This writing was supposed to be a short statement of my goals for a short residency as a composer for dance with my good friend Jiří Pokorný in Korzo Theatre in The Haag, Netherlands. My mission at the time was very broadly worded. I just wanted to become more effective as an artist. In order to increase my basic understanding of my work I started some general research into the subjects of art and dance. I decided to catalogue what I found, as well as some of my opinions on the subject, in the next few pages.
Here are some of the questions I will briefly explore in this writing:
Why art? The purpose of art.
What is art?
Dance as an art form.
Sometimes as a creator I ask myself this question. Why art? Why make art? What am I trying to accomplish as an artist? When things get difficult and there appear to be more problems than solutions in my creations it can be easy to lose sight of this. Here are some resources that have helped me to reconnect with this question.
Choreographer Jiří Kylián said in an interview :
And here is another interesting video that ask a similar question: What is Art for?
And I’ll include a quote I like on the subject: “Art is about your personal experience with it and the meaning you draw from it. Everyone reacts to art differently and has the potential to grow and learn from it. It gives us the potential to tell stories, record history and tap into our emotions in a way that few other things can.”
Now we have briefly looked at the question “why art?” Let’s look into how to define art.
What is Art?
So, what is art?
Here are two of my favorite resources on the subject.
First is a 8-minute video that explores this with some interesting conclusions:
The second is a quote from an interview:
Attentive – Paying close attention; alert or observant.
I love his description of art as a way to re-engage with reality and to have a possibility to see a distinction between what you we thought reality was and what reality might actually be. That art is important because it has the chance to make you think, question, wonder, and remember in order to change your viewpoints, or make new ones. It can inspire you.
This is one of the things I personally love about art. Even if I went into the theater feeling depressed, worried, stressed etc. after watching a wonderful piece of art I can leave that theater with my viewpoints totally shifted. With a new hope or a renewed perspective, even if the subject of the art had nothing at all to do with my current problems or upsets. That is how I sometimes experience this “re-engagement with reality”.
A More Practical Approach?
Ok so these resources touch on the question of “what is art?” and, of course, it can help to reconnect with why you make art or what you are trying to accomplish with art. But how? We can talk all day about philosophy but are there any facts here we can use to accomplish our goals as artists? Is there a more practical or scientific approach to the question “What is art?”.
Let’s look at this definition and try and explore a hopefully more practical view.
“Art is a word that is equal to the QUALITY OF COMMUNICATION.”
So if we can get the facts of this, the facts of communication, and find out what parts make up a quality communication maybe we can use this information to make better art?…
What is communication?
“Communication is the action of sending a thought or object from a source-point across a distance to a receipt-point, with the goal of bringing into being at the receipt-point a duplication (a mental copy of) and understanding of what was sent.”
So communication can be one of many things originating from a source, being perceived by a receiver with the goal of having the receiver duplicate (make a mental copy of) and then hopefully understand what was sent. This can be a broad range of things. Sending an idea as a spoken word is a communication. Sending an idea as a body motion, like waving your hand or winking your eye at someone, is a communication. Communication goes way past only spoken words which it is so commonly associated with.
Now the definition above mentions QUALITY, so let’s look more closely at what a QUALITY (excellent) communication is. As the definition of communication states there are two things that have to happen in the receiver for a quality communication to happen. The first is duplication. Duplicating something is basically just perceiving a mental copy of what was sent. Once the idea is duplicated a second thing needs to happen for a successful communication to occur. Understanding of what was duplicated. Receiving the meaning of what was sent.
Here is a simple example of a bad quality communication. I say the word “Apple” to someone. An example of a failure in the first part, duplication, would be if I had had too much to drink and did not speak clearly and said “Appole” instead. As an example. This would lead to a failure in communication as the person has not received a copy of my idea “Apple” and therefore there is no duplication (no copy). Therefore there can be no understanding. And therefore there was no quality communication.
A second example to show a bad quality communication would be a failure in the second part, understanding. I say the word “Apple”, clearly this time, and the person hears perfectly the word “Apple”. Let’s say now that this person only understands Russian and does not speak a word of English. He has received a copy of the word “Apple” and has duplicated it but he cannot understand what he has heard. In this case again there is no quality communication either. There was a duplication but no understanding.
