Creation, Codification, and Curation: Three Stages of an Art Form

NEMR-DS1_lowresI had the great fortune to meet and perform with Andrew Nemr, virtuoso tap dancer and TED Fellow, at the Creative Church Conference in Boise earlier this summer. [Note: More on this delightfully risky experience in this blog post.]

At the conference, Andrew shared with us his personal story, which is very much enfolded into the larger narrative of tap. The history of tap dance is a fascinating one, with roots in both African and European traditions, flowing from the minstrel show to vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood, and beyond. Andrew is both highly passionate and deeply authentic, and his performance was punctuated by the story of someone steeped in the traditions and innovations of this truly American and truly unique art form.

Which got me to thinking about the stages of an art form.

STAGE 1: CREATION

In the beginning was the arts. And by its very nature, artists are always creating new ways of expressing themselves. Every once in awhile, an artist or group of artists create something so original, so revolutionary, that it can be described as an art form unto itself. And thus a particular art form—such as tap dancing, or impressionism, or rock and roll—is created.

In the Creation stage, there are few conventions; there is only the idea of the thing being different. For example, early rock and roll was characterized by a raw, almost naive, sound, with only a few unique musical distinctives, like a strong back beat and a I-IV-V chord structure. All they knew at the time was that it was bold and brash and other-than, an expression which captivated a generation.

This period of Creation is marked by a high degree of innovation. The rules of the art form are not rules yet, and there is little in the way of formalized methods or techniques or genre. Artists feel free to experiment with the art form, in content and style and approach. The early impressionists, as an example, were attempting something new—focusing on “the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than delineating the details of the subject“—and thus shunned smooth blended strokes in favor of broken and dabbed strokes.

Culturally, the art form rolls into the culture like incoming waves on a beach—being separate from the sand but also carrying the sand along within itself.

STAGE 2: CODIFICATION

As a particular art form matures, the art form begins to become more defined, clarified, codified. Artists implicitly ask the questions, “what is this thing that we are doing?  How can we define ourselves with it? How do we do it better? How are we affecting culture?” Codification of an art form is necessary and inevitable, in order for that art form to be popularized, taught, and even marketed. For example, the radio industry needed rock songs that were about four minutes in length and had a memorable hook. Rock also required the development of various standardized technologies, like the electric guitar and electronic pedals and effects. And of course, there were techniques developed to play these sounds. With codification comes the opportunity to teach the art form. Accepted rules, methodologies, forms, and styles can now be taught to the masses. And a vernacular specific to that art form is also codified, with words like “power chord” or “riff” or “top forty” coming into being.

As artists accept this new art form, it is synthesized with other art forms. For example, as rock and roll began to be legitimized, a dozen different forms began to be synthesized from it—country rock, jazz rock, folk rock, hard rock, rock opera. And this synthesis carries with it different worldviews as well. Folk rock came with a distinct world view. So did new wave. “Like a rolling stone” has a very different world view than “Girls just wanna have fun.

In this stage, there’s no longer a questioning of the legitimacy of the art form. It simply exists as an artistic expression along side other expressions. It finds its place in culture, becomes a part of culture. The surf hits high tide, and the sand becomes inundated in it.

STAGE 3: CURATION

The final stage of an art form is Curation. The art form has reached a level of maturity. Standards are established to measure quality, method and technique. The art form is organized, distilled, aggregated, critiqued, contextualized. Consider for example, what it means to have jazz “standards.”

The industry which supports the art form has also evolved and is now well-established. Consider the film industry, which went from small movie theaters to drive-in theaters to multiplexes to video rental stores to on-line downloads. Or the genre of animated film, which went from crude shorts to hand-drawn, full-length feature films to computer generated images. The industry becomes efficient in providing marketable venues and points of contact between the art and the audience.

The emphasis in this phase is not necessarily artistic innovation, because everything seems to have been done before. Mumford & Sons is a modern form of Old Crow Medicine Show and Simon & Garfunkel. Bruno Mars is a modern form of Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. John Mayer is a modern form of B. B. King and Eric Clapton. While there are still exciting artists and a high degree of virtuosity, there is not much left to be developed. So the emphasis becomes more on technique, not necessarily on newness. There’s a reason why Miles Davis is taught in universities, why tap dance is taught in suburban dance studios, why a thousand tribute bands are spawned from today’s garages.

The tide has retreated, and while low tide still laps gently at the shoreline, it is more a sense of curating the art than innovating about it.

ART AND TIME

This was one of the conversations I had with Andrew as he shared his heart about the art of tap dance. Having been mentored by Gregory Hines, and having danced as a child with many of the originators which started this journey many, many years ago, Andrew is uniquely qualified to be both innovator and curator in his craft.

When an art form comes to maturity—whether it be tap dance, or classical music, or impressionism, or jazz—what does the artist do? If we are to take Andrew’s example, we respect the art by being the very best that we can be as practitioners. We pay homage to the artists who came before us by learning what we can from them. And we further the art by innovating beyond what it is that we have learned.

[Note: The Creative Church Conference in Boise is one of the highlights of my year, and I highly recommend to all my artist friends that you attend the next one!]

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