Cognitive Sciences Centre
Southampton UK SO17 1BJ
Anthony Burgess In "Performers: A Necessary Evil" (New York Times Magazine, October 17 1982) trotted out the tired old arguments for the superiority of the "creative" arts over the performing arts. It will be a challenge to refute them in under 1400 words:
1. Improvisation and the oral tradition. The division of labor between composer and performer, playwright and actor, is relatively recent. The two functions used to be performed in one by the minstrels and bards of old, who improvised their own variations on works passed on by oral tradition from generation to generation. This should already give some cause for pause to anyone trying to make hard and fast distinctions; common origins suggest that the two functions may still have more in common today than meets the eye.
2. Codification and the division of labor. The division of labor was a technological innovation more than anything else. With the development of the codes and media for preserving the structure of a work, some artists could specialize in formulating the codes and others in executing them. Two artforms were effectively born out of one, thanks to the new technology. Nor has that been the only time that technology made new artforms possible. Photography, film and computer graphics and sonics are recent examples.
3. Incommensurability of artforms. It should be obvious that value judgments comparing one artform against another are bound to be arbitrary: Does it make sense to say that music is superior to poetry? painting to sculpture? drama to dance? Well then why playwrighting to acting, or composition to performance?
4. Incommensurabity of artists. It is clear that in every artform there are a few individual giants whose work is so great that, again, comparisons become arbitrary. But then does it make any less sense to try to say whether Bach or Beethoven was greater than to say whether it was Bach or Casals?
5. Symbiotic artforms. To reply that there would be no performers without composers is to give only one half of the symbiotic relationship its due: Although some people may be able to derive a lot from reading musical scores, one doubts that there would be much enthusiasm for the exercise if there were no such thing as aural music to be heard. And, without the theatre, plays would of course collapse into skeletal novels.
6. Technique vs. artistry. Just as there are the great exponents and the minor ones in every artform, there is the important distinction between virtuosity and artistry that Burgess entirely overlooks. It is the technical flair of the virtuoso (and the flamboyance of the flashy composition) that dazzles the Philistine audience, but it is the much rarer interpretative gift of the truly great performing artist that is the relevant point of comparison with the great composer's gift. Technique is only the competitive, athletic" component of performance; what makes performance art is something else -- the expressive element that is unique and personal, and incomparable from artist to artist.
7. Interpretative art: Creating an experience. "Creativity," that least understood human faculty, has nothing to do with whether the artform in question is "primary" or "secondary," (The analogies some people make with pure and applied science, or with painting and copying, are entirely specious.) Every artform can engender genius. The art of the composer is to create in the mind -- actually, to improvise within (and beyond) a tradition -- a piece of music that he then codifies for future performance. The art of the performer is to create out of that inert code a living experience for an audience; this too involves interpretation within (and beyond) a tradition. The experience cannot be generated by following the code mechanically. The performer must be a creative artist too, and in this, if he is great, he is the peer of the great composer. (Indeed, he can be even more than a peer, in those occasional cases when, say, a great actor raises the work of a mediocre playwright to a transcendent level. The reverse is of course much more common, but this has more to do with the ratio of actors to playwrights than with the relative value of the two artforms.)
8. Reunifying creation and execution? Ironically, technology has now reached a stage where it could reunify the roles of composer and performer, playwright and actor, by allowing "live" performances to be codified on disk and film and even enabling a composer to computer-generate the execution of his work exactly as he sees fit, with no human intermediary. I doubt that the reunification will take place, however, since it is to a great extent the element that cannot be mechanically preserved and repeated, either in a score or a disk, that distinguishes the performing arts from the nonperforming ones such as painting or literature. This is what makes us want to see the same play, but not the same film, over and over again. The living quality of the ever-changing improvisations of the ancient bards and minstrels survives in the ever-changing interpretations of contemporary performing artists.
9. Creativity as a performing art. This much of the argument for the parity of performance is, I think, a matter of logic and history. But if I may add a note of personal conjecture, there may even be something to be said for the primacy of performance in creativity in some cases, thereby turning Burgess's uncomplimentary evaluation on its head. According to this view, the creative process, whether it animates the pen of the poet, the brush of the painter or the fingers of the pianist, is sometimes itself a kind of expressive performance, a "channelling" of the creator's muse, with the creator an inspired "medium" like the biblical prophets. If this this conjecture has some validity, then the great performing artist is the one who externalizes this creative process "live," for all to see; hence there may be more to be learned about creativity itself from observing performance than from any of the more covert artforms.
10. Constraints. Nor is the oral tradition quite dead. Any artistic medium, at any moment, has its constraints and its "givens." The landscape painter or the portraitist are constrained by their subjects and their styles in very much the way the actor or the musician are constrained by their scripts, scores and styles. Nonrepresentational art happens to be less constrained in some respects than representational art, but that hardly makes it better (or worse). In every case the possibility of genius resides in how creatively one can work within (and beyond) a given medium's current stylistic constraints.
11. Collaboration and cumulativity. Nor is composing/performing the only division of labor in the arts. If one surveys the spectrum of artistic collaboration that actually exists -- including playwrights, librettists, operatic composers, conductors, choreographers, directors, etc. -- it turns out to be so interdependent and incestuous that Burgess's neat dichotomy breaks down altogether. One looks in vain -- in the history of the traditional folk tale that Goethe "interprets" as Faust, Gounod as the opera by that name, T. Mann as Dr. Faustus, H. Mann as Mephisto (and latter-day Hungarians as the film by the latter name) -- for the "tabula rasa" on which a unique creator makes his exclusive mark. The line of succession is endless (Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Damn Yankees, etc.).
12. The intentional fallacy. This leads, finally, to that still not fully explored paradox of the arts that goes by the name of the "intentional fallacy," according to which it turns out to be a mistake to look for the "meaning" of a work of art in the artist's intentions. Once "created," a work of art -- be it a poem, a painting, or a particular night's singing of a song -- seems to take on a life of its own, and people can find in it (and do with it) things that may be far from the intentions (whether conscious or otherwise) of its creator, and no less "real" or valid for being so. (This does not, by the way, imply any radical subjectivism or "anything-goes" relativism: I am speaking of objective, though unintended, properties of works of art, which other individuals may discover and build upon.) This intentional "underdetermination" (shall we call it) of all works of art provides yet another reason -- if one was still wanting -- why musical and theatrical interpretation are creative arts rather than technical skills.