Performance is at once an artist’s sanctuary and most dangerous territory. It is where performers coax precious pieces of their own sentiments to fit the shape of their art and present the finished product for all to appreciate, judge, or criticize. Musicians, actors, and dancers gamble their skills against time, betting that the quality of their presentation can keep up with the passage of every irreversible second and praying to be fortunate while they walk the line separating expression from exposure. Having invested half my lifetime of eighteen years into violin performance, I know music to be a source of solace, thrill, and embarrassment. If all goes well, performance is exhilarating. If mishaps occur, performance is merciless because anything that goes down cannot be taken back. Time cannot be manipulated.
In her essay “Forty-One False Starts,” when writing about the random and spontaneous nature of the artwork created by modern painter David Salle, Janet Malcolm draws a comparison between Salle’s art and the process of performance. She writes, “Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal” (507). The first thought this passage evoked in my mind concerned the undeniable what’s-done-is-done nature of performance. The second questioned why anyone would subject an art where erasers, new sheets of canvas, and repainting exist to the conditions of an art where each stroke is forever lost in time. I’d had enough experience in performance to believe that modern visual artists’ playing peek-a-boo with their blessed second chances was a stupid, ungrateful game.
If I rewind my memory back to the audition for my first major violin competition, playback begins with my ascent onto stage from behind heavy black curtains of dusty velvet. A hardwood stage floor illuminated in yellow light resonates pointedly upon each step of my high-heeled feet, and shadowed mezzanine seats stretch far into corners where light won’t reach them. There are three people sitting somewhere in the audience—three judges who will determine whether my performance is the best, the one worthy of a solo concerto concert and a good sum of money.
As I played that day, I created a rendition of Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole that hit the notes and brought out the colors of desperado, gypsy fervor. It was beautiful and the music engulfed me entirely, but in my enthusiasm I neglected to check my own power. I sliced a three-string chord near the end of the piece with the passion it deserved—too much—and heard the discordant bang of broken violin strings as the bridge on my instrument snapped in half, killing the music right then and there. The silence that followed stunned me and my listeners as a disturbance that could not be forgiven. Needless to say, I did not win the competition. It had been a fatal mistake.
In an attempt to reconcile myself with David Salle’s desire to embrace this dangerous spontaneity of performance, I tried to imagine what my performance would have looked like if it had been in the form of a painting. I pictured fat brush strokes of colorful oil paint, in the center depicting a lovely gypsy woman dancing to Lalo’s Spanish music, caught in the picture mid-spin with her brilliant red dress twirling about her legs. Swirls of bright colors would surround her, the way the music engulfed me that day. She would be wearing noisy heels on a hardwood stage floor, and she would be dancing her heart out. Of course there would also be a gash of black paint splattered diagonally across the painting’s focal point, to symbolize that fatal chord. The gash would stick out like a sore thumb, confusing and upsetting viewers of the artwork; they would wonder in hesitant horror why the beauty of the painting had to be defaced by such a ghastly-looking mistake.
These are exactly the emotions David Salle’s art evokes. His paintings consist of broken, obscene images that don’t seem to belong together—“like an ugly mood,” according to Malcolm (505). He borrows images from previous artwork, takes nudity to the level of disturbance, and combines these items in an unnatural amalgamation. Malcolm, in describing her impression of his work, says “It was an abstracted sensation of dislocation, yearning, and loss that started resonating with my sense of what both art and life are like here in the late twentieth century. Suddenly Salle’s harsh artifice seemed heroic, an earnest of authenticity—without ceasing to seem perverse, against the grain” (517). His crude, jarring pictures communicate to their observers the same emotions as those of their creator. They capture the passion of the artist interminably, preserving the moments of mishap and admitting the realness of imperfection and awkwardness.
Although the artist seems to imitate performance, I do not believe he actually strives to replicate it. The precarious nature of performance is only a lens into the fragility of something much more universal. Mistakes made in life and mistakes made in performance are analogously irrevocable. In imitation of this perception, Malcolm’s writing is organized into forty-one versions of a potential introductory passage. The scope of the entire work never goes beyond introduction; instead, forty-one separate attempts encompass a general conception of both Salle the artist and Salle the man. The concluding “false start,” as her title calls them, quotes Salle saying, “Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?” (530). If Malcolm’s discontinued false starts also subscribe to this yet-to-begin approach to life, the analogy she makes between her writing and her subject’s painting also comes to embrace Salle’s hopelessly expectant outlook. It is an attitude that is at once depressing and appealing; the success of Salle’s art professes to Malcolm’s observation that the coarseness of his art is the authenticity that makes it beautiful.
The unconventional form of Malcolm’s writing is, quite poetically, an illustration of three things at once: David Salle’s art, his approach to life, and the beauty of false starts in every sense of the phrase. I have taken Malcolm’s realization and used it as a model to understand my love for performance. If beauty in art and beauty in life can be linked via the espousal of mistakes, performance has one up on visual art. Though Salle never erases or repaints, he does exercise another option that visual artists have which is unavailable to performers—the option to destroy. Malcolm describes one painting of Salle’s that he botched: it depicted two ballet dancers. Once he deemed it a failure, Salle decided to obliterate the image in gray paint. “It’s a reject, a failed painting. It’s going to be cut up,” the artist said of the painting (513). Admitting how wonderful something was only accentuates the frustration with the mistake that killed it. The knowledge of what could have been is what drives a person to regret. In my life, neither that killer chord nor my memory of it is destructible, depriving me of the visual artist’s use of destruction as a means for denial, and his use of denial as a comforting pretense that conceals what happened.
Without the security of destruction, performance nurtures a rebellious kind of motivation. After I recovered from the stinging silence that followed that fatal chord, I took a dazed bow and heel-clicked my way back off stage, all the while biting down cries of astonishment and despair. At home a couple of days later, I found camaraderie in the experience of my favorite celebrity performer. I stared at the television, mouth agape, as figure skater Michelle Kwan took a fall in the 1998 Winter Olympics that cost her the Gold Medal and landed her in second place instead. However, as much as Kwan’s memory of that fall had to have served as a torturing reminder of the medal she could have deserved, it also had to play a part in her determination to keep trying. In the end, Michelle Kwan was the only skater of the three Olympic medalists that year who continued competitive skating.
Following the tragedy of my first competition I went on to play in, and win, two others with the same piece. But even success will not erase failures in performance; they remain indestructible, preserved in memory. Here is where the connection that Malcolm delineates between art, performance, and life brings to the table a need to appreciate the imperfect. Beauty in art, performance, and life is the congregation of many parts of a whole, a series of imperfections that complement each other in the big picture. In this way, I realized that the fatal quality of performance actually translates into an economy by which mistakes raise the value of success. It is incredible how empowering the experience of a successful performance is. The immortality of mistakes is a threat intimidating enough to render each success absolutely priceless; the danger provides the thrill. Life is of the same economy. Mistakes make us human at the same time that they make us invincible, because they provide the motivation and inspiration to continue living. Such is a truth in the life of the artist, the performer, and the human being.
Malcolm, Janet. “Forty-One False Starts.” Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorker. Ed. David Remmick. New York: The New Yorker Magazine, 2002. 504-530.