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Humanities Libertexts

1.3: Fine Art and the Qualities of Theatre

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  • Theatre, along with music and dance, has been labeled a fine art as well as a performing art; it can be found in performing arts centers and taught in colleges and departments of fine art. But these terms lead to larger issues. By the twentieth century, educational programs had been broken down into classifications, all of which were historically tied to economic class. In many cultures of the ancient world, work was done by slaves. Consequently, physical labor was imagined to be degrading and associated with a lack of nobility. The Romans, for example, called any activity where money changed hands the vulgar arts (vulgares artes) or sordid arts (sordidæ artes), also translated as “dirty arts.” By the Middle Ages, the designation changed. The term mechanical arts was adopted to mean skilled activities accomplished by manual labor. In the seventeenth century, useful arts appeared, and with the arrival of the machine age in the nineteenth century, it was replaced with industrial arts, a term still in use today. In the ancient world and beyond, proof of high status was having leisure time to pursue self-improvement of the mind or to serve the public good. Therefore, philosophy, history, languages, math, and science were given the term liberal arts (“arts befitting a freeman”). Now the term simply means subjects separate from science and technology and implies an education that is not particularly specialized. Therefore “liberal,” in this sense, is not a political term and is not meant to contrast any “conservative” mode of thought.

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    The third branch, separate from useful and liberal, was given the term fine arts. Coined in the eighteenth century, it was meant to include sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. Later, the performing arts were added along with disciplines such as printmaking, photography, and collage. “Fine” was not intended to suggest art that was “acceptable” or “delicate”—it was supposed to classify artistic endeavors that were beautiful for their own sake and not compromised by serving any practical function. In other words, a craftsman could make a stunningly beautiful cabinet, but once it stored clothes, it ceased to be art. An architect could design a building that was a pleasure to behold, but since it provided shelter, his work was considered only useful.

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    Clearly, the exchange of money and the association with leisure time has been abandoned as a dividing line between fine and useful art. However, the remaining concept of beauty for its own sake leaves us with a variety of conflicts, questions, and ambiguities. Many works communicate images or use material that we may not regard as beautiful. Still, we would not hesitate to label them as art. Theatre deals in conflict, sometimes using subject matter that can make some feel uncomfortable. Does it cease to be art when no pleasurable feeling is derived from it? Many would argue that even though the arts do not serve any domestic function, they can be extremely useful as a means of interpreting our world and spiritually nourishing our lives. Is that not useful? When does an object or performance stop being artistic and start being art? Are there rules that must be satisfied or is it simply in the eye of the beholder? Does the quality of something determine if it qualifies as art? To ask and engage with these sorts of questions is to practice aesthetics, a branch of philosophy that deals with beauty and taste. A working definition of art that is elastic enough to bridge different mediums of expression has occupied us for centuries. The Greek philosopher Plato called it an imitation of nature but for that same reason, condemned it as artificial, a copy of a copy, and believed actors should be banned from what he saw as an ideal republic. Many have tried to adopt the poet William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry for art in general—“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that experiencing art was “receiving an expression of feeling” from the artist. Contemporary critics have also chimed in. Susanne Langer called art “the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling,” and Ellen Dissanayake claimed that art is “a specialness” that “is tacitly or overtly acknowledged.” The frustration in creating a unifying theory of art has led some to claim that even the attempt is self-defeating. Playwright Oscar Wilde once lectured, “We want to create it, not to define it.” So what separates theatre from the other arts? What are the qualities particular to theatre that, collectively, make it unique? Theatre certainly deals in the imitation of human action. We can trace the origins of theatrical practice in the Western world to the citizens of the Greek city-state of Athens in the fifth century BCE. Theatre began with dithyrambs, a chorus of fifty men with a leader who told stories about a fertility god named Dionysus through song and dance. Eventually, innovations were made such as performers imitating individual characters.

