Performance and the Non-Rational

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So far, I've done a little survey of some literary attempts at the non-rational, and this makes sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, a rational argument seems to invite a written process of laying down an argument in a logical order. Secondly, the inverse: writing - the act of conveying information to an audience - requires a certain amount of comprehensibility in order to reach its audience, which often leads to a rationalist logic. Of course, this second part is arguable; we've seen that Stein's work isn't "comprehensible" in the traditional way, but it has still reached an (albeit limited) audience.

The point being, I've been focused on the written non-rational partly because it's more immediately available to me as a grad student, but also because it seems to try and beat rationality at its own game. If writing is the rational genre par excellence, then it's been valuable to look at the way writers have undermined the predictable structures of language. For this last blog or two, though, I want to look at genres where the non-rational might feel a little more at home: visual/musical/performance art.

First, though, I just want to muse on what would make a rational visual or auditory experience. For me, I go back to the baroque and classical periods, to Bach and Mozart, for rational listening (no coincidence, I think, that it coincides chronologically with the birth of the Enlightenment). At the same time, though, I think some more modern "mathematical" music that employs rule-oriented principles like 12-tone rows could also be called rational, because to put it overly simply, the composition process works through the head, not through the heart. I think there are similar points to be made in painting and sculpture, for example, although the visual arts aren't really my field.

Let's get to the non-rational. I want to start with this clip, just to highlight the "impracticality" of art. Practicality is not the same as rationality, but the juxtaposition of art vs science, and of art as being the more enriching of the two is interesting... especially since the artist never quite says why. (I also recommend the other clips in this art:21 series: short, entertaining, educational.)

Now, here is an example of a very evocative (and oddly disturbing) performance art piece by Marina Abramovic:

I think what this gets at, actually, is a sort of cognitive dissonance. We want to understand this rationally, but what is so troubling about it is that we can't. I think this is what a lot of good performance artists are striving to do - to create an affective experience.

Another way to experience this is in contrast. Here are two videos: the first is a clip from a production of "Swan Lake" which I would argue strives for ultimate orderliness. The second, from PUSH Physical Theater, tries to physicalize a text, creating meaning on a different level than the cognitive.

This next one is long, but skip to anywhere, and it'll be interesting.

I realize that what I'm doing here is showing without explaining, and that demonstrates exactly why I think art is important - because we have a hard time explaining it. What I need to do more thinking about is this: classical art/music seems to access different parts of my brain than, say, the experimental works I've posted. That isn't to say it doesn't create an affective experience; a Mozart symphony could be incredibly moving if played in the right context. But I do think there is something different about, for example, the movement piece above. The problem is, what is it? I think cognitive dissonance begins to get at the experience of watching some of these, but I am far from being able to formulate this more precisely, or to draw any conclusions about the possible potential of art to create change by way of these non-rational processes.

1 Comment

I do think you have
something,about modern art as bypassing rationality in some way. I
think about Mondrian, as opposed to Rembrandt, for example. Both are
beautiful, but there is no way of making "sense" of modern art, so it
becomes necessary to appreciate with your emotions or not at all. But
I do take exception to the idea that Bach is "rational". After
listening to the 16 CD set by Robert Greenberg on Bach, I have come to
feel that he used structure only in the service of a tribute to "God"
as a Lutheran, and that makes his "rationality" and form something of
a container for pure feeling. Maybe what happens with Swan Lake or
Bach and Mozart is that you get distracted by the form, so that it
takes longer to discover the underlying emotion, while with some of
the performance pieces, you can't make "sense" of it (although I
usually try at first), so you go more directly to the emotion? It's
an interesting question, though, and I'm not sure I've got what the
difference is yet

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This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on April 26, 2010 11:57 AM.

The Erotic's Non-Rational Potential was the previous entry in this blog.

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