David Davies’ Art as Performance Critique

Art as Performance:

Performativity in Aesthetics and Theoretical Practices

by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

Artworks must be conceived not as products (decontextualized or contextualized) of generative performances, but as PERFORMANCE THEMSELVES.”

Fountain from Marcel Duchamp
Image via Wikipedia

Art as Performance by David Davies is a challenging book that uses philosophical and logical approaches towards aesthetic practices. His main thesis, as stated above, points out that artworks are not simply products of performance, rather it is a performance in itself. Though he applies his theory in earlier works, the book mainly creates an aesthetic and theoretical framework that accomodates late modern works and beyond. An artwork is not viewed as a product of an artist’s creativity, rather, an artwork is viewed as a process completed by the product. Davies’ theory is a good starting point in the study of the emerging trend of performativity in aesthetics and other art practices such art art criticism.

Davies questions the accepted form of art theory which he refers to as the common-sense theory. In the common sense theory, the instances of works and a direct experiential encounter is necessary as it is an intrinsically valuable experience. This perspective also views artworks as artifacts with aesthetic value conferred by their creator. To counter this, Davies uses Marcel Duchamp‘s The Fountain. This late modern work creates a new perpective in art history, art theory, aesthetics and art criticism. To view The Fountain formally through its form, color, line, proportion, etc., would be missing the point of The Fountain. A person may not have the direct experiential encounter with the work, yet the meaning and the point of the work may still be understood. The Fountain creates a shift in the way that artworks may be viewed, experienced, critiqued, and theorized. Perceiving The Fountain as a performance makes more sense rather than viewing it formally as a generative product of artistic creativity.

Common-sense theory is attacked by Davies in its three fronts, common-sense axiology, common-sense epistemology and common-sense onthology. Axiology deals mainly with value or a valuation of art work while epistemology deals with the knowledge and definition of an artwork and onthology deals with the nature of an artwork. These three fronts of the common-sense theory are completely altered upon the introduction of late modern works particularly of Duchamp’s The Fountain. The long established system of valuation, definition and nature of an artwork is no longer applicable to the contemporary works introduced. Because of this, Davies’ performance theory comes into play as it accomodates the works that is outside of the common sense theory.

Performance Theory states that “artworks are performances, more specifically, they belong to the class of performances whereby a content is articulated through a vehicle on the basis of shared understandings.” This perspective diverges from common-sense axiology, epistemology and ontology. Going back to Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, in terms of common-sense axiology, its artistic, economic and art-historical value is very different as compared to Pierro dela Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ. Looking at the material, it is an ordinary urinal, so it will not have a high economic value. In terms of artistic value, it is a bought object, Duchamp did not make it or sculpt it, so in the common-sense axiology, it also has no artistic value. In terms of art-historical value, maybe it does have a high value, because it changed the way artworks are to be viewed and perceived, yet it will not meet the formalistic sense of an art-historical value in the same way as the academic, historical, allegorical or religious paintings and sculptures. It is in the performativity of the art work that a value is established.

Examining the epistemology of art in the performace theory, art is a performance rather than a product of a performance. The production and the product is as one, it is perceived as a process rather than an end in and of itself. The immediate and direct experiential encounter with the work is not necessary in the appreciation or the understanding of an artwork. Rather, it is conceived of as a performance which expresses its thought and meaning even without a direct experiential encounter, an encounter which common sense theory finds necessary for an artwork to be understood and appreciated. The artistic genius is not a mystical entity, rather, it is a product of a group consciousness that is shared by human beings. Though it is the artist that makes an artwork, the consciousness wherein that artwork comes from and where that artwork is formed, is a group consciousness, not a mystical and individualized artistic genius. Once again, this is a significant shift upon how an artwork is defined and conceptualized.

Another shift happens with the ontology of art or the way that the nature of art is understood. Davies states that, “Artworks, come to existence through the intentional manipulations of a vehicular medium. Through these manipulations, artistic statement is articulated in virtue of shared understandings as to how those manipulations are to be characterized in the vocabulary of an artistic medium, and as to the import of particular manipulations characterized.” The ontological shift made by Davies is significant because it lays the foundation of the premise of performance theory, wherein art, from being a product of a performance of the artist, becomes an actual performance. The object became a completion of the performance rather than just being a product. This is a radical divergence from the way the nature of art is understood in the common-sense ontology wherein the object is simply a generative product. There is a drastic shift in the way the nature of art is understood with Davies’ performance theory.

Such shifts introduced by Davies is significant in contemporary art theory and criticism. The weaknesses of his arguments comes from his philosophical and logical styles. Though such manner is effective in philosophy and logic, aesthetics and art theory still needs to go back to the artwork. Leaving the artwork too far behind while the theory or argument is being pursued depreciates the merit of the argument presented. Furthermore, aesthetics and art theory still needs some material basis in an artwork conceivable by people, particularly in the contemporary times. Theorizing an artwork as it would have been produced and consumed in Mars, a twin Earth or another galaxy is too far off a person’s experience that the argument becomes too abstract. Aesthetics and art theory cannot be simply deduced into a formula. For at least in the present time, there should still be an actual artwork (or an actual performance according to Davies) that is referred to by aesthetics, art theory, art history and art criticism. An artwork or performance outside the experience and understanding of an ordinary human being (such as the supposed artworks in Mars, twin Earth, another galaxy) does not make sense in the practices of aesthetics, art theory, art history and art criticism. Davies himself states that group consciousness come into play in the performance, understanding and appreciation of such works, if a consciousness too far removed from human experienced is factored in, then the argument fails in its merit.

Davies considers jazz improvisation as an excellent example of a pure performance work. The pure performance of a jazz improvisation fits well into his performance theory. Yet, the premise in jazz improvisation is that it is spontaneous and unplanned. There are various complications that can arise in this argument, for instance, what if the jazz improvisation performance is recorded, reproduced and repeatedly played, is it still a pure performance work? Would that recording played over and over again still be a pure performance work that is theorized by the performance theory? Or does it become part of performed works that can belong to the conception of a common-sense theory? Such arguments need reconsideration. Some of Davies’ claims, though valid, are more easily explained through theoretical and philosophical examples rather than by artworks in the real world.

In art practices, performance theory is best applied to art criticism. As a growing trend in the art critical practice, more papers are written not just on the art object or artwork but more critics are looking into the performative aspect of an artwork. Such writing utilizes performance theories such as that of Davies’. Though Davies’ performance theory is well-developed in his writing, it still needs to go back to the artwork itself and be more understandable to the existing artworks of the world, rather than being understandable towards an artwork in another world or universe. The theory needs to be applied more effectively on existing artworks of this world and the art world rather than spending so much time theorizing on other galaxies and planets with different system of valuations, epistemologies and ontologies.

Performance theory paves the way of accomodating late modern works and beyond in the aesthetics, art theory and art criticism practices. Though the argument style of Davies may have lacks and glitches, it ushers in the contemporary artworks into theoretical practices that would have been impossible within the formalistic, empiricist and common-sense theory. This is very important as it can bridge the gap between contemporary art and earlier artworks because the performance theory may be applied to both of them. This more detailed take on family resemblances on the relationship of artworks as a performance rather than a generative product of a performance offers a new way that artworks may be understood, accepted and appreciated into an ever-changing world, particularly the art world.

Work Cited:
Davies, David. Art as Performance. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.


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