Post from June, 2015

Seeing with New Eyes

Monday, 29. June 2015 0:04

One of the most difficult things that artists have to do is to look at their work with new eyes every time they review what they’ve done. While we might get away without doing this in the creation phase, it’s an absolute must in the editing phase of making our art. If we don’t bring new eyes to our work, we miss things, we wander off in nonproductive directions, only to wonder later how we missed this or that or the other thing. The explanation is simple; we didn’t see it.

Although I have tried to train myself to look with fresh eyes, I recently failed to see what was right in front of me. Another photographer for whom I have a great deal of respect offered a critique of one of my latest photography projects. He said that he thought the work looked “forced” (although he was not quite satisfied with that word). He is of the opinion that no matter how much time and preparation goes into the making of a photograph, the result should look effortless, an idea that I agree with and have written about. He went on to say that all of my work that he had seen up until this point had had that quality of effortlessness, but this project did not.

And he was right. I had had so much trouble with the project that I wrote about it, but thought that I had resolved it. And even though I thought that I had found the right new forms for this undertaking, I had known that something was not quite right with a number of the finished pieces. I had no idea, however, what that something was. He told me—at least what he thought. The conversation caused me to go back to my other work and examine it in a new light—never a bad idea. Once I had done that, it was easy to see what he was talking about with regard to this project.

Although I hardly ever think of apparent effortlessness as a separate component, I do think that is a quality of good art. I therefore try to make it a part of all my work. In this instance, I failed to do that. So then I had to deal with the why of that. And the why was that the project had been so difficult, had required the development of completely new structures, that I was ready to sign off on it before it was really done. Otherwise, I would not have had that uneasy feeling that something was not quite right.

The feeling was correct; something wasn’t quite right, but I was so ready to close the file on the project that I missed it. In this case, I needed someone outside myself to see with new eyes. Once he had done this and told me what he saw, it was glaringly obvious. The project is not finished.

All of this could have been avoided had I not gotten so wrapped up in the difficulty of the project that I forgot to look with new eyes. And that cannot be. If one is to produce really good art, one must approach the work at every session with fresh eyes.

It’s why we put things away before we put things away before we edit them—to give ourselves time to forget a little so it’s easier to look with fresh eyes in the editing process. And it’s certainly not true just for photography. No matter what medium we work in, we must approach our work daily with new eyes—if for no other reason than to insure that our vision is being properly realized. If it’s not, we need to stop and fix it. It’s not easy; it sometimes requires great effort. The results, however, are worth it.

Category:Creativity, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Art Must Be Important

Sunday, 14. June 2015 23:46

Tennessee Williams, in an interview with James Grissom, said “Of course art should be about something big. Something terribly big must be at stake. I don’t see this anymore. Our art is becoming terribly polite and apologetic, much like us. It slinks away like a sagging breast, empty of milk or promise or comfort.”

If you have read or seen the plays of Williams, you know that “something big” does not necessarily mean big in the sense of news or nations. He really means big in terms of the human condition, or big to the playwright himself or his audience. We might substitute the word important and be closer to what Williams really meant. Something really important must be at stake. Art should be about something important. Absolutely.

If something is important, it generally means that the artist feels strongly about it. And if the artist feels strongly he/she may create art that has sufficiently strength to offend someone. Sadly, society has, at least in the US, come to believe that not being offended is a right. Williams did the interview in 1982; if anything, it’s worse today—at least in some parts of the country.

If you haven’t run across this issue, you only have to look as far as your local collegiate theatre department. Those of us in educational theatre deal with this every day; for example, we worry about how the plays we select will be received, not in terms of message or in terms of artistry, but in terms of offense to certain segments of the audience. You may find that silly, but when funding relies on public monies and when administration is sensitive to community complaints, it becomes a real concern.

This also happens in the commercial sector. I recall several discussions with independent producers who are constantly self-censoring their selection of material because of concern with offending sponsors and potential donors.

And it happens in arts other than theatre, both in educational and commercial sectors. A friend who is a photographer recently had two pieces rejected by two different galleries (which had previously shown his work) as “too controversial.” There are many artists, visual and otherwise, who would love to hear that their work was too controversial; it would be validation that they were doing the right thing with their art, that their art said something, that their art was important. The downside, of course, is that the work doesn’t get shown, at least in those venues who eschew controversial work, which is the majority of venues.

So we self-censor; a multimedia artist told me recently that she modifies her content based on whether she is making the work to sell or for herself. Williams would not have approved; he railed against self-censorship in the same interview: “When did we become so small and so apologetic? Why do we apologize for our humanity? Love what you love, and make no apologies. This is your identity. The most horrendous suspensions of freedom are self-imposed. We imprison ourselves daily, hourly.”

Admittedly, it’s much safer to make trivial, non-controversial art, but perhaps safe is not the best choice, at least if we think even a little like Williams. We need to quit making polite, apologetic art and instead have the courage make our art about something important.

Category:Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

The Modern Audience: Two Approaches

Monday, 1. June 2015 0:05

Much has been written about the place of live theatre in the contemporary world. Part of what is interesting about that topic is the artist-audience connection in the 21st century. Two things have brought this to mind recently. The first was an article in The Telegraph about award-winning playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard. In the article, Stoppard complained that he had to rewrite a scene in his newest play, The Hard Problem, three times “making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.” He says that over the last 40 years the audience’s knowledge of Shakespearean drama (to which Stoppard makes constant references) has steadily declined to the point that such knowledge is almost non-existent. For Stoppard this is a devastating turn of events.

The second incident was Kneehigh’s recent production of Tristan & Yseult as part of the Alley Theatre’s 2014-15 season. This production was arguably the best piece of theatre to have been presented in the Houston area for a number of years, yet many potential audience members chose not to attend. Some that I talked to said they had planned to skip the production simply because of the title; some because of the description: a tale of an ancient Cornish love triangle, the same love triangle that appears with different names in the literature of many different cultures and countries, classic and archetypal in every way.

Like Stoppard, most artists give meaning to their work through reference and allusion both consciously and subconsciously, and most assume that their audiences will “get it.” If they don’t, a large part of the complexity of the work will be lost, and even though the work may be engaging, even entertaining, it will not be perceived in its complete fullness, with all the overtones and undertones.

What happens when the audience does not have the classical education to understand the references and allusions in the production? Stoppard’s choice is to rewrite and dumb it down.

Tristan & Yseult, on the other hand, was in no way dumbed-down. Audiences did not have to have a classic education to understand and appreciate the show. Such an education enriched the experience, but was completely unnecessary, because the creative team moved past verbal allusions and, incorporating broad references to both historical and modern western culture, employing not only acting, but music, dance, and elements of circus. This group brought a very old mythic, archetypal story to a very new audience with all the meaning and immediacy that is possible. In fact, Theatermania said that the show was “a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you’ll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.”

While we might take issue with an educational system that leaves an audience ignorant of Shakespeare and other classics, the fact is that today’s audiences lack that background. This lack of classic education and inability to grasp allusions and references is not something that impacts only dramatic arts. Serious visual and plastic artists must deal with it as well.

And there are choices in how we, as artists, deal with it. We can, like Stoppard, rewrite and dumb-down things until the audience “gets it,” or, like Kneehigh, find new ways to present material that connects today’s audience directly to meaning, regardless of how classical or archetypal that might be.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

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