It’s the Audience, not the Artist

Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct argues that in fiction there is a “communicative transaction between reader and author.” Citing Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” Hazel Dooney presents a very different view, maintaining that “a creator’s role is to produce and neither to explain nor to try to control the response to their work. It’s the reader (or viewer or listener) who gives it meaning through their individual interpretation,” a notion which is also explained here.

While I cannot argue with Dutton’s assertion that the author is “trying to control the show—the interpretation of characters, their actions, and the events that befall them,” I must agree with Dooney when she says “Even if people understand the concept of a work, their interpretations and deeper, emotional responses are always at a remove from the creator’s.”  My experience is that both are correct.

For example, in a recent rehearsal of a musical, an associate and I were discussing how an actress rendered a particular song. He was struck by the intensity of the piece while I was concerned that she had missed the feeling of the piece entirely, and, being the director, made a note to correct the problem. For a time I was convinced that our differences were caused by our differing functions on the show, but I came to realize that it was just that we, because of our different experiences, backgrounds, and internal reference materials, had interpreted what we saw very differently.

I have experienced similar reactions with audience members. Sometimes I am able to see their point of view and sometimes I wonder what show they have seen, because it wasn’t the same show that I saw, and it certainly wasn’t the one that I directed.

So what has all of this got to do with anything? All that holds true for fiction according to Dutton and Barthes and all that holds true for theatre according to my experience holds true for all arts. We make photographs and paintings and sculptures and collages and write haikus and novels and short stories and we have no idea how they will be received. We have no clue whether our audience will “get it” or not. We will attempt, in Dutton’s words, “by persuading, manipulating, wheedling, planting hints, adopting a tone” to control the audience’s response. We will fail.

There are simply too many factors outside our ability to control. There is all the stuff going on in the audience’s mind when they encounter our work. There is the experience of the audience, their education, their belief structure, their aesthetic. There is all of that and more. There are ins and outs and corners and nuances that we could not possibly know about or plan for when we built our art.

And no clever titles, explanations, artist statements, biographies, statements of philosophies will ever convey to them exactly the interpretation that we think they ought to give our work. Dooney has said that’s not our job, and she’s right.

We make our art and it is what it is. No matter how much we try to “control the show,” we will always fall short. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying. It just means that we must recognize that the audience brings its own baggage to the party. Our work will always be viewed through someone else’s filters, interpreted in ways that we cannot imagine. Things we have been careful to insert will be missed; things we had not consciously intended will be seen. It will always be so.

The best that we can do is to continue working to create our visions, to manipulate the materials so as to minimize misunderstanding, to make our work sufficiently clear that our message is unmistakable. Then stand out of the way.

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Date: Sunday, 13. March 2011 23:45
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Creativity, Theatre

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