moving ideologies 4: beginnings and endings

The beginnings and the endings of movement are the fixed poles of what we might call choreography. Generally we’re concerned with what goes on in between these, in the musicality and dynamics of the body in time and the shapes and positions of the body in space. Beginnings and endings imply a caesura, a place for movement grammar to occur.

In general the beginning and ending of any gesture in dance or movement theater is easily identifiable. Most classical dance training emphasizes clarity in initiating or resolving movement, and this clarity or punctuality is also common in the choreographies of many modern, postmodern and contemporary dance artists. Here it begins, there it ends; everyone can see the decision-making. This clarity is often the result of musical timing, dance’s traditional role accompanying music in ‘getting down on the one.’ Not to begin or end clearly is usually considered muddy, unfocussed or untrained.

However beginnings and endings also reveal a underlying intention – to make or choreograph something. Seeing the beginning or ending of a movement means primarily seeing a plan at work; starting or stopping itself indicates a demonstration or display of what is essentially determination. The viewer detects intention and attempts to evaluate or interpret what is being intended. Do I like it? Do I get it?

If this plan is somehow hidden or expressly un-indicated in the beginning or ending of a gesture, the viewer is only aware of a movement after it has begun, only aware of its ending after it has stopped. The performance takes on the character of a magic show, where perception itself is foregrounded; something happening “before your very eyes.” Often this conflicts with preconceptions about reality. A gesture too can come from nowhere and vanish without a trace.

This could be more important than the choreography.

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It should be clear by now that our way of studying color does not start with the past – neither with works of the past nor with its theories.
As we begin principally with the material, color itself, and its action and interaction as registered in our minds, we practice first and mainly a study of ourselves.
Thus, we replace looking backward by looking first at ourselves and our surroundings.
Though our own development and our own work are closest to us, we see and appreciate encouragement from achievements of the past, and gratefully pay practical respect to their originators as often as the opportunity arises.
To honor the masters creatively is to compete with their attitude rather than their results, to follow an artistic understanding of tradition – that is, to create, not to revise.

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale U. Press, 1963

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agamben 2

Even knowledge, in the final analysis, maintains a relationship with ignorance. But it does so through repression or, in an even more effective and potent way, presupposition. The unknown is that which knowledge presupposes as the unexplored country to be conquered; the unconsciousness is the darkness into which consciousness will have to carry its light. In both cases something gets separated in order then to be permeated and attained.
The relationship with a zone of non-knowledge, on the other hand, keeps watch over this zone so that it will remain as it is. This is done not by exalting its darkness (as in mysticism), not by glorifying the arcane (as in liturgy), and not even by filling it with phantasms (as in psychoanalysis). At issue here is not a secret doctrine or a higher science, not a knowledge that we do not know.
Rather, it is possible that the zone of non-knowledge does not really contain anything special at all. Perhaps a zone of non-knowledge does not exist at all; perhaps only its gestures exist. As Kleist understood so well, the relationship with a zone of non-knowledge is a dance.

Giorgio Agamben, from “The Last Chapter in the History of the World” in Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford University Press, California, 2011

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zeami 6

In that instant of unconscious response before cognition, was the emotion felt not one of pure joy? And might not that appearance of a smile, without self-awareness, surpassing words, express the fact that “ from the first, not a thing is”? Such a mental state can also be called The Flower of Peerless Charm. Thus it is that the very highest of the nine levels of excellence involves this Flower, which is assigned the characteristic of gold.
If both the chant and the dance have been fully mastered, then the exquisite appearance of the actor can astonish the heart and senses of the spectators; and in that instance when they are moved without taking cognizance of their reactions, the Flower of Peerless Charm can be said to exist. Such a moment represents Fascination and includes within itself as well the moment of Feeling That Transcends Cognition. All three of these expressions represent emotional states that transcend the workings of the conscious mind.
In a state that transcends consciousness, why is it that we can feel a sense of Fascination? It may indeed represent the fundamental quality that is Changeless; that is, never directly visible in any exterior manifestation.
In the nine levels of artistic excellence there are gold and silver levels, but neither can be directly experienced in a stage performance. Such matters must be grasped on a more profound level. A smile crosses the face without cognition through the coming of a sense of deep joy.
Gettan Soko has written, as the concluding half of a couplet, “what makes one happy cannot be spoken of,” expecting that those who read this line will add their own beginning.

from ‘Finding Gems, Gaining Flower‘ (1424) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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market worth (cont.)

When thinking about art as a practice rather than a career, just what is ‘a practice’ and how can it be meaningful for us?

The word practice could be a verb or a noun. As a verb, practice refers to a deliberate repeated activity, for example training to acquire skills or knowledge or rehearsing to prepare a performance. The verb’s Greek root is “to achieve, accomplish,” and generally we think of practice as goal-oriented.
On the other hand, the noun practice is not just a description of a means to an end. Even though we have a tendency to link practice to theory in a kind of cause-and-effect relationship, the literal Greek root praxis describes human activity without specific design or goal. Aristotle elaborated on this point in his writings on ethics:
Theoretical activity [‘theorea’] is the pursuit of truth through contemplation.
Productive activity [‘poeisis’] can be defined as that involved in making something, like an artifact, beginning with a original plan or design that is then worked out using various skills.
Practical activity [‘praxis’] does not begin with a particular plan or theory, but instead with a problem or a situation. A practice is a continual human process of testing and examination, an interplay between means and ends as well as thoughts and actions. The subject is ultimately oneself and one’s approach to ones work, considered on a longer time frame.
In praxis there is no prior knowledge of any correct means for realizing a goal. Through the medium of an art form, each project is part of an ongoing research about personal attitudes, principles and methods. It’s a form of experiential learning, a process of making meaning from direct experience. A way to examine oneself through one’s actions and not necessarily one’s words; a way to develop a personal ethics without deluding oneself and others; a way to insights more valuable than a paycheck or a review.
If one takes it seriously, making art is a continuous ongoing practice – much the same as law or medicine is a practice – a lifelong attempt to develop oneself through the medium of one’s work. It can be a bracing or even ruthless process, with unforseen consequences.