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    In addition, the chorus was greatly reduced and changed to represent the men or women of a city where a play took place. Presented at festivals, this form became what we know today as Greek tragedy. Sitting in the audience was Aristotle. The student of the philosopher Plato, he could be called our first drama critic. His collected notes form the basis for a treatise called Poetics (dated between 335 and 322 BCE), which described what he thought were the components of a good tragedy. He began by defining his subject, calling it “the imitation of an action that is good and also complete in itself and of some magnitude.” This could be interpreted as requiring that drama artfully depict the actions of someone; have a beginning, middle, and end; and be of an appropriate length. Independently, an Indian critic named Bharata came to a similar conclusion in a text called the Natyashastra. Written sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE in a now-dead language called Sanskrit, he defined drama as “an imitation of people’s demeanor, attitudes, conditions, and joys and sorrows.” Here, both authors speak to a fundamental aspect of humanity. It is our nature to imitate the actions of others—psychological studies confirm that imitation is a major part of our social development. Mimicry strengthens the bond between parent and child. Newborns copy the facial movements of their parents. Toddlers learn to speak by imitating and sifting through the sounds they hear. When we observe an action, it has been shown that the neurons in our brain respond as if we were performing the same action. Our capacity for empathy is based on this hardwired ability. In acting classes, one of the most common exercises to get scene partners to connect emotionally is called mirroring. Actors are paired, facing each other, and one performs all of the physical movements of the other until they are told to switch leaders. Duplicating actions is the fastest way to get two people to reach synchronicity. Our skill in patterning behavior is also one of the reasons that actors—and the theatre in general—have often been greeted with suspicion throughout history. Even though psychologists have established that children as young as twelve months can recognize the concept of pretense, there has always been a belief that viewing or participating in fictional worlds can warp our moral core, regardless of age. In 1999, two teenagers entered Columbine High School in Colorado and killed twelve students and a teacher before ending their own lives. Soon after, many tried to tie their violent behavior to the playing of video games. This type of role playing was seen as tantamount to being trained to point and shoot weapons. A lawsuit was brought against gaming companies, but in the end, a judge decided that “there is social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence.” When California tried to ban selling violent video games to children in 2011, the Supreme Court overturned the law, finding it a violation of free speech. This leads us to how an imitation-based definition of theatre is lacking. Simply to watch the actions of others would brand too much of everyday life as theatre. However, imitation in the sense of representing a fictional or real person creates a better dividing line between performance and an action that is performative. In the brief but effective words of critic Eric Bentley, “A impersonates B while C looks on.” A sporting event or a fashion show has performers and an audience, but these “actors” are not pretending to be someone else. Theatre needs a pretense of self—a presentation of character. This is a useful definition to limit the scope of your study, but as you will see, many avant-garde and postmodern performers have sought to challenge this idea by blurring the line between real life and fiction, audience and performer. Potentially, a great many people can participate in the creation of this pretense. Unlike other solitary forms of art, theatre is often highly collaborative. Although the actor is its only requirement, theatre has developed numerous artistic and support personnel such as directors, designers, and stage managers who may contribute to the final product. This is one of the reasons that theatre studies are so valuable—they teach teamwork in the service of excellence. Theatre has other qualities that, collectively, make it distinct from other art forms. The economics of producing plays is one reason theatre is no longer a mass medium. Film and television can reach greater audiences because their product can be broadcast and played simultaneously on millions of screens. Additionally, computers can now stream the same content on demand. Theatre can never be as profitable or match the scale of these mediums. However, its resistance to duplication is what makes it special. Live performance is immediate. When you read a novel or watch a recorded television program, you have total control over the experience by varying your tempo of reading or stopping and starting altogether. The theatrical experience, however, is relentless. It pushes your focus from place to Mapping Reality 11 place, forcing you to reflect on the events on the fly, during intermissions, or after the show. That is the reason it is ephemeral. Performances can have no true reproduction. Anyone who has participated in the creation of theatre can attest to the strange, emotional moment when the run of a show has ended, sets are removed, and nothing remains but an empty stage. In dressing rooms and backstage walls of many theatres, you will find lines from shows scribbled by actors, a poignant attempt to live beyond the temporary world of a production run. While it is true that performances can be captured on film or video, the true experience of live theatre cannot be truly duplicated. Once it is finished, it lives only in memory. This transitory quality of theatre is due to the dynamic between the actor and the audience. There is a feedback loop—energy is exchanged. Each produces signals that are perceived by the other, which, in turn, can profoundly affect how the performance evolves. This is more difficult to perceive in serious drama but is especially evident in comedy, where laughter influences the delivery and timing of lines or the intensity of an individual performance. Actors complain of tough or dead audiences and celebrate the ones that seem to take an emotional journey with them, inspiring them to make bolder choices. The idea of pretending that the audience is not present is a relatively new one. In many theatrical traditions, actors commonly spoke directly to their audiences. Readers of Shakespeare often ignore that his famous soliloquys, monologues in which a single character shares his or her innermost thoughts, are direct appeals to the audience. The audience members become characters in the play, confidants who can seemingly solve the problems they are being asked to hear. This relationship between actors and audiences has changed over the centuries. In many theatrical traditions, the audience has been a much more influential “actor” in the performance. In eighteenth-century France and England, wealthy patrons could sit right on the stage in full view. As much as we complain about the annoyances of cell phone use and texting during performances today, to a nineteenth-century audience, our behavior would seem downright passive. It was common practice for people to vocalize their criticism by booing and hissing at villains during their entrances or heckling actors when it was thought a performance was subpar. Vocal reactions to onstage action built to such a crescendo that newspapers often complained of theatrical rowdyism.

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    Other cultures have a more casual relationship between actor and audience. For example, in some puppet theatre traditions like the wayang kulit in Indonesia, shows are played from evening until dawn, and it is common practice for spectators to move about, talk, and feast during the show. Nevertheless, actors and audiences are ultimately partners. Theatre’s primary strength comes from the fact that it is a medium of imagination that depends on the suggestion of reality rather than slavish photorealism.


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