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How important is performance to art?

In some arts, for example music and dance, performance is obviously crucial. You might say that a score or notated choreography are directions for music or dancing; but that without the performance you don't actually have music or dance. Even here, however, the contribution of the performance to the work is variable. In the case of a classical piece, the performer interprets the original work, and may be said to do so well or poorly, freely, faithfully, imaginatively, and so on. So perhaps the music, or the dance, is made up of the original work plus the interpretation. In the case of jazz, on the other hand, the performance and the work are often the same thing. Certainly this is so for avant-garde jazz. But even when a jazz band is playing a standard tune with a set progression of chord changes, the "work" happens on the spot, and is different every time.

In improvisatory arts like jazz, performance is clearly of the essence of art. That includes the live connection and interaction between performer and audience, and the risks that each takes. Other arts, like painting, do not initially seem to include performance. But perhaps they do. They are, at least, accomplishments. they are human products, demonstrating human skill and communicating human thoughts and emotions. As such, they speak to us and arouse our wonder in the same way that performances do. In a way, the creation of each work is a performance. (I am indebted to the aesthetician Dennis Dutton for this way of looking at the making of works of art.)

In 1945, an artist by the name of Hans Van Meegeren startled the art world by announcing that he was the creator of a recently discovered "Vermeer", The Disciples at Emmaus, which had hung in the Boymans museum for the previous seven years. Van Meegeren was under investigation for having sold state treasures to the Nazis during the war. He had, indeed, helped the Nazis to acquire a recently discovered painting. Van Meegeren defended himself by pointing out that what he had actually sold was not a Vermeer, but a Van Meegeren.

But why should not a Van Meegeren be as valuable as a Vermeer? Dutton points out that the accomplishment, the performance, is not the same. Vermeer spoke to his century in its own terms, putting on canvas a compelling vision of his world. Van Meegeren's performance was the lesser one of making a Vermeer-like work today. His skill with a brush may have been good enough to fool art critics and connoiseurs; his vision of the world was not embodied in that project in the way in which Vermeer's was.

Click here for some further thoughts and questions about performance, improvisation, creativity and skill.

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