Performing Arts: Characteristics & Functions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Performance based arts include both some of the most traditional and most avant-garde forms of expression in the world. In this lesson, we'll take a look at some examples of performance arts and see what defines them.

Performing the Arts

Think of a painting. Doesn't matter which one. Imagine looking at that painting, reflecting on it, contemplating it. Paintings are fun, and we interpret them by reviewing the finished product. It's static and unchanging. While this is certainly one way to think about art, it's not the only way. Arts like painting and sculpture are generally defined by the completed work all at once, whereas other art forms are defined by the performance of art. Rather than a static object, performances are art in motion, often demonstrating the concept of creation and experience and very greatly defined by qualities like physical location and setting. They are ever-changing and ephemeral, never being quite the same twice. It's an exciting field of art, one you have to experience to truly understand.


There are many kinds of performance based art, but let's start with one of the most respected. Theater is a millennia-old art form in which artists act out a narrative or message through song, spoken word, dance, and/or instrumental music. Theater is a fascinating art form largely because of the many elements it contains. You have the writing of the script, the rehearsing, the choreography, the costuming, the creation of an appropriate setting, the directing, and finally the virtuosic performances by various artists. As a performance based art, theater is meant to be appreciated over a set length of time by a live audience. The experience of watching theater is what makes it effective as an art form.

Traditional theatrical performance

Oral Interpretation

Theater is often seen as the all-encompassing performing art because it includes so many elements. However, there have been many artists who have found intellectual and critical success in breaking down the components of theater into individual performing arts. One great example is in oral interpretation. In its most basic form, oral interpretation is a manner of public speaking in which a poem, narrative, oration, or other scripted work is verbally presented by an artist.

While theater includes this element, it also combines it with various amounts of choreography, costuming, setting design, etc. Oral interpretation strips away these extra components so the artist may fully focus on the value of the spoken word through the rhythm, intonation, pitch, volume, pacing and emotion of the human voice. Thus, the setting of oral interpretation is less defined than that of a theatrical performance, and the artist may choose to perform their work in a variety of locations.

Street Performance

The concept of bringing performing arts out of a controlled setting is something that really redefined these arts in the 20th century. More accessibly to venues made performing arts more accessible to the people. Over time many began to question the boundaries between fine arts and popular arts. One great example of this is in street performance. Since the mid-late 20th century, street arts have gained a great deal of respect amongst academic communities for their creativity, dynamism, and ability to pointedly interact with contemporary, political and social issues.

Street artists are becoming highly respected as performers

Street performances from acrobatics to music to miming have gained a new level of respect in the modern world. The artists in these performances often display virtuosic talent, as well as a high degree of flexibility and improvisational skills due to the unpredictable nature of working outdoors with uncontrolled settings. Each performance is therefore entirely unique in some way, as the setting is constantly changing.

Performance Art

Of course, for every somewhat popular form of art, we have to have strictly academic varieties as well. In this case, the answer to street art is a very avant-garde movement called performance art. Performance art is focused entirely on the act of artistic creation, as the artist becomes the artwork. Performance art can occur anywhere, but is rarely duplicated. Many artists choose to only do their performance a single time, like how a painter generally won't complete the same painting more than once.

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