You can always earn a living in your spare time.

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For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics

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How does an aspiring artist bridge the gap between distribution and commerce?
We have to be very clever about those things. You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.
This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?
In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.

Francis Ford Coppola, from an interview by Ariston Anderson, Marrakech International Film Festival, 2010.

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market worth

It’s obvious the performing arts – like sport, like fashion, like everything else – are becoming more and more professional, that is to say, commercial. Everywhere, even in the so-called alternative circuits, an all-out effort is on to utilize the contemporary commercial model: develop brand, platform and image, situate oneself as product somewhere in the largely virtual landscape, and above all: network. After all, the commercial model is basically a question of positioning. Where am I in relation to my colleagues, and what can I do to be seen or heard in the marketplace?
“Cultural Enterprise Entrepreneurs are cultural change agents and resourceful visionaries who generate revenue from a cultural activity. Their innovative solutions result in economically sustainable cultural enterprises that enhance livelihoods and create cultural value for both creative producers and consumers of cultural services and products.”
This entrepreneurial relationship between producer and consumer means that inevitably the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of success; and that in the world of entrepreneurship, success does not necessarily come in tandem with artistic achievement. In fact it has little to do with it. Success is equated more with aggressive salesmanship and calculation. For example, a sure-fire strategy for the so-called cutting-edge artist remains the century-old idea of provocation. We can see this today not only in the arts, but also in sport, fashion and even politics. Push a button and get a response; strike a nerve and get an even bigger one.
What we make seems not as important as finding a buyer for it, or in the case of the performing arts, finding a producer and an audience. Unfortunately with the enormous explosion of artists of all kinds in the past thirty years it’s increasingly a buyer’s market everywhere.
In the Netherlands where I live the concept of government support for the arts has gone from its postwar origin as a sponsor of the arts irrespective of public opinion, through more recent policies using the arts as a political tool, and now to funding only the arts that prove themselves popular in the marketplace. The implication now is that funding should foster and reward commercialism, with the end result the rapid disappearance of art that has no commercial value. For the performing artist, this means either adapting to the entrepreneurial model and developing a careerist mentality, or risking isolation and obscurity by pursuing ones vision irregardless of the wishes of the market.
Tied in to this is also the larger puzzle of a so-called artistic standard in contemporary society. What is good or bad art, and do these terms even matter anymore? Is relevancy determined by public, media or by market forces? How is it possible to overcome the unfortunate situation we now seem to be in where both artist and public are ever more conscious of the seemingly arbitrary nature of aesthetic decision-making, and the dubious role of the media in perpetuating both newer as well as older traditions?
What is the point of making art? To make a living? We do have to seriously question our motives and our expectations, not least so that we don’t end up unsuccessful, over-aged and bitter. How can an artist, no matter what discipline, develop work independently?
Maybe good and bad need redefinition. The uniqueness of art products, in all their forms, is already a special quality in this packaged reality we now live in. Maybe art’s relevance is personal rather than public. Personal to the artist, and to the individual viewer. And it might not make any money.
Just in case it doesn’t, we might want to find out what could be rewarding in being an artist on the longer-term and not necessarily measure it by someone else’s standards or by our paycheck. We may have to consider ourselves as having a practice rather than a career. A practice that develops the work, and the person making it as well. This may not be an economically feasible proposition, but it has the potential to be much more rewarding than money. Though they might be hard to find, ask any self-respecting starving artist – after you’ve fed them a hot meal of course.
We may not live in the days of the lonely and heroic originals anymore, but that doesn’t mean they can’t set an example we could ponder, redefine and adjust to our own times.

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Only by starting from this situation of man’s relationship with the work of art is it possible to comprehend how this relationship – if it is authentic – is also for man the highest engagement, that is, the engagement that keeps him in the truth and grants to his dwelling on earth its original status. In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poetic act. In this engagement, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground.
When the work of art is instead offered for aesthetic enjoyment and its formal aspect is appreciated and analyzed, this still remains far from attaining the essential structure of the work, that is, the origin that gives itself in the work of art and remains reserved in it. Aesthetics, then, is unable to think of art according to its proper statute, and so long as man is prisoner of an aesthetic perspective, the essence of art remains closed to him.

Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, 1994

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zeami 5

“What is felt in the heart is ten, what appears in movement seven.”
This expression refers to the following. When a beginner studying the Noh theater learns to gesture with his hands and to move his feet, he will use all his energies to perform in the way in which he is instructed. Later however, he will learn to move his arms to a lesser extent than his own emotions suggest, and he will be able to moderate his intentions. This phenomenon is by no means limited to dance and gesture. In terms of general stage actions and posture, no matter how slight a bodily action, if the motion is more restrained than the emotion behind it, the body will become the Substance and the emotion its Function, thus moving the audience.

from ‘A Mirror Held to the Flower‘ (1424) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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