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[Re-write] Being A Participant in Art -- Discussing with Kaprow And Sontag

Clairity's picture

       Before my trip to the Old City, I thought it was the spectator that made the picture. But this recent experience helped me realize that it was not that simple. It is not only the audience makes the picture, but also the performer, the creator and the artwork. These elements together make the "participants", who are actively engaged in the art or playful activities and jointly infuse dynamics and diversity into the work. The art is not complete without either the artist or spectators. A work engenders its true meanings with its participants. This also corresponds to Sontag's article on Against Interpretation. We should learn to "see more, to hear more, to feel more".

    This point was perfectly illustrated in my trip this weekend. On our way back, we ran into a piece of mosaic by Isaiah Zagar in an area that was not fairly close to the Magic Garden. Even if we were rushing for the train, we still stopped there for a while to take a clearer look. Located at the entrance inside an art school, the mosaic was still a shining piece for all of us. Because we had participated in Isaiah's artwork, had tried to find the beauty in every corner of his Magic Garden, and had quietly had a wonderful "conversation" with him through the shimmering art pieces. We were amazed at coming across his mosaic, but the women who sit outside the entrance looked at us strangely and wondered why seeing a colored wall made us so happy. Those women were merely spectators, unlike us. We engaged in Isaiah's work, therefore we were able to fully appreciate this amazing serendipity and understand the importance of this piece. Our joy was not due to the content of this piece of art, but because of feel the form and true self of it.

    However, it was a different case when we went into a used book store, The Book Trader. The huge amounts of books that were stacked on the ten-foot tall bookshelves overwhelmed us. Walking in the extremely narrow corridor between the bookshelves, we were dumbfounded by the diversity and quantities of the books. On the second floor, I found some people quite excited in their "treasure hunt". There were also a few of others sit quietly, completely indulged in their own reading. Their movements added liveliness to this kingdom of books. And I, as an observer, enjoyed watching them actively "performing". These two groups of people are true participants, making this place an art for us spectators.

    This point was introduced by Flanagan in her book Critical Play. She mentioned that Allan Kaprow, an Fluxus artist, involved "participants" rather than merely "spectators" in his performance art 18 Happenings in Six Parts. "Happenings", another title for performance art in New York, were planned but unscripted, unrepeatable and unique events that were performed by non-actors who had no intention to make the events theatrical. Actively engaged participants rather than passively observers were his goal in this project. He often insisted that there should be no spectators in his performance and that only active participants should be part of a "Happening". "Happening" emphasized the significance of active participation, which corresponded with my point of view here.

    This could be further explained in my experience in the Franklin Fountain, a unique ice cream store. Workers in the store all dressed up in costumes of the old times. And the decoration and rules here were also ancient and charming. Menus were carved into the wood wall and the store only accepted cash. Entering another world, we embraced this fascinating little piece of art as we walked in the narrow space, trying to get our ice cream. Every day, different, unrepeatable events happen here. They welcome all kinds of customers who appreciate their art gestures. But their art has meanings only if people came to participate and have conversation with them. Their art only makes sense with the admirers.

       In Kaprow's point of view of how art should be considered, my experience when encountering the mosaic by Isaiah Zagar those engrossed readers at the Book Trader meet insistence that only active participants should be in his performance. As for Sontag, viewing and feeling art in my coincidence of seeing Isaiah's another work  meets her theory to "not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art". On the last example of the Franklin Fountain, probably neither of Kaprow and Sontag will agree that my reaction is the way they think one should experience art.

    However, in my perspective, the artist, the performers and the audience working together create a better version of the art. An art won't be an art without any of these elements. Spectators are not the only co-creator with the artist. It's the "participants" that make the picture. And all of these examples fall into my category of the art experience.