Leave Room for the Audience

Early this week, in a discussion about art and creativity, I heard myself say, “I think art should be like holding up a mirror to give the audience something to reflect off of. “ During the remainder of the week I gave that statement a lot of thought—trying to decide if was really true.

In an earlier post I wrote about being a bit surprised about the variety of responses to my photography. Admittedly, my photography is abstract and pretty ambiguous. My photography is not about telling a story; rather, it is about making suggestions. There are two goals: (1) to make the best piece I possibly can, given the tools and materials at my disposal, and (2) to give the audience something that resonates— not necessarily something with which they will be able to identify, but something which in some way “reflects” them, i.e. something that provides a reflective surface that allows them to see something they need to see and feel something they need to feel.

This is not to say that there is no place for work that is literal and concrete. This is, of course, the basis for all photojournalism, where ambiguity is decidedly out of place. And I also do work that is both literal and concrete—theatre work. My feeling is that with dramatic art, the clearer the story is and the more definitive the character delineation is, the more the audience is able to become involved, and with that involvement move past the literal and into the figurative, symbolic, and suggestive, and thus find that which resonates.

Nor is this to say that the artist must suggest rather than make strong statements. Each artist needs to say whatever he/she needs to say and in whatever way will give the idea or feeling best expression. Rather, it is to say that the artist should leave some room for the audience—allowing them a part in their interaction with the work.

The fact is that meaning in art is a collaborative exercise. The artist certainly creates the work, but in the best art, the audience contributes as well. While there is general agreement on the message or meaning of a work, full meaning is finally a highly individual thing. Each audience member brings to the artwork his/her own experiences and feelings and desires and walks away from a piece of art or a performance with a unique feeling of what the work is about.

This notion was reinforced in the Rothko Chapel earlier today. The friend who was with me remarked, “I love to watch people when they visit here because it’s impossible for them not to have a reaction.” And those reactions are amazingly varied. Rothko leaves room for the audience, and he does it over and over again—in all his work. Some love his work; others hate it, but hardly anyone has no reaction, whether about the pieces in the Chapel, or elsewhere. While I have no doubt that Rothko was definitive about what he was putting on the canvas, what we now see is, in part, what he put there and what we bring to it. Good art, I think, works that way.

Some artists are aware that the audience incorporates its experience into its reaction to the artwork and strive to manipulate what that audience thinks and feels with regard to the work; others concentrate on putting themselves into the work and are insulted when the audience doesn’t see their meaning. My feeling is that we, as artists, should be aware of the nature of the audience/artifact interaction and at least consider what the audience might bring to the work, and subsequently take away. We might even try to facilitate that interaction.

Date: Sunday, 7. April 2013 23:29
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