Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

David Davies, Art as Performance. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Jeanette Bicknell

David Davies’ goal in Art as Performance is to establish a secure conceptual foundation for the view of the arts and art appreciation implicit in that recent literature which engages with late modernism.  According to his “performance theory” artworks are not the products of generative performances, but the performances themselves.  Readers must be prepared to assimilate some specialist vocabulary.  An “artistic statement” is the representational, expressive, and formal properties of the object generated by the artist.  The “focus of appreciation” is that which is relevant to the appreciation of an artwork, which is in turn brought into existence through the actions (performance) of one or more individuals.  An artwork, itself a performance, specifies a focus of appreciation; to “specify” a focus is both to make the focus specific and to make it intersubjectively available.  Those features of an artwork’s provenance that directly relate to the goal of articulating an artistic statement enter into the identity of a work, and we have to decide which features “directly relate” on a case-by-case basis.  For example, the actions of a novelist who interrupts his work to eat or bathe do not enter into the identity of the work; but the same novelist’s consumption of mind-altering drugs might indeed have a direct effect on his work and would thereby be included as part of his “performance” and enter into the identity of the novel he writes.

According to Davies, then, Turner’s Snowstorm which hangs in the Tate Gallery is not an artwork.  Rather, it is vehicle or medium through which Turner has articulated a particular artistic statement in carrying out a performance, and Turner’s performance – his act of generation - is the artwork.  The performance theory is said to be better than its competitors at making sense of the continuities and discontinuities between traditional and late modern art.  It is also meant to hold across the arts – applying equally to works in the visual arts, literary works, music, dance, etc.  When we attend, say, a concert of Handel’s Messiah, there are at least two works available for appreciation:  the performance of the musicians and singers that we attend to, and Handel’s performance in composing the Messiah.

The common-sense “empiricist” view of art appreciation embodies an ontology (“the artwork is the material object hanging on the wall or sitting upon a pedestal”), an epistemology (“to appreciate the artwork it is both necessary and sufficient to perceive it”), and an axiology (“the value of the artwork derives from the value of the experience we have engaging with it”). Certain late modern works challenge common sense views in that they seem to require engagement with theory to be properly appreciated.  Contemporary philosophers of art largely reject the common sense view, and they also reject the idea that there is a single ontological category which can encompass all artworks.  Instead they tend to be pluralists, holding that some artworks (paintings, sculpture) are artifacts, while others (novels, symphonies) are better understood as types or structures of some sort.  They favour what Davies calls a “contextualized” ontology, whereby a work’s provenance is partially constitutive of it.  Variations are defended by Levinson (musical works are “indicated structures”), Margolis (artworks are “physically embodied culturally emergent entities”), and Danto (works in the visual arts are objects under an interpretation), among others.  An important aspect of Davies’ methodology is that anything treated in (institutionalized) artistic practice as “artworks” actually constitutes artworks.

Davies stresses throughout that his argument is cumulative.  Succeeding chapters address different aspects of the common sense view and its philosophical rivals before the performance theory is explained and defended.  Gregory Currie’s account of artworks as “action types” (in his 1989 An Ontology of Art), the contemporary theory closest to Davies, is the subject of chapter six.  The final chapter offers a definition of art (drawing on institutional theories of the arts and Goodman’s Languages of Art) that is interesting in its own right, apart from any ontological considerations.   Although Davies admits that his position is revisionary of common sense and ordinary language, he argues that the competing contextualized ontologies are also vulnerable to the charge of revisionism. 

Davies sees support for the performance theory in our appreciative practices, and he argues that these practices are more adequately explained on the performance theory.  When we engage with an artwork we are interested both in its perceptual properties and in how these properties result from the agency of a maker.  To appreciate an artwork, he claims, is to appreciate what was done.  Here Davies is open to the criticism that can be made of any such pragmatic move:  Who is to decide what counts as “our” appreciative practices?  Indeed Davies slides between talk of appreciation and “adequate” appreciation.  He writes, “to interest oneself solely in what a work articulates is to fail to take a properly artistic interest in the work” (p. 55).  This is surely a prescriptive rather than a descriptive claim.

Davies reveals in a footnote that the core idea of the performance theory was first advanced in his 1979 M.A. thesis at the University of Manitoba.  As we might hope for a work so long in gestation, arguments are tightly constructed, with possible objections foreseen, addressed, and often thoroughly dispatched.  The writing is engaging and unpretentious.  Although Davies’ arguments are at times dense and complex, the text is enlivened with insightful discussion of numerous examples.  While this is not a work for philosophical neophytes, it more than repays careful reading, and would work nicely in an upper level or graduate course in aesthetics or metaphysics.

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