Tag Archives: Merce Cunningham

Repeatable Unrepeatable

What if everyone did that? What if everyone painted like Picasso or Pollock? What if everyone painted like Jenny Holtzer or photographed like Bill Henson? What if everyone made readymades like Duchamp? What if everyone spray-painted on walls in the city? Repeatability, reproducibility of results, is an important issue for science and ethics but what about art?

The history of art, unlike the history of science, is a cumulative narrative, where every work of art adds to what has come before. There have never been revolutions in art as there are in science; there has been nothing equivalent to the Copernican revolution (although Duchamp’s contribution might be the equivalent of quantum physics). The mistake was made when modern artists started to use the language of science in the first place in talking about ‘experiments’. Contemporary artists have avoided this word, using the more professional word ‘practice’.

There are different kinds of repeatability in the visual arts to the performing arts. The American choreographer, Merce Cunningham when on tour in India asked by Indian academic: “Do Americans like your kind of dance?” And after some confusion the question was clarified…for after dinner dancing?” Merce Cunningham’s choreography is repeatable for a trained dancer but not repeatable in a popular fashion. Democratic repeatability, that is repeatable by ordinary people, is different to repeatable by a trained elite.

Although the original is identical to the cliché except for its position in the sequence. Artistic creativity is held to be idiosyncratic, in the sense that it is isolated to an individual. This has helped sustain the idea and value of an artist’s individual signature style that grew from 17th Century artists, when artists first started to market their own work rather than rely on commissions.

Currently in the visual arts the results are regarded as irreproducible. Unlike in ethics or science the same events do not create the same results. The great results of visual art are not universalizable and can never be replicated. If someone else made portraits like Warhol they would be simply a derivative initiator (you can now get a Warhol effect on canvas at most commercial photo printers).

Obviously it has not always been this way; originally students would learn by imitating their master to the point of exactly reproduction. In the past if you could paint or sculpt like an established master then you did and would be praised for it. Following previous great art as an example is a very different issue for modern and contemporary visual art. We need to ask the question why are we not intended to follow the example of great contemporary artists? What part of their art is repeatable? Should we use great modern art as examples in art education? What if everyone behaved like Damien Hirst?


Dancing in Melbourne

Merce Cunningham was once asked after one of his performance at a university in India if people in America liked his type of dance. Merce Cunningham started to respond with an explanation of the popularity of his performances. No, this is not what the question was about: did people in America like to do this type of dance after dinner?

This distinction between dance as a performance and dance as a social activity has existed for a long time. There is also dance as a hobby, along with dance education and dancing competitions, all of these blurring the line between performance and dance as a social activity.

This weekend I saw a variety of dance and I danced. On Saturday there was the extraordinarily powerful, acid-trip level, experience of seeing Chunky Move’s production Mortal Engine. (For a review of Mortal Engine read Alison Croggon’s blog Theatre Notes.) And on Sunday I went to Fabian’s dance theme party danced and had a good time.

Fabian has evidently been doing Cuban dance classes amongst his wide variety of hobbies. And there were obviously other members of his Cuban dance class at the party. Fabian, ever the extravert performed two Cuban dances each with a different partner and then opened the floor for other of his friends to perform. And so I saw a sample of the type of dance that Melbourians like to learn, practice and perform. There were more Cuban dancers, a bald fire twirler dressed in a kilt, two women doing a pole dance and a woman doing a belly dance. Amateur belly dancers are typical for Fabian’s parties and they are always attempting to be more seductive than the belly rolling professionals at Coburg’s Turkish restaurants.

Dance is not an unproblematic activity for cultures due to the eroticism of moving bodies. However, this is not the case in most of Melbourne and certainly not at Fabian’s party where the gender of your dance partner was determined by your preference. I do remember seeing a Bosnian Moslem friend keep his eyes firmly fixed on his wife during a belly dancer’s performance when we were having dinner at Turkish restaurant in Coburg. And at the performance of Mortal Engine there were the ubiquitous warning about “partial nudity, smoke, laser and strobe lighting effects and loud volume audio.”

In some places how people dance, where and with who is determined by tradition, it is an expression of their identity. In contemporary Melbourne dance is a choice not tradition; Cuban dance is not an expression of Cuban identity any more than pole dancing is an expression of vice. 


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