Art, Performance in

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Some philosophers hold that the creation of art always involves performance, and that artworks are more accurately defined as processes or actions than as objects or events. This entry will consider the more traditional view that only some art formsdrama, music, dance, opera or musical theater, and "performance art"involve performance.

Performances can be freely improvised. In addition to being judged for their general interest and skill of execution, such performances are rated as well for elements of spontaneity and risk. The performers make and coordinate their activities in real time, without knowing how their performance will continue or end. Though drama can be extemporized, jazz takes improvisation to its highest level. In the paradigm case, however, performance involves the live presentation and interpretation of a previously specified work.

The Live Presentation of Works

Works for performance are often specified through a form of notation, such as a musical score or a script. The notation is addressed to the performer and prescribes what must be done or achieved if the work is to be faithfully performed. It may also contain recommendations that are not work-determinative, and that need not be followed. Features crucial to the work's identity are not always mentioned in the notation, for instance, where they are dictated by practices and conventions that are taken for granted. The performer's first act of interpretation occurs in following and understanding what is instructed in the work's notation, if it has one, along with appreciating the background of performance practices and conventions that it assumes.

In oral traditions, works are transmitted verbally, not by notations. One or more suitably authorized performances are given the status of a model for further instances of the work. Just what in the model is work-specifying and what is merely optional is settled by reference to the work-and-performance traditions and genres within which the relevant piece is located. For example, although the melody in the exemplary performance is elaborately decorated, it might be understood that the manner of decoration is left to the performers' discretion, as long as they respect limits set by the appropriate style. Or it might be understood that the choreography of a sword fight need not be aped in subsequent performance, though appropriate fighting actions will be required.

The actor's, singer's, or dancer's medium is her body, along with costumes, props, and sets. For other musicians, their instruments are their media. When a work is designed for performance, its medium is usually crucial to its identity, since the medium affects and constrains what can be done by the performer. The artist's instructions usually indicate both what is to be achieved and the medium or manner in which this is to be done. To perform a violin concerto, one should play the violin. Merely generating the appropriate sounds on a synthesizer (or a record player) does not qualify as performing the work.

Some works call for media that are not standard. Electronic compositions for live performance involve the use of microphones, sound generators, and the like. One of John Cage's pieces was issued as a vinyl disk with instructions about how the settings of the hi-fi amplifier are to be modified as the disk plays. Hip-hop artists and sound appropriators take the recordings of others as source materials for their own works and, like Cage, turn the record player into an instrument of musical performance.


Works that are for live performance are always ontologically thinner and more abstract than the concrete performances that instance them. If all the artist's work-determinative prescriptions are faithfully followed, many aspects of the performance's detail are not determined. The performer (or conductor/producer) resolves these uncertainties. The playwright might indicate that the actor is to say "Curse the gods," but the choice of facial expressions, gestures, and bodily attitude, along with the tone, inflection, pitch, and volume of the voice, are usually left to the actor. Whether through deliberation or not, the delivery of the line in an actual performance inevitably will display a particular version of all these features.

In adding flesh to the skeleton that is the work, and thereby creating a living performance, the performer interprets the work. It would be misleading, though, to say that interpretation is something added by the performer after he or she has satisfied the work-determinative prescriptions of the artist, or to suggest that interpretation fills the gap between the work's abstractness and its performance's concreteness. The delivery of the work is not prior to or apart from the interpretative contribution, which is crucial at every point or moment. The presentation of the words of a play or the notes of a symphony is not separable from the manner and inflection with which they are presented.

Some works for live performance can be very spare, ontologically speaking. Songs are so, when specified only as a melody, sequence of chords, and verse and chorus. Very different interpretations can be consistent with the faithful presentation of such works. The thinner the work, the more the performer becomes the focus of attention and the more the evaluation of the performance concerns the performer's creativity and vitality, rather than the faithful delivery of the work. But even where works are very detailed, as are Mahler's symphonies or Shaw's plays, the importance of the performer's interpretative contribution cannot be overlooked. Indeed, complex works offer the performer wonderful opportunities for displaying her talents, because their realization is unmistakably demanding and they allow for interpretations that are subtle, rich, and multilayered. Some works, such as instrumental concertos, are intended to draw attention to the virtuosic performances they require.

If all live performances embody interpretations of their works, so do thoughtless, unplanned performances and mechanical ones learned by rote. In the normal case, however, the interpretation is planned by the performer who delivers it and reveals a considered vision of the work. Some performers concentrate on the work's progression from moment to moment, leaving the artist's design to ensure that the whole is satisfying. Other performers structure their efforts in terms of a conception of the work's overall structure. Some performers can describe the ideas that inform their interpretations, while others have a more applied, unarticulated knowledge of what they do.

