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  • Andrew Field

Performance, Interpretation, and Critical Thinking


Itzchak Perlman


I think we often lack sophisticated ways of thinking about many things, and one field of study, or one art form, that we do not look at enough is performance, whether in the form of reading and writing, or in forms that are considered more customarily under that conceptual umbrella, like the work of violinists, or orchestras, or dancers, or actors and actresses.


What is the difference between composing a symphony and performing that symphony? What is the difference between directing a movie and acting in that movie? What is the difference between directing a play and acting in that play? What is the difference between choreographing a dance and dancing in that dance?


I think we are talking about various facets of creation and interpretation, and therefore, in a sense, forms of criticism that are also forms of art. When we listen to Itzchak Perlman play Felix Mendelssohn, we begin to sense that something very important and significant is happening, though it is hard exactly to describe. A violinist is standing, completely in the moment, and playing the violin, while around him rage the accompanying instruments; and what they play is a composition, a kind of ideational structure made of notes that signify sounds, timbers, pitches, and these various melodies, voices, angles, screechings, tinnings, chimes, sweepings, all of it combines in something that we do not have words for, that elements of Virginia Woolf's prose sometimes alludes to, a great big fantastic movement of feeling and feelings, and at the center somehow the composer, the conductor, and the violinist, and how do we understand performance within this great volcanic harmonium of imagination?


Performance is a take on something, an interpretation; it is a mode of hearing, even a critical angle, and when a performer performs, they are bringing out timbers, aspects, features, dimensions, qualities of sound, that are unique to the composition because they are unique to how the hearer hears and experiences the composition, the sort or feeling world imparted to the performer by actively listening and experiencing the music in one's soul and living with it for long periods of time. This is similar to what Harold Bloom wrote about when he described "misreading": we misread a text, because we read our own subjectivities into it in a complicated form of imaginative transference, and the same is said for music - when we are good and active listeners, we listen to the music, attempting not to be distracted by other things - the opposite of listening to a podcast, say, when doing the dishes, but instead actually sitting down and just listening to something (how often does this happen?) - and as we listen, we experience a kind of portal within the music, a slice within the air of the texture of the song, within the adventure of it, and in that slice we place our own imaginative textures, and that is how the performative angle is developed, the critical stance of the artist and performer, even if artists resist the notion of a critical stance as sounding too (understandably) professionalized or intellectualized.


Performance is also interesting because there are more individual varieties of it and more communal, although individual varieties are still communal and vice versa, though the experience of it, the phenomenology of it, will differ. A writer writing a novel wrestles with the writers he or she has read as he or she writes it, and this is a kind of community in solitude, a pageantry in one's mind that one must have what Bloom called an "agon" with if there is any hope whatsoever of developing a voice out of the crucible of one's own pain, experience, memory, and trauma. Meaning develops in solitude and community, and I suppose one of the things that unites both is practice, since a reader practices reader just as much as a violinist practices playing or listening, or a writer practices writing, and all of these are in a sense practices that develop as forms of imaginative presence, of learning who one is by learning about who someone else is, whose work resonates with one's own felt sense of things, one's own imaginative way of seeing or being or thinking or feeling.


When we think about art forms that are customarily considered more communal - theater at the theater, musical performances, be it Bob Dylan or a symphony orchestra, a jazz performance, a dance, a film in a theater - we can think about these things from the angle of the listener, the viewer, the watcher, the aspect of the human that, while both active and receptive, in these acts emphasize more the receptiveness (while not neglecting the activeness of listening to a good song or symphony, or watching a good film, or a good play) - but we can also think about these things from the angle of the performer, or the creator. What is it like to act in a movie or on a stage? What is it like to direct a movie or play? Both involve enormously complex acts of both intrapersonal and interpersonal interpretation, of knowing not only how to listen to one's own vision - think of the films of Ingmar Bergman, for my money the greatest director of the 20th century - but of how to communicate this vision without being autocratic, how to involve people in this vision by empowering rather than paralyzing or frightening them. There are demagogues in politics, and Lord knows there are demagogues in art, different forms of divaship that might emanate from genuine talent and even genius, but that requires a form of morality and communication to get more people involved in that vision if it is to reach an audience. I've always personally been amazed with people like Bob Dylan, or Harold Bloom, or Shakespeare, because they were masters of their respective art forms, but they continuously reach a wide audience, and this is no small accomplishment.


Acting is complicated in these ways, and is also an enormously ironic thing that plays upon the private/public distinction that is something all talented performers have to face sooner or later. A performer - a good one - is in the public light, and they are seen as such, as a kind of image, though rarely do the people seeing the image know the person at the private level. Yet acting is a strange form of doubling and then doubling again, because there is the reified image of the actor or actress within the tawdriness or even sleaziness or superficiality of "celebrity culture," and then there is the role the actor or actress plays in the film, which is another image of the actor or actress in the public imagination, so we then find that when the public considers actors or actresses, they are looking at two masks - the public image, and the roles they play - which are not the private person. This would be frightening, I would guess, for those who devote their careers to the art of acting, because there would be the continual sense that the people around one are not perceiving who one actually is, and that no matter what one says, no matter how benign or strange or what have you, that this would be interpreted through the lens of the public image and not through the lens of the private person. One then finds oneself in a double bind, where one is acting because of the love of acting, but one finds oneself in a kind of pretend world, where the acting remains strong and pure, but the people around one, without an understanding of it, pretend with various fantasies that have nothing to do with the actors or actresses and everything to do with their own narcissisms and insecurities and intrapersonal and interpersonal pathologies. People in the public image, therefore, become scapegoats, because transferred onto them are all the toxicities of people who are weaker than them, people incapable of facing their own traumas, and who therefore seek weak, flaccid, and tepid forms of empty consolation by perusing the pages of People Magazine in attempts to assuage the insecurities of their egos and experience withered forms of voyeurism and identification that have no bearing on reality. For this reason, although acting is one of the greatest art forms, and something I wish to learn about more, I think celebrity culture is a farce, that it is a pox on the imagination of our culture, that it erodes moral values, that it gives us a false sense of who we are and provides role models that are empty, and that we need more sophisticated frameworks for thinking about the arts if we have any hope of understanding the role art plays in our society (which is, at this point, a moral as well as an aesthetic and religious role). Less mature forms of, and pathological forms of love itself - infatuation, various games - is a product, I think, of the narcissism endemic in celebrity culture, and the disfiguring of consent to face the narcissist in a way that please his or her mirror image but takes no account of the other. In these situations, the irony becomes, who is acting, and who isn't? If there is no face behind the mask, then how do even think we can see others? And if there is a face behind the mask, then why must we insist upon its invisibility?

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