Pablo Helguera, an artist, performer, and author, is director of adult and academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In the visual arts the term score is borrowed from music to refer to a predetermined series of physical, verbal, or musical actions conceived by an artist and meant to be reinterpreted. The relationship between musical composition and the visual arts has been strong since the beginning of the avant-garde, and many visual artists based their aesthetic ideas on musical concepts. Vassily Kandinsky was directly inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality to construct his approach to abstract art, looking to find equivalents between visual composition and musical structures.1 Artists like Kurt Schwitters further adapted the analogy of the musical composition to create verbal/sound experiments, such as the Ursonate. Starting in the post–World War II period, the American composer John Cage emerged as one of the most original and influential catalysts of the use of the score, introducing ideas of indeterminacy and combining symbolic gestures and other instructions with the traditional format of the concert score. Cage was influenced by (and became influential to) Japanese composers who were also experimenting with carrying out musical scores as a series of indeterminate actions. His approach to the score, either by example or through his teaching, influenced other artists, such as Allan Kaprow, whose happenings don’t follow a score per se but initially were loosely scripted. Fluxus artists, also influenced by Cage’s experiments, enthusiastically embraced the format of the score and made it a staple, along with the concert format of their performative activities.
The creation of a performance score in an artwork usually means that the work is not entirely ephemeral; the existence of a score means that it can be re-created or reinterpreted either by the artist himself or by a third party. In this sense the score becomes both a form of documentation and preservation of an artistic idea and a relatively flexible structure that usually allows a certain degree of interpretation of the work.
In the area of visual performance art, the score has become a crucial tool for structuring a composition, often becoming a conceptual scaffolding that provides focus and direction to a given performative work. Furthermore, scores in the visual arts have been taken to realms outside their traditional existence as published or written description; they can also exist as a verbal agreement (as for Tino Sehgal) or a loose set of instructions (as in some Fluxus pieces). Further to be explored is the notion of the social score—the process by which, as artists merge life with art, social behavior becomes an extension of the structured/scripted artwork.2