So for a quality communication to occur there needs to be these two elements, duplication, and then understanding of what was duplicated.
For our purposes using the dance art form, we communicate almost exclusively with our bodies. But these failures in communication can happen just as easily to a communication sent with the body instead of words. And MANY MANY pieces I have personally seen suffer from this failure. I leave the theater and I have no idea what was being said to me. I did not UNDERSTAND.
So as an artist: I have an effect I want to create through my art. I have to communicate it, effectively, so that my viewer duplicates it and understands it.
But there is one more very important part of communication that should be considered:
Communication goes BOTH WAYS.
Great art is maybe not a one-sided statement, but a two-way conversation between the artist and the viewer.
“The purpose of art is to communicate an intended message. Message is what you want someone to THINK about things. It is not a description of things.
When a work of painting, music, or other form attains a two-way communication, it is truly art. True art always encourages a contribution from those who view, hear or experience it. BY CONTRIBUTION IS MEANT ADDING TO IT. They add their own experiences and ideas to the artists work.”
The art doesn’t tell you what to think. It invites you to think.
This video has more information to back up this idea and contains some more interesting points about art.
I want to take a moment to start a dialogue about a recent question I have been exploring artistically. I include it here as a personal thought on the subject of the back and forth conversation between artists and viewers. It is the question of literalness in your art. How literal is too literal and is literalness something we should be aware of when making our work? I want to use two paintings of animals to illustrate my point.
Here is an artwork showing a dog. This painting shows something more literal (literal: it is exactly what it seems to be). There is no question it is a nice painting but for me, this painting doesn’t really create too much of a conversation between me and the artist.
Here is another painting of a dog. To me, this painting is less literal. It has mystery, questions. I can contribute more to this artwork than the one above and I think part of the reason why is that it does not literally show us everything that is there. I can add to the story myself and include my own experiences and history. Someone else would probably add something totally different than I would, and that is the beauty of art of course.
So this is something I want to explore and understand better. How literal is too literal? How vague is too vague? Where is the line where we can have a conversation with the audience, where they can contribute something to our work?
Some other little interesting things I want to include here:
“Too much originality throws the audience into unfamiliarity and therefore disagreement, as communication contains duplication and originality is the enemy of duplication.”
I have danced myself in pieces that were created only for the sake of being totally original. As you can probably imagine it was not a well-received dance work…
“Perfection should not be searched for at the expense of communication. Seeking perfection is the wrong direction in art. Better communication is the right direction.”
I think most artists know this deep down. I strived for perfection as a younger artist and only realized many years later that you can actually “perfect” the heart and soul right out of a piece of music or dance.
“Quality alone has an emotional impact in art.”
I feel this really applies to dance as an art form. A great dancer dancing perfectly with speed, balance, presence and technical expertise can create an emotional impact. Even with no particular story or message behind his movement. But on the other side of that, you can experience a “perfect” technical performance and leave the theater feeling absolutely nothing. I would always rather see an imperfect dancer SAYING or COMMUNICATING something than an empty or nonsensical performance by a quality dancer.
I would like to end this section with some other artists views on these questions of art to get some different and interesting perspectives on it.
As an artist, it is important to create work that genuinely comes from within. This is the only way that a new and unique point of view is found. It is an easy trap for an artist to generate work she perceives her audience will like. True, the viewer ultimately determines the greatness of an art piece—great art impacts a vast spectrum of people. But a volatile audience cannot be predicted, hence great art is rarely a calculated guess, it is often an accident. The only way an artist can introduce new perspectives is continuing to be curious, ask questions, and explore. Seeing the world through curious eyes leads to new discoveries.
A piece of art needs to connect. It needs to have some element of truth to it that resonates with the viewer and leaves them something after they’ve left the piece. A good piece asks questions and teaches you something you didn’t know or shows you something you didn’t know you knew. It articulates something we’ve felt, and we connect to that thing in a way where words aren’t necessary. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe but makes us feel less alone in a way—that someone else understands us and gives a voice to this thing inside us. A piece of art extends beyond its frame and becomes part of us.
I’ve made work for almost 20 years and I’m made a ton of work in that time. Some are ok, most “meh,” and a handful of good ones. The ok ones lead to the next pieces (and are a necessary part of the process) and the good ones sometimes come all at once and sometimes you have to grind them out slowly for a number of years to get one. It’s equal parts mining for gold and standing in a field trying to get stuck by lighting. Some days you dig and other days you look up and wait.
