Dance and the Museum: Curating the Contemporary (Part 3 of 3)


This issue of objectification is highlighted by the example of Charmatz’s 20 Dancers for the XX Century exhibition. The discourse Charmatz’s exhibition ignites – one suggested by the museality of the body – is the supposed superiority of action over object; a discourse that, until recently, has been primarily related to performance art. As Franko has observed, Charmatz’s exhibition reveals that the ‘living, breathing, animate dancer implicitly expresses a superiority to art that does not move but hangs in statis’.[1] This observation of authority is reinforced by art historian Kristine Stiles who, in a reflection on the notion of performance in art, points out that ‘the body as material in art after nineteen fifty was deeply tied to the need to assert the primacy of human subjects over inanimate objects’.[2] In consideration of this, it is useful to examine dance in relation to the object action theories that have taken place in the visual arts and to distinguish between what is movement and what is choreography; to do this as a means to determine why, where, and how contemporary dance can be ethically realized within today’s visual arts paradigm. This for the reason that, as cultural historian Andy Horowitz points out, all too often when museums engage with dance, they are doing so within the context of the visual arts; they are ‘thinking within the framework of object-making’.[3] According to Horowitz, the visual arts have traditionally been concerned with the creation of objects, or more specifically, the creation of objects meant to be sold.[4] The performing arts on the other hand have been historically concerned instead with the potential of the performative act itself.[5] Horowitz has suggested that although museums may be ‘engaging with concepts around experience and representation’, they are doing so ‘from a perspective of bringing visual art to life in the time-based world using the techniques and tropes with which they are already familiar’.[6] The concern for dance is that an object-centric approach towards performance ultimately manifests as the objectification of dance by the visual art world. This in turn poses a genuine betrayal of dance as a contemporary and collegial art form. However, it could be argued that the root of this betrayal lay primarily in a distinction of terms. Kristine Stiles has suggested that the difference between object and action is process; a term, which in the last part of the twentieth century, became the foundation of what has come to be known as ‘performance’ or ‘action art’.[7] In reflecting on action versus object, Stiles has suggested that when considering the body in performance, ‘it is the body itself that produces objects’ and that the process of that construction is ‘a unique vehicle enabling (both) perception and contemplation’.[8]  She goes on to suggest that ‘when the body is used in action, it exemplifies the means by which all art is relational with the world’.[9]  If Stiles’ notion were to be applied to the paradigm of dance, then it might be argued that when discussing action versus object, movement (the body) is the action and choreography is the object. To elaborate that point, movement is processional – it is ephemeral – and as such has no temporal limitations in that, by nature of its presence, it has already disappeared. Choreography on the other hand is material. It can participate in representation. By definition it is archival. Movement is action. Choreography is object. At the point of their convergence is dance. In other words, dance is the ‘commissure’ between action and object.[10] To understand this distinction is to eliminate the illiteracy that threatens dance’s potential relationship with visual art. Further, it is necessary for curators to distinguish that dance and choreography are not interdependent; that one does not necessarily imply the other. Spangberg suggests that ‘choreography’s first enterprise is to domesticate movement’.[11] Nevertheless, not all movement is dance, nor does dance necessarily imply the choreographic. Rather choreography (object) is the organization of movement (action) into temporal and spatial parameters (dance). Moreover, choreography is the materialized representation of action – and as such, it is the representation of a choreographer’s intended or envisioned action. Therein lay its’ constitution as art. Therefore in consideration of the visual arts paradigm, if movement is action and choreography is object, then dance – as Stiles might suggest – is the art of action.[12] ‘Action art’ is the term Stiles utilizes to describe ‘such an art [that] has made more concrete the metonymic relationship of exchange… between viewer and the work of art’.[13] Dance is ‘action art’ in that it is ‘simultaneously representational and presentational, simultaneous by claiming the primacy of the body as metaphorical content and as concrete presentational form’.[14] Dance can therefore be seen as the union of action and object – movement and choreography – which, according to Stiles, ‘draws attention to the psycho-physical, cognitive intuitional mechanism that produces the act and its object in all [its] dimensionality’ and brings the relationship ‘between seeing and meaning, making and being into view’.[15]

