Are Performers Artists?

Are Performers Artists?

Philosophy December 05, 2011 / By Thomas Mark
Are Performers Artists?

Raises questions, to be developed in subsequent columns, about the artistic status of performers.

Suppose I ask you to name ten great artists of the twentieth century.  Whom do you mention?  Picasso?  Stravinsky?  Joyce?   All are plausible candidates.  Who else?  Think of seven other great twentieth century artists. 

Now that your list is complete, let me ask you: does your list include Artur Rubinstein?  What about Jascha Heifetz?  Or Maria Callas, John Gielgud, Vladimir Horowitz, Luciano Pavarotti, Margot Fonteyn, Laurence Olivier, Sarah Bernhardt, or Rudolf Nureyev?  Are there any performers on your list? 

Everyone agrees that Shakespeare, Sophocles, Bach, and Beethoven, who created works of performing art, are artists on the same exalted level as Michelangelo, Cervantes, Rembrandt or Monet, who created works of non-performing art.  But the performers of the works of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Bach, and Beethoven are not usually put in the same category.  Indeed, the suggestion that performers should be included may seem odd to some people, because the artistic status of performers is by no means clear.  We refer to them as artists, but what do we mean by that?  Are they creative artists or mere interpreters?  Should we regard someone as an artist whose activity consists mainly or entirely of performing works by others?  If performers are artists, then what are their artworks?  What do they create?  How do they do what they do? 

For the moment I simply assume that performers are artists.  They are, after all, commonly designated as artists, so I am following ordinary usage in this.  Now, if performers are artists, there is no reason to suppose them inferior as a class to the creators of the works they perform.  To suppose that composers and playwrights are necessarily superior as artists to musicians and actors would be to revert to the opinion, common in earlier centuries, that the arts can be classified hierarchically, with some inherently higher than others.  But that is no longer a tenable position.  More plausible is the view that although some composers are greater artists than some pianists, and some playwrights greater than some actors, the opposite can also be true.  Some pianists are greater artists than some composers and some actors greater than some playwrights—at least that is the opinion of drama critics, who often claim about a new play that the actors are better than the material they have to work with. 

One important thing does separate performers from creators of works of performing art: the performer’s artwork, whatever we eventually determine its precise nature to be, is over as soon as it is complete.  Unlike composers or playwrights, performers cannot leave an oeuvre, a body of work that remains behind them.  Rubinstein, Horowitz and the others mentioned above are dead and their works—their performances—no longer exist.  In some cases their work is preserved on recordings, but recordings are reproductions, not the actual artworks.

By common consent, practitioners of the performing arts include composers, musicians, playwrights, actors, choreographers, and dancers.  We lump all these artists together under a single designation.  But there are differences between the activity of performers and the activity of those whose works they perform.  Consequently, I shall not use “performing art” in the broad sense that includes performers along with composers, dramatists, and choreographers.  I shall use “performing art” more narrowly to refer to an art in which the artworks are intended to be performed.  In this sense, the arts of music, dance, and drama are performing arts, because works of music, dance, and drama are created with the intention that they be performed.

Those who perform works of music, dance, and drama are musicians, dancers, and actors.  As musicians, dancers, and actors they do not create the works they perform.  A pianist is not a composer; she does not produce a sonata but a performance of a sonata.  A dancer produces not a ballet but a performance of a ballet.  Granted, a single individual can fill both roles—a pianist can compose her own sonata and a dancer can choreograph her own ballet—but the roles are nevertheless different.  The artists whose activity we shall examine are not those who create works of performing art, but those who perform them.  This is a column about artistic performance.

In identifying our subject as artistic performance I am using the phrase “artistic performance” in a particular sense.  People often apply the adjective “artistic” to indicate the aesthetic merit of a performance or to distinguish one performance from another.  They may say that a performance was “highly artistic,” meaning that it was exemplary in expressivity, grace, or precision, or of two performances that both exhibited technical mastery but one was more “artistic” than the other.  I believe this is the sense of “artistic” that occurs in the appraisal of certain sports, as when a gymnast or a figure skater is given a score for “artistic impression.”  I shall use the phrase differently.  I shall use “artistic performance” to refer to occasions in which there is both a performance and an artwork being performed.  A pianist, for example, performs a sonata.  When that occurs, there is a performance, done by the pianist, and an artwork being performed, namely the sonata, which is the work of a composer. 

The concept of artistic performance I am introducing is narrower than the concept of performance in general because not all performing, even if it is very difficult and demanding, counts as artistic performance in this sense.  Jugglers and tightrope walkers are performers, and they typically possess and display astonishing skill.  But there is no artwork that a tightrope walker performs.  His skill is exhibited for its own sake, not embedded in an artwork.  His performances, therefore, are not artistic performances in the sense I am specifying.  I intend in subsequent columns to examine performance in which there is both a performer and a work being performed, describe the activity of those who engage in such performance, and consider their status as artists.

Featured image: an etching by Jacques Callot (1592-1635)

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