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May 25, 2006

Performance and Art

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I always enjoy comparing notes with the brash evo-bio brainiacs at GNXP. Agnostic especially is drawn to mulling over culture-and-art matters, and he unfailingly comes up with interesting thoughts and provocative research. Recently he has been thinking about G and creativity. With no research to back me up (but with several decades in the arts and the media), I love following his arguments and then throwing pebbles in his path. I was pretty pleased with my latest comment on his latest posting, so I'm treating myself to re-running it here:

Let me give you a few more things to chew on.

The main flaw with your theory, it seems to me, is that it obliges you to exclude tribal, folk, popular, and commercial art. Yet almost certainly 80% of the art that has ever been made has been tribal, folk, popular, or commercial. There are entire cultures that have no "high" culture whatsoever, and there are immense cultures (the US for instance) where high culture is a spotty thing, but where commercial and folk culture are hyper-dynamic. Subtract rock, blues, c&w, automobile design, fashion, movies, sci-fi, magazines, TV, pulp fiction, etc from "American culture" and you don't have a lot left. Something, but not much.

Your notion that most performers don't qualify as artists strikes me as an almost-equally major flaw. For one thing, there's a "performance" aspect to all the arts -- a novel is a kind of performance, after all, and so is a painting. There's the blurriness of categories of performance, for another. Standup comedians often come up with their own material, improv actors and clowns do too, and how about singer-songwriters who perform their own stuff?

There's a practical, on-the-ground matter: many composers will tell you that such-and-such a performer of his/her stuff is a "great artist." During her great years, the ballerina Suzanne Farrell never did anything but execute Balanchine's steps -- yet if you were to go to Lincoln Center and say "For the sake of my theory, I have decided that Suzanne Farrell wasn't an artist," you'd be hectored out of town. She was a great star.

There's the cultural problem: the division between "composer" and "performer" is clear-cut only in a limited number of art forms, and in a limited number of cultures, and even then you have to take it case by case.

And then there's the historical problem, which is that art probably originated in pre-history as performance: storytelling, dancing, drumming, singing, etc. All that preceded "composition." In other words, performance isn't tangential to creativity. It's central, essential. "Composition" came along later.

Happy to agree that there are degrees of creativity, but I really think it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. A song might be a stinker (ie., non-creative), yet a performer might make something memorable out of it (ie., execute a real act of creativity in performance). This is a common occurrence, btw. If you're a theater-goer, for instance, one of the most common experiences is to walk out of the theater thinking, "Well, the play stank, but what a fabulous set of actors and performances." It's rare to see a good play, but commonplace to see inspired and creative performances.

So you might want to moderate your thesis' claims. I guess I wouldn't have too much trouble with your idea if it were explicitly only about western high culture. (Even though I've known a lot of artists whose work was high-cult and seemed difficult and high-powered but who were in fact nincompoops ...) But western high-cult is something very local and specific. It's a great achievement, and I'm a fan, but I can't say I automatically value it over any other kind of art-culture mode. Do you?

Thanks to Agnostic, whose personal blog is here.



posted by Michael at May 25, 2006


One of the interesting approaches to creativity was from a teacher who traveled to Japan and noticed that EVERYONE could compose a decent poem and make an appealing bit of art. The inquiry into why this should be so revealed that no one ever told children of a certain age that they could NOT do that. On into adulthood went those children with never a thought that such behavior must be taught or is limited to the talented or professional people.

It appears that creativity is a natural ability that is turned OFF by some cultures.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 25, 2006 12:58 PM

I guess my distinction between performance and creation is which is necessary and which is supplemental. Beethoven was necessary a creator-originator, even though you could say he was also performing -- either literally by conducting (or Chopin by playing the piano), or figuratively by "putting on a show" for the audience, showing off, striking poses, etc. Whereas the typical actor or instrumentalist is necessarily following a script, and incidentally & occasionally originating something. Still, most of the really innovative ideas come from the playwrights or directors -- like putting Hamlet in a black leather jacket. It's the playwright or director's job to be the visionary, control-freak God of the production.

