What is an artform? Penny Francis
We of the world of the puppet insist that
puppetry is an art form...
art. Somehow 'performing art'
sounds less grand than 'art form', but actually both phrases say
the same thing. Art form and performing art both tell us that there
is something unique and specific about the animation of the inanimate
figure or object in a theatre context; it tells us too that those
who practise the art are, or rather can aspire to be, artists.
What else could they be if not artists? What else could the medium
be if not an art form? A craft, I suppose. You can teach a craft
to large numbers of people. Nowadays many people are practising
puppetry because it is a skill, a craft, actors and other performers
need to acquire, so widely-used are puppets in non-puppet theatre
nowadays. Similarly many people are taught or teach themselves to
make puppets and a good craftsman can soon learn how to turn out
a good puppet. Does the prevalence of good manipulators and good
makers make puppetry an art form? No, because art is transcended
craft. The craft of puppetry needs to produce its artists to qualify.
A fine draughtsman is rarely a fine-artist. A good model maker rarely
a great sculptor. The potential is there because there is no argument
about the painters and sculptors we call artists. They have transcended
and transformed their skill to present a singular vision to the
world. Take music: Salieri was an excellent craftsman, Mozart an
artist of genius. Good journalism is a teachable craft; great writers
are creative artists. Compare Alistair Cooke to Salman Rushdie.
Compare most theatre directors to a Peter Brook, a Robert Lepage.
Art is a transformation of craft, craft in the hands of a genius,
coming from nowhere, out of reach of anything that can be taught.
He or she trails inspiration and reveals perceptions which make
us gasp and see the world afresh. 'Art makes the stone more stony'.
In parenthesis, the actor alone has a much more difficult task to
transcend his normal interpretative role in order to attain the
originality and insight that turns him from craftsman to artist
-it is the same with a dancer, with a singer.
Puppetry can be taught as a craft, as to the making and manipulation.
There are superb makers and astonishing manipulators. Never decry
the great craftspeople. At what point can you call them artists?
Puppetry has an advantage over other performing arts. A great puppet
piece -one where the animated figure or object is the principal
medium - inevitably involves fine art (painting or sculpture) with
the movement of the puppet (figure or object). The potential is
there for artistry. The original vision, the plastic environment
and the brilliance of the execution may combine to make art. Ergo,
the producer-designer-performer-puppeteer can be an artist.
Artistry can be recognised in the produced work of a puppeteer,
through the sine qua non of fine art in the design, vision in the
concept, imagery in the text, excellence in the playing. The perfect
blend is extremely difficult to achieve, even for those recognised
as artists such as Faulty Optic, Frank Soehnle, Stephen Mottram,
Roman Paska, Ronnie Burkett, Eric Bass, Wayland Flowers (now deceased)
- you will add more to this list, but not many more. Artists are
rare birds, in any medium.
My submission is that, since puppetry is a craft which may, with
genius, be transcended into art, thus it is an art form, q.e.d.
For some readers the above is merely a statement of the obvious;
to others something to mull over. Shall we discuss it? Reply to: