Post from October, 2018

Oh, I See What You Did There

Monday, 29. October 2018 0:39

Earlier this week, I watched the last episode of the third season of The Man in the High Castle. Immediately I thought of what a good job they did setting up Season 4, which will undoubtedly begin with explanations of some of the questions raised by this episode. A bit later I realized that the writers and showrunners had also set up an ending that could also serve as an ending of the series if that should be the way the winds blew at Amazon Studios. Somehow these artists had managed to wrap up Season 3 with an all-purpose ending, which only speaks to their level of skill and artistry.

Much the same sort of thing could be said about the very last episode of The Americans, which I watched earlier this year. While the episode was decidedly the end of the series and nearly a perfect ending at that, there were enough questions left unanswered that could be developed into at least three spin-offs. Again, the artistry and skill levels were of the highest.

Then I began to wonder how these shows impacted their intended audiences. What I mean is that I, like all artists trained in the US, and unlike the intended audience for these television shows, have spent hours analyzing works of art. It’s something I teach my students to do. We dissect plays to see how they work, how the characters are constructed, how the plot is put together, why the ending works—or doesn’t.

As far as I know, other arts do the same. Visual artists analyze the work of older artists to determine exactly what it is that causes them to be great. Musicians learn much the same thing—how the structure of a musical piece works, how the melody resolves itself to lead to listener satisfaction. Photographers certainly do it, eager to determine the lighting and composition plans, determined to understand why a photograph works on the emotional level that it does. We want to know not only what the artist did but how s/he achieved whatever it was that s/he achieved.

And then it becomes habit. We cannot experience a work of art without analyzing. And this is particularly true if the work is not of the highest quality. Even the smallest interruption to engagement causes those of us who are trained to start wondering why we are disengaged, and from that point on we shift into full analysis mode. The outstanding production values and quality of acting in the two television shows mentioned allowed me to hold my analysis until those episodes were over. Otherwise, I would have begun evaluation while the show was going on, further distancing myself from the work.

The point of this, you ask? The point is the acknowledgement that we will never view art in the same way as our audience, who, for the most part, are not trained to analyze and evaluate art the same way we are. Absent training in appreciation, analysis et al, they are likely to see something far different from what we see. Knowing this, we must be very careful in evaluating our own work and establishing the criteria we use to judge what pieces we put before an audience.

Because we know what we did and how we did it, we must return to the piece again and again with new eyes, delaying analysis so we can see what the audience is likely to see thereby to better judge the audience’s reaction. Then we can use that information to make our work even better.

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

Ambiguity in Art, Part 2*

Monday, 15. October 2018 1:12

In his book, Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that at the end of the silent era, successful American movies followed six rules, one of which was that movies should be comprehensible and unambiguous. But times change. Now we have sound, and color, and more than a handful of ambiguous movie endings. And if you look at any of the lists, you will discover that these are very well-known and respected movies. Things seem to have changed.

And this change is not just a recent phenomenon. Many critics consider the ending of Casablanca to be at least a little ambiguous. Going even farther back, the enigmatic and ambiguous smile in the 515-year–old Mona Lisa still intrigues scholars and critics today. As a matter of fact, the more we look, the more ambiguity we find in art. For example, most of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano rely on ambiguity, as do the sculptures of John Chamberlain. Sally Mann’s photography can be ambiguous, and so can the work of Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen can be filled with ambiguity.

So while ambiguity exists in much art and has for centuries, it certainly isn’t found in all art, probably not in a majority of art. My guess would be that ambiguity would found in only a small minority of art works. (Look at how few movies endings are marked as “ambiguous.”) One can speculate that there are two reasons for this: (1) the majority of audience members still expect art to follow Robert Henry Stanley’s rule and be “comprehensible and unambiguous.” Things are easier that way: the audience members know exactly what the artist means and often express their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

(2) The other reason that ambiguity is found in a minority of art works is that ambiguity is difficult to do and must be controlled. If the artist is not careful, ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness and confusion, which is not at all appealing. So ambiguity in art must be handled delicately so that just enough comes through to the audience members to make them think and talk about the work, but not so much that the work becomes obscure.

Am I suggesting that we find a way to introduce ambiguity into our art (if it isn’t already there)? I think that depends on the artist’s goals. If the artist is interested in selling as many pieces as possible or making a very strong statement, perhaps not. Americans seem to spend more for art that is unambiguous. Clint Eastwood’s movies are not ambiguous. Banksy is not ambiguous, nor is Neil Simon. These artists are very direct and do very good work. They have been rewarded by their audiences.

If, on the other hand, the artist wants to let the audience member participate a little more, s/he might be less direct, perhaps leave things in the gray rather than black and white by introducing some controlled ambiguity. It may not make the work better, but it will make it start different sorts of conversations and appeal to a different audience, albeit a minority.

So it comes down to how the artist wants his/her work perceived and to which audience s/he want to appeal. And while I am a fan of ambiguity in art, I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for all sorts of art or in all situations. So I think the artist must take into consideration the sort of art he is making and the audience for whom s/he is making it.

 

*”Part 1” was entitled “Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art” and can be found here.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

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