As you mention, my distinction between high & popular culture is one of degree. Even if you're involved in a "Yo momma so fat..." contest, it always helps to have a bigger vocabulary, store of images, ability to connect remote ideas, and cognitive speediness (lest you choke). I think the distinction is fine, though, since we see the same with scientific products -- all cultures have folk biology, mathematics, physics, etc. But only a few have marvelous math & science. The folk stuff is impressive from a Martian's point-of-view -- we're one of a handful of species that can come close to what we do -- but restricting our view to just other human beings, it's hard to argue that the folk stuff is as creative or impressive as the high stuff. Not that it's not impressive, just less so.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 25, 2006 2:14 PM


Some of your examples are rather physical in nature: ballet, acting, etc. What about figure skating or gymnastics? Of course, the route I'm going is to ask you whether sport more generally can be considered art. Compare Michael Jordan with Suzanne Farrell. It's an interesting thought. Ms. Farrell would probably lose out if I were the arbiter of such things. I instinctively like the GNXP guys' taxonomy, so I'd call her an athlete not an artist. Should art depend on the fast twitch muscles with which you were born? Then, of course, on another day, were ballet to be on ESPN, I would make a derisive comment like "I thought this was the sports network," and try to find a football game to watch. Apparently, I contain multitudes, and none of those multitudes like ballet. Anyway, it's interesting to think about. Nice post.

Posted by: Chris on May 25, 2006 2:28 PM

P. Mary -- Japan's an interesting case isn't it? Supposedly a nation of interchangeable drones unable to generate new ideas. Yet newspapers run haiku contests, manga are hyper-popular, hip kids set styles, and there ain't nothing more refined-yet-earthy than shunga ... Anyway, creativity comes in all kinds of flavors, no? Art-creativity is just one of them.

Agnostic -- Let's keep the ball rolling! Maybe some of your fellow GNXPers will pick up a bit from it. Actually a posting I'd love to read would be on the topic of science and art -- what it's like being a science person interested in art, how you arrange your mind in both cases, what you find artists and scientists to be like, etc etc. That'd be a corker.

Chris -- I think you do contain multitudes! I had a gruff hetero-male friend who spent a while attending a lot of ballet. When I asked where that came from, he told me he finally understood that it was OK to enjoy it as athletics, and that he dug it as such (OK, as very pretty athletics). And why not?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 25, 2006 2:38 PM

It's funny, I was actually a wannabe loner artist type in high school & first two years of college (mostly writing, but I drew a lot when I was 12 or 13). The polysyllabic gobbledygook of Lit Crit turned me off, and I switched to linguistics (part soft science, part math).

Posted by: Agnostic on May 25, 2006 9:36 PM

One of my all-time favorite magazines (which may have doomed it! -- I mean, all I have to do is get attached to something and it goes off the market) was "The Sciences," the publication of the New York Academy of Sciences. (I may not have the name right.) It published clear, well-written and timely articles about scientific ideas (with and without math). But what was amazing was the illustrations which were all from fine art, some abstract and some realistic. Almost always it was very clear what the relationship between art and writing might be, whether it was an abstract concept about categories or an impressionistic image of bacterial growth.

The prize givers loved the magazine as well, but that didn't save it. I gather the problem was -- what else? -- money.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 26, 2006 6:22 AM

It seems like Agnostic likes polish and completeness and a common language (like a "detailed musical score, written down"). Certainly, a symphony by Beethoven may be more fully "polished", "Complete", "complex" bu "fully realized" than somebody sitting on a porch in Mississippi banging on a three-string and humming. Not necessarily "more artistic" (and Beethoven might have the first to agree) but "more refined", "more practiced" and mostly "more re-creatable". You can write it down and re-create it from instructions. It's one reason dance (in M Blowhard's Farrell example) was often considered a more primitive art--even ballet. It has no common language to readily and easily "write down" the choreography and recreate it. I don't know if this is still true, but there is no "international language" for it. Gelsey Kirkland discusses this at length in her autobiography (which is totally worth reading, BTW). Each ballet requires a choreographer. There is no way a ballet class for 14-year-olds in Pittsburgh can "buy the score" to Ballanchine's dance steps for Suzanne Farrell in "Swan Lake". Even Farrell had to memorize them. Certainly, people generally considered the Beatles later work---more "complex", more "polished"---then more "primitive" work like "Love Me Do". Is it "better"? Well, it is if you like "polished." On the other hahd, some blues and jass loses its sting entirely the more "polished" it becomes--the rawness is part of it.

Posted by: annette on May 26, 2006 11:12 AM

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