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Feature: What is an artform? Penny Francis reflects

We of the world of the puppet insist that puppetry is an art form
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...a performing 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:



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