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On Improvised Art Creation

Improvised1 creation/performance is not just confined to jazz soloists and modern dance. For example, great performers of classical music improvise through their interpretation of the score: There will be subtle differences in each performance depending on whim and fancy. Improvisation sometimes involves the interplay of a number of agents and sometimes not, but all improvisation comes down to the gap between the artistic (aesthetic) insight and the act of endowing the work with the envisaged properties, as described in Zangwill’s TACTA. This gap between insight and creation can be wide, but in improvisation, insight and act approach simultaneity.2

A very close analogy to improvised creation can be found in ordinary conversation. Ordinary conversations are to a great extent completely extemporaneous: We can predict how a conversation will go, but at bottom the details are messier – we make do with what we have. I don’t mean to sound prosaic, but it is essential to the nature of space-time and experience that we must improvise much of our days.3 A fascinating feature of time particularly is that once an event has passed – only memories and artifacts remain. This ephemerality of time is what is being utilized in extemporaneous art creation.

Artistic improvisation is also consistent with (and usually created within) limitations, such as keys and rhythms in improvised jazz. These limitations are often inherent to the medium and materials at hand: Paint (whatever colors you may have and how you use them), clay, personal limbs, voice, etc. Freestyle poetry such as freestyle rap must also obey key, rhyme and meter. In performance of a composed classical piece, the musician(s) and/or conductor improvise within the limitations (however stringent) of the score. One score may specify passages of actual free improvisation for the performer to get a chance to demonstrate their skills, and another may be note-for-note accent-for-accent composed. The pith of the issue is that there are formal constraints and there are artistic liberties in performance and these can come in many degrees.

In this chapter I want to consider a very particular case of improvisation in art which I will call improvised (or extemporaneous) creation. By this I mean a work that is created on the spot. Consider an experienced improvising musician stepping onto a stage without a particular work to perform, and not necessarily anywhere to even start, but the artist just start playing. There has always been art created undersuch conditions, and a very convincing argument could be made for the actual primordiality of this form of art creation.

I would like to make a broad conceptual distinction between improvised creation and ever more prudent creation. Prudent creation basically means ‘not immediate creation’, but this does not entail that no improvisation was involved in the creation process. As I argued, improvisation can be said to be ubiquitous in experience, but prudent composition is essentially different. Writing (prose, poetry, music, etc.) is the clearest case of prudent creation: It may only take the reader an hour or two to read this thesis, but I spent much much more time on it than that. An improvised thesis could be dictated from beginning to end.

Not only can insight and act be simultaneous but there is also a judgement involved in improvised creation which will become clear in quick comparison to prudent creation. A painter has an insight (or many insights) and performs the requisite artistic acts, but there is still the final judgement that the work is complete – the painter could wait days and days before finally judging the work to be done. On the other hand, by stepping onto the stage, the improvising artist forfeits the power to pause, rewind, edit and revise – what is done is done. The improvising artist accepts these facts (implicitly) as intrinsic features of time and judges beforehand (qua improviser) that the resulting work will have to be complete (upon termination of the performance). In more prudent creation, the judgement that the work is complete is not bound to the length of a particular performance; you can come back to it tomorrow. Thus, it should be clear how this final judgement can be easily overlooked in the case of improvised performance.

Finally, I would like to say something about the fact that the improvising musician is also improvising when they are chatting after the performance (and any other time the artist isn’t “in character”). This is not a problem, but merely points to a difference in the function of one’s behavior at any particular time. Consider the case of candid-camera TV shows containing some number of actors dealing with “people on the street”.4 The viewer realizes this person is an actor and the “people on the street” don’t. The viewer sees a function in the actor’s behavior that the “people on the street” don’t. This is similar to the function that the documentary director sees in ordinary events in the world. So, any particular ordinary conversation5 is not art because of the perceived function of that particular conversation.

I hope to have demonstrated that improvisation, improvisation in art, and improvised creation to be fairly subtle distinctions based on the function of one’s behavior in time. In the next section I will apply Zangwill’s Aesthetic Creation Theory of Art to this case of improvised art creation. Zangwill says that it is necessary and sufficient for only the (putative) artist to see the artistic/aesthetic function of their work.

  1. Thanks to Ian Halloran for providing us with this fascinating analysis. It is part of his MA thesis and he is an incredibly private person, and searches the internet for any and all plagiarizers of his writing with full intent to use all of his powers to shame them. []
  2. The physical-metaphysical possibility of perfect simultaneity is a separate topic. []
  3. Exceptions might be private moments. It is possible that we could be said to improvise in our dreams. []
  4. They become “ordinary” people or “people on the street” because they don’t realize the rouse. []
  5. In other words, one that is not on camera, tape, paper, etc. []