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Improvisation in the arts

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M072-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Broadly defined as extemporaneous decision-making, improvisation has until recently been given scant attention by philosophers of art. The reasons for this are hard to pin down, but it is natural to connect such neglect to a view of the arts that focuses on the finished artistic product, as opposed to the process that generates it. Even more relevantly, while artistic improvisation is especially notable in the case of music, Western classical music assumes as central the composed work, identified through its score (some useful examples of Western disdain for musical improvisation are discussed in Hamilton 2020: 292). It was then natural for philosophers who reflected on this musical tradition to ignore or belittle improvisation. Once philosophers began to take an interest in jazz, a tradition that centrally involves improvisation, it became evident that some conceptual and normative questions are specific to improvised performance. In other art forms, twentieth-century innovations have also centrally involved a shift from an approach to artistic creation that values careful planning, to one that is open to spontaneous decision-making and chance (Sansom 2001).

Improvisation raises a variety of aesthetic and philosophical problems (see Bresnahan 2015). First, there are definitional concerns, as appeal to spontaneity is not always considered a satisfactory solution (see § 1.3). The aesthetic appreciation of improvised activity is another central concern, as our evaluation of it relies on criteria that only partly overlap with those we employ in the case of carefully planned works. Other questions include those about the collective nature of improvisation and its ethical dimension.

Philosophers working on artistic improvisation have devoted most of their attention to music. Claims about musical improvisation may be easily transposed to other performance arts, whereas improvisation in the non-performance arts, if it exists at all, is likely to differ significantly from the improvisation found in music, dance, or theatrical performance.

Citing this article:
Ravasio, Matteo. Improvisation in the arts, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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