Understanding and Appreciation. by Hetty Blades

Reading ‘Let’s Dance! - But who owns it?’ (Waelde, Whatley and Pavis 2014), I was interested by the suggestion that increased audience understanding about the nature and quality of dance works might help with commercial exploitation. On the one hand this suggestion seems straightforward enough, if audiences understand a choreographer’s work, they are more likely to appreciate it and therefore buy tickets for future performances. It seems that this perspective is prevalent across the wide array of contemporary dance practices. The wealth of after show discussions, choreographic publications and public articulations by choreographers, imply that highlighting the labour, intention and thinking behind the work will increase audience engagement with it. So is the need for this type of extra-performance information particularly relevant in the case of dance works made and/or performed by people with disabilities? As Shawn points out in his blog post last month, such work, “greatly diversifies the bodies and aesthetics on view and the experiences and stories offered for interpretation”. Does this diversity mean that more explanation is required? If so, what are the repercussions of this claim?

The idea that contemporary dance can be opaque and that novice audience’s don’t always ‘get it’ has been around for some time. But what does the suggestion that audience appreciation depends upon education and access to information from outside of performance mean for the nature of the form? Such questions have been thoroughly explored and debated in the philosophy of music and visual art. Conventional theories of art appreciation, dating back to Kant (1855 [1781]), commonly suggest that art should be perceived, appreciated, valued and judged merely on the aesthetic experience that it affords (See Stolnitz 1969), specifically, that knowledge external to the physical experience of the work is not relevant. This view, labeled ‘aesthetic empiricism’, is defined by David Davies (2004) as the term used for, “epistemologies of art that minimize the role, in artistic appreciation, of resources not available or derivable from an immediate encounter with an instance of a work” (Davies 2004: 25).

A strictly empiricist opinion, that a work of art should speak entirely for itself, is perhaps a little strong, and arguably counter-intuitive. After all, what does it really mean to have an ‘immediate encounter’? No one sees from a neutral position; our appreciative capabilities are constructed and developed through a wide array of experiences and information. However, there is value in thinking through the counterargument, that extra information is always required to truly appreciate and value a work, which implies that a dance performance itself is not enough. This also feels like a problematic outcome.

So where does that lead us? It seems that dance spectatorship, in alignment with other forms of artistic appreciation, requires expertise and therefore training. We might want to argue that performance is enough, but we need background knowledge that enables us to encounter the work fully in performance.

In ‘Let’s Dance!’ Charlotte, Sarah and Mathilde suggest that this research project has shown that understanding the artistic intention and artistic skills informs audience appreciation of a work. They consider audience responses to a range of examples by disabled dancers, which demonstrate a set of reactions that are arguably distinct from responses to non-disabled dancers. In response, they suggest that deepening understanding,

allows the viewer to go beyond a response of ‘Ain’t they Marvelous’, or a wholly negative response, or no response at all, or a response of ‘why bother, what is the point?’, to a position where it is possible to learn how to critique and appreciate the dance as a serious art form. (Waelde, Whatley and Pavis 2014: 6)

So whilst questions around understanding, empiricism and appreciation are relevant for many choreographers, these findings suggest that there is further motivation to inform audiences about features of works made and performed by disabled dance artists, in order to challenge and confront preconceptions, and allow for dance by disabled and non-disabled dancers to be responded to on the same terms. Perhaps the advocation of an empiricist perspective is the remit of those working in art forms with longstanding traditions of audience education. The appreciation of features of visual art and music are often taught in school, and are aspired to as forms of cultural capital. It seems that if the appreciation of dance, made and performed by all bodies, was integrated into educational and cultural value systems, we may well be able to argue that a work needs no explanation. For now, however it seems that encouraging audiences to see, understand and value dance by disabled dance artists can not only help these artists to develop commercially, but also to shift the cultural landscape.


Davies, D. (2004) Art as Performance. USA, UK: Blackwell Publishing

Kant, I. (1855) The Critique of Pure Judgment. trans. By Mieklejohn, J.M.D. [originally published 1790] London: Henry G. Bohn. Also available from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kant/immanuel/k16ju/complete.html [01 (March 2014]

Stolnitz, J. (1969) ‘The Aesthetic Attitude’, in Introductory Readings in Aesthetics. ed. by Hospers, J. [originally published in 1960] New York: The Free Press, 17 – 27

Waelde, C., Whatley, S. & Pavis, M. (2014) ‘Let’s Dance! - but who owns it?’, [online]. Available from https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/16903 [29.09.15]
comments powered by Disqus