.  I shall refer to differences between two instances of the same work as differences of interpretation.  Two pianists who play the Fourth Ballade in different ways are playing the same work, but under different interpretations.

A work of performing art must receive an instance in order to be apprehended by its audience in the intended way, but, obviously, instances do not just happen, they have to be made on purpose.  This is where the performer comes in.  The performer produces or makes an instance of the work.  In the case of the Fourth Ballade, the performer is a pianist who makes the sounds that Chopin specified, one by one, in the proper order, by pressing the keys of a piano.  In a work of choreography, the performer is a dancer who executes the proper bodily movements one after the other in the proper order.   For a work of drama, the performer is an actor. 

A performer produces an instance of a work, but the instance is not the same as the performance.  Performance, as I shall use the term, is an activity, or a period of activity.  In the case of a pianist, it is the activity of pressing keys on a piano to produce sound.  It is not the same as the instance that results from the activity.  An instance of a work of music is a series of sounds; the performance that produces those sounds is a series of human actions.  The two occur simultaneously, but they are not identical.  Human actions are bodily movements directed by intention; “mental” activities such as deciding, paying attention, and the like are also properly described as human actions.  Sounds are patterns of sound waves that travel through the air and, if they enter a human ear, give rise to the experience of hearing.  Sounds are perceptible to the sense of hearing; a dancer’s movements are perceptible to the sense of sight.  But the activity of producing those sounds or movements is not perceptible to the senses, or at any rate it is perceivable only in part.  We can perceive a pianist’s fingers moving to depress the keys; bodily movement is perceivable.  But performing is not mere bodily movement, it is human action, that is: bodily movement directed by intention.  Intention is essential—mere movement without intention is not performing—but it is not perceivable to the senses.  I conclude that the instance and the activity of producing it are not the same.

Performances are events, and like any other events, they occur, they end, and they are over.  We may talk casually of repeating an action or a performance, but that is not really possible.  All we can do is carry out another action similar to the first.  If a pianist repeats the finale of a sonata as an encore, she does not repeat the performance; she gives another performance of the same finale.  The product of the performance is an instance of the work performed, and it, too, whether it is a sequence of sounds or a sequence of bodily movements, is unique.  We can produce similar sounds or movements at another time or place, but we cannot repeat the numerically identical sounds or movements. Performances, therefore, and the instances they produce, are not repeatable.  Interpretations, on the other hand, can be repeated.  A work can receive more than one instance under a particular interpretation, and it is possible, in principle, for different performers to give separate instances under the same interpretation.

The following definitions summarize the conclusions I have presented. A work of performing art is an artwork created with the intention that it be performed; performance is the intended means by which the work can communicate to an audience.  An instance is an individual realization of a work of performing art that makes the work perceptible to one or more of the senses.  Interpretation refers to the ways in which two instances of a single work may differ from one another while remaining instances of the same work.  Artistic performance is the intentional activity of producing an instance of a work of performing art, with the purpose of making that work available to an audience.

The featured image is an etching by Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from the series "Balli di Sfessania."

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