Is performance always artifice?

Yesterday I wrote a post examining the roles of “tradition”, asking what they mean and how “tradition” or “folk song/story/art” is an active process as well as a preservation or reenactment of historical tradition.

That post came off the back of Carter’s post @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar about invented representations of the traditional. I left a comment there that was the seed for my post. It was also the seed for this question via twitter:

“Is performance always artifice?”

From my last post:

While there is some educational and experiential value in “experimental archaeology”, and even something to be gained from renaissance fayres, war reenactments and the like: they are just reenactments, and “authentic” folk performance without the underlying causes is no more relevant than that.

[T]he concerns and issues of communities have always appeared in some form or other of entertainment and communication, by which they express and share the reality that they face.

But what is performance, and do both fit into it?

I recall reading in Doctor Who Magazine that Russell T Davies would not allow any press, cameras or other recording devices into the first read-through of a new season’s scripts because if there was anyone other than the cast and directing crew there, it would be a performance rather than an assessment of the material (a policy to which Steven Moffat seems not to ascribe, since clips of footage of first read-throughs from the current series have been included in the Doctor Who Extra behind-the-scenes programme). There is a thing in the world of work of having a “performance review”, where a person’s working standards, achievements and goals are assessed. When I play guitar in my bedroom, it feels wrong to call that a performance, whether I’m rehearsing, “noodling”, writing or just playing a favourite song that suits my mood at the time.

The impression these examples give is that a “performance” is something that relates to an “other”. I can immediately think of examples where that “other” might be assumed (for instance, a ritual conducted only in the sight of “God” or “the Gods” would still be understood as performed, I think) rather than physically present.

I recall reading a novel called Mythago Wood (wikipedia tells me the author is Robert Holdstock) which posited the idea that a storyteller must not see the reactions of the listener, lest the reactions induce the teller to change the story and break its truth – changing the telling from transmission to performance. Again, “performance” is about the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Performance is not simply about having an audience. It’s about presenting something to an audience. A voyeur does not make a woman undressing into a performer (though he might imagine that it’s a performance for his benefit) but if she’s an exhibitionist and knows (or suspects) someone’s watching, then she relates to that and, consciously or otherwise, performs a striptease.

So the question is, does knowledge of, or presenting to, an audience produce artifice?

Looking to the dictionary (Collins, in this case) I find that artifice has several meanings: “clever expedient; ingenious stratagem”, “a skilfully contrived device”, “crafty or subtle deception”. I think in the context of the question, we aren’t talking about deception as such: inasmuch as the notions of “the English tradition” (as discussed in Carter’s post) are a deception then perhaps it is relevant, but the performers themselves are not, I think, engaged in such a deception. Perhaps they deceive themselves that they are a continuation of a previous tradition (see both posts, Carter’s and mine). But in general the performers of war reenactments, renaissance fayres and the “authentic” folk music are not deceiving anyone. A New Scientist piece about a month ago discussed researchers who talked to children about imaginary friends. The children, watching the adults taking serious notes about the stories, in the majority of cases would at some point assure the researchers, “It is just pretend, you know.” Similarly, there is no intent to deceive with most performance. It is “just pretend, you know”. So we are left with concepts such as “skilful, ingenious” and “stratagem, contrived device” to think about whether performance is artifice.

An intriguing inversion of the question, “Is performance always artifice?” is the familiar literary analysis of, “Is fiction on some level true?” and the answer is generally that, by positing a possible, but imagined, scenario, fiction can nevertheless draw out truths about “the human condition”, about relationships, politics, philosophy and the like.

With the posts cited at the top of this post, and the quotes from my post in particular, we posit that there may be some form of “genuine” as opposed to “authentic” modes of performance. The performances that are a direct expression of something felt or experienced by the performer, and that perhaps speak directly to the experiences of the audience, we might accept to be “true” in the same sense.

But in setting out to express a truth through performance, I must plan how I will do that. When I present this expression to someone else, whether I have rehearsed or it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing, I must decide how I will produce the desired effect. The performance, from the choice of song and accompaniment to the way I phrase it, dynamics, emphasis, tempo, and so on: it may be “instinctive” but it is certainly a device, a stratagem, to affect the audience in some way. Whether that is to produce laughter or tears, euphoria or anger, or something else, a performance is there to produce emotion or thought. It’s there to have an intended effect, and however heartfelt and genuine the feeling or meaning performer wishes to communicate, the means are contrived and constructed to make a performance.

There are undoubtedly open and honest performances, but when we talk about such things we talk about the performer’s intention, not the means of achieving it. When a performer sets out to bare hir soul, zie does so using all the skill and art to expose what they choose to, as effectively and clearly as possible. When I want you to know I’m really angry, I can pour my rage into a performance and it is utterly honest and unrestrained, but it is also crafted; I don’t just thrash at my guitar, I make harsh chords and I strum a rhythm. The emotion is genuine, the music as true as if I put it into words, but I would have to choose the words, so I have to choose the notes to play.

Is all performance artifice? Yes, in that it all must be contrived and constructed for the benefit of the audience. But that doesn’t mean performance is false.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Language, Music, Philosophy, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is performance always artifice?

  1. Thoughtful, clear and well worked through – I loved this

  2. Pingback: Sex as the most intimate performance | Valery North - Writer

  3. Pingback: Why I will never make love, not porn. | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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