Why is it important to study the different periods and performance venues in the arts?
When you are studying any form of performance art, you are studying something that is embedded in a context. Without knowing something about that period and context, it is difficult to understand a work of art.
One of the major difficulties with studying performance is that, paradoxically, with a very limited number of exceptions, we are not actually studying the performance. For example, when you study Antigone in a classroom, you are reading a book containing an English translation of a Greek text. Antigone, however, was not written in English and was experienced by its original audience not as a text but as a performance. If you watch a video of Antigone, you are experiencing a medium that was invented over 2,000 years after the death of the playwright Sophocles. Moreover, 21st century interpretations may be very different from the original staging. Many of the gender issues in both ancient and Elizabethan drama were affected by the fact that female characters were played by male actors.
Even if your interest is only in contemporary performance theory, many of the traditions of modern performance are grounded in historical traditions. For example, it is difficult to understand the notion of "breaking the fourth wall" unless you have a sense of how the proscenium arch evolved and the development first of realism in drama and then the rebellion against it.
The "arts" can be understood as a loose humanities term that encapsulates dance, theater, music, opera, the visual arts, and many other disciplines and mediums. While it is important to define the arts as a whole, definitions of the arts are derived from the venues, artists, and movements that have occurred throughout the history of the arts.
Historians create their narratives of art forms, whether it be Japanese theater or country music, by looking at the movements and venues that have defined them. For example, hip hop cannot be understood without looking at the city of New York, as well as the venues and block parties that allowed the art form to flourish in the 1970s.
In summary, periods and performance venues are important to study because they are the points of reference used to describe the arts. Discussing periods and performance venues when discussing the arts allows a tangible and grounded conversation, as opposed to a vague and general conversation.
As we attempt to piece together the human story, it is imperative that we study the way humanity has presented performance. Venues created for performance have altered throughout time and culture sometimes for historical, religious, social, or even political reasons. In recent history movie theaters have gone from grand theatrical style houses to stadium-seated multiplexes. We can track economic changes, architectural development, public tastes, and invention by studying such a shift. Theater spaces constructed by the Ancient Greeks differ from the various types of theater space we have today. By studying different periods in performance history we can find out what was important to the people of any given time. For instance, in England, religious plays known as mystery plays predominated the medieval period. When not presenting in a church, performers traveled using portable venues known as pageant wagons to spread Christianity and stamp out Paganism from place to place. As cities grew, performance areas became more permanent and elaborate. When entertainment rather than calling to the gods or spreading the Word became the center of performance during the secular movement of the Renaissance, theatrical houses became as elaborate as they were for the Greeks who made performance central to their entire culture. It is easy to piece together our story when we track performance and the spaces used to present it as nearly every culture puts value on its art.
Artists influence each other. Within a particular context, such as Paris during the early modernist period, artists of a generation often have contact with each other (or at least each others' works); this works across artistic media as well as within a particular medium. For example, Gertrude Stein spent a lot of time in Picasso's studio, sitting for the portrait he made of her shortly before he developed cubism. While we will never know the content of their conversations, Stein's writing changed at this point as did Picasso's painting.
Not only do artists of a generation influence each other, but artists are also influenced by previous generations, whether in carrying on certain traditions or choosing to rebel against a set of traditions. In order to understand Brahms' symphonies, we need to understand Bach because Brahms very much appreciated Bach's approach to composition and used some of his techniques. In order to understand Bach, we need to be aware of Renaissance music and the limitations of its approach to acoustics that Bach addressed in his series of pieces called "The Well-Tempered Clavier."
Contexts are critical, too. For example, prior to the invention of the camera, one of the main purposes of painting was to preserve an image, whether of a person, a landscape, and so forth. Painters worked on their ability to depict a scene with accuracy. Following the invention of the camera, painting was freed from the need to be visually accurate and painters became more able to explore all the possibilities of the medium. It is no coincidence that modernism arose so shortly after the camera. Painters such as Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp began to explore the limits of representation and other painters such as Kandinsky discarded representation for the creation of abstract works.
In short, artists "stand on the shoulders of giants," to quote Isaac Newton; in order to understand their work, artists need to understand the giants. In order to participate in the art world, as well, aspiring artists need to understand why things are as they are so they can make choices about their contributions to this world. And, in order to appreciate art fully, aficionados need also to have knowledge about art history. The shorter answer to this question, and probably the best one, is that learning about the history of various art forms is inherently interesting because artists' lives have as much to teach us about being human as their works.