Although these correlations help frame contemporary dance in terms of the visual arts paradigm, they do not justify dance and action art as interchangeable, specifically when relating to dance in a visual arts context. The overlay of art action and dance based upon the primary use of the body that exists at the crux of dance and the visual arts does not singularly justify the liberal appropriation of contemporary dance by the museum. Further, it should be recognized by museum curators that any prospect of an actual equality in the exhibition of dance and the visual arts is determinately challenged by the temporal differences that exists between the two forms. What makes dance (and here one could equally substitute the term performance art) unique to visual art is that it operates from a position of the present whereas visual art operates from a position of the past. Further, it could be argued that as an art form, dance allows opportunity for the viewer to wholly experience the contemporary, through both the observation and experience of process. The visual arts, albeit painting or sculpture, may suggest the contemporary or may imply action, but by nature of its objectness – its materiality – it is essentially archival. This is the very difference between the theater and the museum. As Spangberg suggests, ‘we go to the theater the celebrate life and experience (time) passing. We go to the museum to celebrate death and to experience time standing still’.[16] For dance to ethically realize in the visual arts paradigm implies that the museum must challenge the archival and allow space for the performative act to dissolve the temporal limitations imposed by museum’s object-based precedence. This requires invention not repertory. This requires the museum to move away from artifact and to embrace the spontaneous – otherwise it is just avoiding the contemporary. As Sarah Maxfield suggests

If our framing of performance shifts from a time-based experience to a collectible item, the very thing that makes performance unique and necessary in our culture is diminished. We stand to lose much if performance that calls itself performance is less important than performance that calls itself an art object. We stand to lose more if performance is no longer a conversation, but just another item for sale.[17]

In consideration of the complexities addressed here concerning dance and the museum, let us return finally to the notion of curation itself. According to Claire MacDonald, since its emergence in the last part of the twentieth century – not only as a term for an active practice existing somewhere between artistry and academia, but as well as a type of social construct responding to the archival fever that emerged after the nineteen seventies -, ‘nothing it seems represents the anxieties of a liquid modernity better than this word’.[18] This is because at this moment in history, anyone can curate anything. As MacDonald suggests, curating does not yet have a definitive historical trajectory and as such, is open as practice for interpretation to the general ordering of fragments in the broadest possible sense.[19] Nevertheless, despite its open reading it should be realized that, as Horowitz has suggested, the museum as institution has long been a principal participant – together with academia and journalism – in the creation of value for objects, value that is both actual and perceived.[20] As the museum seeks to embraces dance, the value it engenders still applies. It must be acknowledged herein that the determinant role in that value is imparted to curators, who maintain the power of selection to advance particular dance works into the marketplace. Once in the marketplace, critics and academics will then most certainly contextualize these dance works, often without the appropriate intellectual framework to support their presentation. As Lightsey Darst suggests, ideally the curation of dance ‘frames work and educates its audience, in the process shaping new opportunities for choreographers and companies who are ready for them’.[21] She argues that ‘curators are the editors of the dance world. Without them, the stage goes to those who can pay for it’.[22] It must be conceded that this is a tremendous responsibility for the future of dance to impose on the choreographically illiterate. Without an integral understanding of dance and of the potentialities and complexities that exists in its union with the visual arts, curating dance can be a very precarious endeavor. That is not to say that the invitation posed by the museum to dance is not one worth accepting. It very much is. Though to accept such an invitation is to be cognizant of the slippery covenant in which such an invitation implies. Too often, as Danielle Goldman suggests, ‘curators talk about dance’s capacity to enable experimentation and to perform a kind of institutional critique that museums cannot enact on their own’.[23] This alone can be no justification. Moreover, it is a curatorial concept too quickly becoming habit. This is because, as Goldman also infers, curators rapture on curatorial concepts.[24] If however, such enthusiasm were instead directed towards supporting and facilitating the actual potential that the union of dance and the visual arts harbor – potential hinted at by the revelations of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes – then perhaps something significant might be realized; something entirely and unerringly contemporary. Only then would it be enthusiasm well spent. For as increased museum attendance in recent years will attest, there is providence that dance will forever maintain over the visual arts: the providence that is the present.


[1] Franko, ‘Critical Correspondence’ 2014.
[2] Kristine Stiles, ‘Art in Culture’, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979, 1998, p.228
[3] Andy Horowitz, ‘Visual Art Performance Vs. Contemporary Performance’, Culturebot, November 25, 2011
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Stiles, Performance and the Object, 1998, 235, 238.
[8] Ibid. p.227
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. p.229
[11] Marten Spangberg, ‘Museum Dancing’, Spangbergianism, September 20, 2012
[12] Stiles, Performance and the Object, 1998 p.228.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid. p.227-228
[16] Marten Spangberg, ‘Museum Dancing’, Spangbergianism, September 20, 2012
[17] Sarah Maxfield, ‘Sarah Maxfield Responds’, Critical Correspondence, December 12, 2013
[18] Claire MacDonald, ‘Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance’, Contemporary Theater Review, January 8, 2010
[19] Ibid.
[20] Horowitz, Culturebot, 2011
[21] Lightsey Darst, ‘The Disappearing Dance Curator’, MM Arts, April 5, 2013
[22] Ibid.
[23] Danielle Goldman, ‘More than Incidental Choreographies’, Critical Correspondence, December 8, 2013
[24] Ibid.

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