This leads back to the first question—What does it take to make a great piece?
It takes time, sometimes a shovel and sometimes it takes being in the right place at the right time.
I think what it takes to make a great piece of art is to connect with the observer on an emotional or personal level. A bit of mystery can let the observer interpret the work based on their own experiences and let them identify with it. If you spell it all out there can only be one way to interpret the work, and I think what makes great art is when everyone experiences it differently.
To make a great piece of art you need to believe that you have an eternity of time—even though it is the most urgent thing in your life—and you also need plenty of nothing-to-lose, for its impeccable production. To consume a lot of music, love, and a little alcohol, of course.
Omar Z. Robles
It takes essence/context for a work to be great. That is, I guess, the hardest thing to assess. Great works of art, I believe, all share one thing, and that is that they are supported by context. It can’t just be beautiful, or shocking for the sake of it. Great artworks captivate you because you can, in one way or another, identify with it. Marcel Marceau used to tell me all the time “il fault toucher le publique” (we need to be able to move the audience). His message was, it’s not enough to be technically good, you need to have the capability to move and touch your audience. The only way you can move your audience is if your work is supported by context.
Great authors, philosophers, or critics have published books about this subject without being able to answer the question, so I do not see how I can try to answer it….. The look on a work is multiple. There is an emotional and philosophical charge, the relation to space, the subject, the light, the relation to the spectator, the technique, the message, the concept etc ……
Every time I see work from another artist that I love, I tend to have a visceral reaction to the piece(s). It could be a quickening of my pulse, or butterflies in my stomach, that strange twisty feeling you get in your gut that’s so similar to the reaction you would have when lusting over someone. That’s how I know it’s good. I can’t stop smiling, or staring; it brings me such a rush of emotion that I can’t help but feel drawn to it. I believe it comes down to a purity of the artist’s voice that you really can’t fake.
When making my own work, I know I’ve done my job when I get that feeling, that twinge of excitement (of course that doesn’t always happen, unfortunately) but I know I’ve done my best when I have those feelings.
An emotion. This is the first spark of every fire. Emotions that are not necessarily positive ones, but this first feeling creates the art. If you try to express what you are feeling that will be art no matter which way it takes and what form it has.
Now that we have explored a little bit the broad subject of art we should look into our chosen art form specifically.
Dance as an Art Form
These are the some of the questions I am hoping to find answers to in this section:
What is dance? What is special about dance? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How can we use dance to forward our goals as artists ?
First, the definition of dance (from Wikipedia):
Using this basic definition I want to look closer at these two concepts. That dance is human movement and the instrument of dance is the human body. And that the value of dance can be possibly divided into these two categories, Aesthetic and symbolic.
1: A Closer Look at the Instrument of Dance. The Body.
Every art form has its instruments of expression. Musical instruments, pencils paint and canvas, Spoken and written words. Each art forms instruments have their own strengths and weaknesses. Dance has bodies. So, what can a body say? What can a body not say? These are some things that could be important to think about in order to achieve our goal of communicating something to someone through dance.
Crystal Pite speaks often about what she perceives as the strengths and weaknesses of the human body, and therefore the strengths and weaknesses of dance
In another talk about her work “The Tempest Replica” she says this:
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From the start of researching this I had this constant question in my mind: What about works that are not “about ” anything? If what we have talked about so far are facts and that “good” art says something to you and engages you in a conversation and “bad” art doesn’t then are all dance works that are not about anything bad?
I found out after a while of thinking about it that I was associating story and narrative very closely with “saying something”. But listen to the end of this film again:
Art and dance can say many things and explore many topics, and not just stories and narrative ones. Just like a painting can be “about the color orange” as he puts it, a dance piece can have similar explorations that are abstract and not story-based at all. As an example Guy Nader und Maria Campos’s work “Fall Seven Times” which appears to be a piece purely exploring the state of falling.
Some pieces I’ve seen are just about pure movement. But in doing so they are probably still saying something, even if it is just “How can a body move?”. Or maybe they are expressing a pure emotion like “How can I show pure joy and excitement” like some of Cayetano Soto’s works I have seen.
Notes: how story is more universal than body movement etc.
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The How: How can we do this?
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