An interpretation, once mastered, can be repeated. Different performances of a production of a play usually present the same interpretation. Yet a given performer can have more than one way of interpreting a given work. A performer with a long career often adopts a fresh approach when she returns to works she performed previously.

Authenticity and Integrity Conditions

The purpose of a performance of a work is to present the work along with an interpretation of it. Such performances therefore presuppose a commitment of faithfulness to the work, or authenticity. Deliberate departures from the work undermine the claims of a performance to be of that work. Accidental errors and slips in performances need not prove fatal to the attempt at performance, however. A performance can instance a work because of its intent, and the work can be recognized in what is produced, despite the imperfection of its representation of that work.

There is disagreement about what faithfulness requires when questions such as the following are debated: Is it necessary to use boys rather than women when performing Shakespeare? Should Scarlatti be performed on the harpsichord only, and can its jacks be made of plastic instead of quills? If an eighteenth-century playwright specifies that his work is set in the present, should we use period costume or the clothes and milieu of the twenty-first century?

Such disagreements can reflect deeper differences of opinion about the ontological character of the works in question. Someone who thinks a musical work is merely a pattern of notes will regard any presentation that reproduces that pattern as faithful, no matter what means are used to produce it. But another who believes the work's instrumentation is also central to its identity will conclude that authentic performances must use instruments of the kind known to and specified by its composer. Differences between their ontological theories lead philosophers to draw the line between performers' legitimate liberty and illegitimate license in contrasting places.

There is another reason for conflict, though. Some people think that authenticity can be traded for interpretative interest. In other words, they do not regard the pursuit of faithfulness to the work as a paramount virtue in performances. As supporting evidence, they may cite the free approach sometimes taken to the interpretation of Shakespeare and of the most famous musical works and operas. It might not be coincidental, however, that works approached in this manner are very familiar to the established audience and that there is a concern to maintain their relevance for future audiences. In other words, the free approach to interpretation in these cases is not necessarily indicative of indifference to or disrespect of the work as such. Provided that audiences are interested in the works being performed, authenticity in performance cannot be reduced merely to another interpretive option.

Stan Godlovitch (1998) specifies the following conditions for the integrity of performances: only one work is performed at a time; its proper sequence is respected, as is the indicated rate of delivery; the performance is continuous, without unjustified breaks; performers comply with the appropriate roles (and do not, for example, swap parts midway through). Also, the audience is in a position to receive the entire performance in its detail. Not all of these conditions are satisfied in all performances. Nevertheless, these conditions are normative in that they indicate what is expected from a performance.

Activities not directed to an audiencepracticing, rehearsing, learning, doodlingdo not result in performances, according to these conditions. (In many cases, such activities have the goal of preparing performers for performances, however.) Other performance-like activities violate other of the specified conditions and are not exemplary for that reason. Music-minus-one disks and karaoke (as well as new technology, allowing a person to speak one of the roles in a movie) are examples.

Studio Performances

Not all performances are given live. Some take place in studios and result in recordings or films. Studio performances have their own integrity conditions. The work's segments can be recorded piecemeal and out of order. A single performer can take many different roles in the finished product, as a consequence of multitracking or filming. The performer's inputs can be electronically modified. The projected audience is not present to witness the studio performance.

We accept studio performances of pieces created originally for live performances, such as recordings of classical symphonies or movies of Elizabethan plays. They may use some of the studio's resources, such as the possibility in film of moving seamlessly between different indoor and outdoor locations. But in general, they simulate live performances, and the artists involved are capable of giving live performances.

Some works are designed for studio performances. Rock recordings that sculpt sounds electronically in a fashion that could not be achieved in real time are examples. These are works for performance, but not for live performance. The same song can be recorded by another group, and the result is a new (studio) performance of it, not a different but a derivative work.

Yet other works are not for performance of any kind, though they involve studio performances in their creation. Most films rely on the resources of the studios (slow motion, flashbacks, stunts, digital editing, and special effects) and result in works that are for screening, not performance. Similarly, purely electronic musical works are for playback, not for performance, though performers might supply material that is integrated into the work. "Directors' cuts" result in new versions of movies, not in new performances, while remakes result in new but derivative works.

Performance Art

During the mid-twentieth century, artists began to challenge traditional conceptions of artworks and the separation of art from life by using their own bodies as the medium for their works. They posed in public or structured some aspect of their lives in terms of an aesthetic goal; they lived in cages or staged happenings. Different strands of the movement featured bodily mutilation, sexual orgies, and primitive rituals, often intended to deliver a political or socio-sexual message. Some feminist artists embraced performance art for its liberating energy, but were sensitive also to the need to subvert the objectifying equation of women with their bodies. Performance artists have often integrated video into their artworks. The works of the French feminist Orlan display many of these features; they are films of the surgical alteration of her face to give it the features of famous art-historical beauties.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Greek Drama; Music, Philosophy of; Tragedy.


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Stephen Davies (2005)