Craft & performance
A couple of people were a bit surprised that I was including some performance arts in our remit, and I realised I haven’t articulated why I feel it counts.
To me, it’s about material culture—the connection between Things and the things we do with Things. Belly dancing, for instance, or burlesque, have very thriving make-your-own-costume cultures, and where performers don’t make their own they almost always commission it, buy it direct from the maker, or customize it for their own purposes. A lot of Morris dancing sides make their own uniforms, and it’s a point of pride for them to look really spectacular and individual—for instance, Stone the Crows (@STCBorderMorris). (While that photo shows white people in blackface; it’s believed to be an anonymity & class warfare thing, rather than racial.)
Material culture is a big thing in archaeology, because it’s almost the only thing we have to tell us how people lived & thought. A kylix, with its wide flat bowl, was obviously intended for relatively light drinking—after all, it takes some relatively sober care to drink from something that spills so easily in comparison to a taller vessel. A rhyton, on the other hand, is clearly a cup for getting filthy drunk in company, because you use it to scoop from a much larger container, and you can’t put it down while it’s still full. The ceramics, metalwork, ornamentation, and artistic styles tell us a lot about what sort of tools & technologies they used, what materials they valued, and what animals interested them.
To return specifically to performance: I’ve known a lot of performers, of many different kinds, and never one who didn’t use props, costumes, or tools. Costume, instruments (and so many performers name their instruments, too—it’s one of the most personal relationships you can have with an object), and props are a large part of someone’s stage presence, both as a branding technique for the audience and to prop up the performer’s own mindset & confidence. Part of that, I think, is narrative: armouring yourself with items, each trailing their own history, the story of a sunny afternoon in that tiny seaside town and a back-street shop, or of a long conversation with the dressmaker or corsetier and a series of fittings, always bolsters your own sense of self.
Storyability helps with branding, too—everything you wear or carry on stage tells your audience who you are & what you’re like. It won’t be particularly accurate (it’s horribly reductionist) but a violinist in a red skirt suit & court shoes isn’t giving the same performance as the same violinist in a floaty green dress and seventeen bangles. Even before she starts playing, a violinist with a 300-year-old instrument is perceived entirely differently to one with a £30 Ebay special. None of this is news to anyone, but it’s a good starting point.
There are three basic components to the story-of-self as expressed through the things we choose to own: the story of self as User & Custodian of Things, the story of self as Wise Acquirer of Things, and the story of the Thing In Itself. They overlap & intermingle, but those are the basic three.
As user & custodian of Things, we have an acute sense of our own fitness (or otherwise) to use them to their full potential, and look after them as they deserve. The Dunning-Kruger effect applies, but not too much—performers generally know enough to be able to avoid most of that, or at least the ones who get booked more than once do. Learning to live up to the good-quality tools & instruments (a clarinet, a camera, artist-grade oils, carbon-steel knives…) and realising that you do deserve something that good, and you can look after it properly, is a turning-point for a lot of artists and performers, and a visible badge of (potential) competence to each other.
That overlaps with the second, self as wise acquirer of Things, in being able to recognise the skill of makers and repairers. It takes genuine skill to distinguish the beauty of ornamentation from the beauty of functionality, in any domain. We always think of “acquisition” as buying, but that’s no bad thing when done right; I’m the last person to say makers shouldn’t be recompensed for their work, after all! There’s a justifiable pride in knowing the maker of your Things, and a great many makers (probably most) like to know their customers wherever possible. Even when you make your own Things, there’s still a story to all the raw materials, and it’s been my experience that the most interesting raw materials come from the most interesting sources. Right now, I have knitted brass ribbon from a steampunk fair, a disassembled much-used copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a pile of bog myrtle I picked inside the ring-dyke in West Ardnamurchan, and they’re all interesting inspiring things.
The last part is the story of the Thing Itself, and this is the one that people will enthusiastically corner you and tell you about once they get the idea you might be interested. Who made it; who owned it; who repaired it; who lost it; who found it; who restored it; how it got to them; what makes it so unusual. These are the Things that cast a reflected light on their owners, and entirely vice versa too; it’s always a pleasure to be surrounded by Interesting Things, and the people who love them.
When we perform, we’re performing ourselves as much as we’re performing the dance, or the music, or the poem, because we can’t perform art without giving the audience our own unique viewpoint, our take on the text. So much of our sense of self is invested in the Things we own & love (or, for a fair few people, in rejecting the culture of ownership—a material statement in itself) that we can’t perform ourselves without some help, and nor should we try. So, then, that’s why I talk about performance, and try to help performers, here!