I’ve recently come into contact with a Performance Artist and it’s been making me think about the difference in what it is she does and what my students do. These are my thoughts on how Performance Art and Performing Arts are different and similar.
There’s little difference between these two phrases as they sit together on my screen. At first glance, many would consider them to be one and the same thing, certainly the uninitiated would presume that these two terms are interchangeable.
But they are definitely not. And on reflection the similarities and the differences actively complicate and confuse the distinction. But are they part of one long continuum as some of the academics of Performance Studies seem to believe or do they only share a few similar letters? Are their differences functional, necessary, or intentional, are their similarities entirely accidental?
What’s the essential difference?
Performing Artists usually belong to the acting, dancing and music world, the world of the conservatoires and traditional performance spaces. Performance Art has its roots in the world of the art school, an extension of the fine arts, and often takes place in galleries, found spaces, and in site specific locations.
A performing arts product could be a theatre production, a musical recital, a ballet. A performance art product could be chatting with the artist (as herself) in a part of an art gallery made to look like her front room.
Performing Arts are primarily skills-based, Performance Art is primarily concept based. Yet, performance artists can be incredibly skilled, just as performing artists can work around conceptual stimulus. In the Performing arts, the message is often presented to an audience via the performers, in performance art, the art is often the performer themselves as much as their message. The performing artist often performs in the concert hall, opera house or theatre space, the performance artist is often the site of their performance regardless of the environment in which they perform.
The performing artist does not by necessity make something. (controversial I know) Actor, musician and dancer are traditionally skilled interpreters of a third parties efforts. The performance artist is often creator, performer and performance in one.
Like the Fine Arts, Performance Art demands the audience/viewer/spectator to engage. In the Performing Arts, the interactivity is kept to a bare minimum.
Performance Art is often entirely non-narrative, traditional Performing Arts are narrative by nature, they tell stories. Performance artists can tell stories, but then the method by which these stories are delivered is often different too.
Performing Arts are collaborative by nature, Performance Art can be collaborative, but often revolves around an individual artist, although ensembles of performance artists are possible too. Of course, Performing Arts can revolve around one person too, but a writer can act in and stage their own material.
Performance Artists do not usually attempt to embody something other than themselves, but some performing artists do not attempt to embody something other than themselves. In fact, the technique that I teach in the studio encourages the actors to be themselves (with certain limitations, restrictions and observances.) Nonetheless, we wish our audiences to perceive us as the characters. Performance Artists do not often wish the audience to perceive them as a fictional entity.
I’m sure from this brief overview of some of the differences, you are aware of just how thin the line can be, and yet just how different the art forms are.
Mark Westbrook is the Senior Acting Coach at Acting Coach Scotland, a writer, director and the artistic associate at Delirium Productions, Glasgow, Scotland and Little Spoon Theatre Company, Sydney, Australia.