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Issues with Performance Art - Abadoss' Mind
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Mon, May. 16th, 2005 10:24 am
Issues with Performance Art

As a recap for the weekend, I went to go see "Empire" at ACMA on Saturday and then went to Fireside Lodge with some friends and listened to jazz and played cards.

"Empire" is a physical theatre production created by the students in the drama department at ACMA. It asks what an empire really is... in an abstract, yet still direct, way. The performance was well executed and you could tell that a lot of time an effort had been put into it. It's hard not to expect that level of creativity from these students.

However, I personally have issues with this type of theatre. From this point on, I will refer to it as "performance art" or "physical theatre". Please note that at no point am I ever making the claim that it's not art because I know for a fact that it is art and that it is theatre. My issue lies solely in artistic interpretation. I believe that there are some flaws with this form that have the ability to undermine its purpose.

I have always believed that art is a method of communication for ideas, concepts, feelings, and socio-political ethics. Performance art will almost always be a communication of one or more of these categories, as the nature of the form dictates. It's flaw lies not in its purpose, but in its delivery.

If the purpose of art is to communicate, then the quality of a piece of art is determined by how well it communicates an idea and to how wide an audience it can communicate this idea. With performance art, one or the other is often sacrificed. Abstract becomes normality and communication is limited to those who are more involved with the field (in other words, other performance artists, etc.). Thus, the more abstract the piece of art becomes, the more that it corrodes its own purpose of communication. It's like preaching to the choir, to give a cliché.

The second problem I have with performance art is the over-use of charged words, phrases, and imagery. During the Baroque era of art, the Doctrine of Affections (a philosophy of how specific techniques can be used to trigger specific responses in an individual) suggested that everyone will respond exactly the same to a particular stimuli or device of an artist. The idea was that if you used this or this technique, you would always trigger this response in anyone. Problem is that this isn't true.

Yes, humans respond similarly to various things, particularly those things which cause much stronger reactions, but we all respond slightly differently to everything. Two men or women, if put in the exact same environment, the exact same situation, with the same exact background, will still respond differently or in their own manner. Performance art tends to use the same philosophy that the Baroque era was so attached to.

The assumption by the artists that an audience will react a specific way to a stimulus or that if you repeat a movement or an idea or a phrase or whatnot, it will make the audience feel this way or that. Unfortunately, this assumption on the part of the artist tends to alienate anyone who may think differently about any particular idea. That's not to say that the message being presented is wrong or should be changed, but rather that the way it is presented can be better at communicating the idea.

One does not catch a fish by throwing a mass of hooks into the water (except in the case of salmon), but it is with patience, the right bait, and a tug when you feel the fish on the end of the line that brings a fish in. Generally speaking (which means there are cases where this is not true, but most are exceptions), performance art is like throwing a mass of hooks. The fish represents the individual to whom the art is trying to communicate to (whether that's in the plural or the singular sense).

I believe that in order to communicate an idea well, one has to be extremely intentional about the method in which one presents his or her art. It's one thing if you are intending only to speak to a specific audience or if it's only meant for you. I write tons of poetry (plenty in this journal) that's solely meant to make sense to me and no one else. That's okay. But, if you're trying to influence someone or a group of people who are in opposition to you, charged words and ideas are not going to change their minds. In fact, you have more chance of driving them further from your cause than if you were simply to say nothing. Although, silence is often more potent than words, but that's for a later rant.

If your purpose is to communicate how something is wrong or is not healthy for the people or is destructive in some way, it's better to try seeing it from their point first before attempting to place your viewpoint on it. If you can't see where they're coming from, you've already lost all connection with them and any chance you have of changing their minds. They won't listen to you if you aren't willing to take the time to walk a mile in their shoes.

Second, you have to prepare your message in a manner that best speaks to them. If your audience respond better to country music than to rap music, chances are you need to use country music before you use rap music to communicate your idea. If an audience responds better to humor than to dramatic, perhaps a comedy would be better equipped to convey the idea, rather than a tragedy. If people respond better to encouragement, rather than accusation, perhaps you should use encouragement before you accuse anyone.

Another problem is that often times, the audience will have no idea what you're talking about for a good portion of time. Unless you find a way to lead the audience, not forcefully, into the subject matter in which you are trying to communicate, you will lose them. An audience will have no connection to your subject matter unless you give it to them and that can't be done forcefully. You can't assume that there's a keyword that's going to trigger a connection with your audience.

My third issue is that because of the abstract nature of performance art, audiences often find it alien and unearthly. While this can often achieve a purpose, it doesn't always hit the mark for everything else. When audiences feel alienated, the message you try to communicate to them becomes alien. And, as much as we try to deny it in these days, things that are foreign can be perceived as threatening or hostile (particularly when it becomes charged) - an outside force. The natural response to an outside force is resistance. Humans (especially Americans) are programmed to resist anything that forcefully threatens us (in the case of performance art, this would mostly be subconscious).

In Armageddon, the movie, one of the scientists uses the analogy of a firecracker in the palm. A firecracker on an open palm is not going to do too much damage, but if placed inside a fist, it can blow the hand apart really really hurt. This concept is just as true in art. An audience that is alienated is like an open hand to the firecracker, which is the idea. It is far more effective to reach the audience in such a way that they close in on the firecracker.

Change is best implemented from within. If the artist is able to present his or her idea in a way that is familiar to the audience, he or she stands a better chance of communicating the idea. That's not to say one should sacrifice originality or individualism. That's also not to say that one should always follow defined rules. But one can say more by occasionally breaking a rule, than one that never follows them. You're more likely to pay attention to that one blip in a perfect structure, than a structure make entirely of blips.

Anyway, these issues of mine aren't limited to performance art. They also extend to much of modern music, visual art, and even dance. Art for art's sake is fine for the artist, but it rarely says anything to anyone else. I believe such explorations in art to further the boundaries of communication, but I think that they should be used far more intentionally.

Abstract is like frosting; only good if there's a cake underneath.

Current Mood: frustrated frustrated
Current Music: "Lullaby" -Kenneth Edward Keyn


Fri, May. 27th, 2005 05:21 am (UTC)
good entry

I enjoyed this entry. I usually don't like your entries. I only have two issues with two of your analogies.
1. The fishing analogy is simply not true. Have you ever gone snagging at a Salmon run? All you do is throw a bunch of hooks in the water and hope to snag a fish as is swims by. You catch much more fish snagging than you do while doing any other kind of fishing where you just sit there with bait and hope one's hungry.
2. The firecracker is also not true. Well, I guess it's true after a certain point of explosiveness. I know you got this from a movie and all. Especially since you would never try it for yourself because it would hurt your ears. It's understandable that you could have been misled by the media. It happens to the best of us. The truth is that when you close your hand around a firecracker it puts enough pressure on the sides that the firecracker just blows out the ends. When you leave your hand open it is able to blast completely apart. It usually blows up at the middle and that's where you tend to hold the firecracker as well. It hurts like a mother. and the only way you are going to blow your hand off with a firecracker is by using a super powerful firecracker. And a person should be smart enough to not hold one of those in their hand. Just some food for thought.

Kenneth Edward Keyn
Fri, May. 27th, 2005 06:13 am (UTC)
Re: good entry

Okay. Perhaps I should have come up with better analogies.

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