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All Good Art is Escapism

Sunday, 25. September 2022 22:19

On a British television series that I watch, the detective asked a woman about the stack of books she was carrying. She said that it was her summer reading and the books were historical romances. “Escapism,” said the detective, and the woman agreed. The implication was that escapism is a lower form of literature. And that set me wondering which genres of literature were escapism and which were not. So I ran through as many genres as I could think of and discovered that all of them, except textbooks and some non-fiction, were to some degree escapism.

Since escapism is simply a “mental diversion form unpleasant or boring aspect of daily life, typically through activities involving imagination or entertainment,” it stands to reason that almost any written fictional work and some non-fiction would fit that definition. While not necessarily written as escapism, most books and short stories are designed to capture the imagination of the reader, to take them out of themselves and involve them in the world of the narrative for the duration of the read.  So whether or not they mean to, such works function as escapism.

And books that do not grab or continue to hold readers’ interest are simply set aside—unless there is some overriding reason for the reader to continue. So whatever their authors have to say will be lost to any potential readership.

But what about other arts? Obviously, performing arts function the same way, attempting to engage their audiences for the duration of the performances regardless of what message they are trying to get across. This is simply because if they cannot hold the audience’s interest, they will never convey their message. So directors, producers, showrunners, and choreographers work very hard to ensure audience involvement in their productions.

And other arts are much the same. Painters, photographers, and sculptors want their audiences to forget their lives for a moment and join with the artwork they are looking at, so that the artifact and the audience are the entire world for a moment or two—or perhaps longer. So, in addition to saying whatever they have to say, such artists work to make their pieces appealing, knowing that audience engagement is at least half the game.

So what does this mean to aspiring or working artists? It means that no matter how pithy our content, no matter how challenging our subject matter, no matter how important our message, what we have to say must be set into a form that is engaging and interesting to our audience. Otherwise, our audience will never hang on long enough to understand our full message. What we produce must be not only accessible to our audience, but engaging as well.

So we might take the time to study those works that are unabashedly labeled “escapism” to discover what techniques we can appropriate to use in our own projects in order to better engage and maintain audience interest. Our work will be the better for it, and our audiences will appreciate it.

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Aesthetics, Bigotry, or Something Else?

Sunday, 11. September 2022 20:54

Unless you are an aficionado of fantasy, you may not be aware of the two major video releases of 2022 fantasies: the live action version of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series on Netflix and the Amazon Prime series, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. And if you are not aware of these series, you probably are not aware of the controversies that followed their release. The controversies in both cases boil down to the same thing: fans are not happy with the changes that have been made to the characters in these works of fiction. And the changes in question seem to boil down to the same problem: people of color, although to be fair, there have been gender changes in Sandman which have also upset fans.

Never mind that Sandman casting was done with input from the creator of that work, Neil Gaiman. Never mind that the casting of The Rings of Power was done with input from Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien. Still, some fans are vocally unhappy; they are sure that these race and gender changes are completely uncalled for and pretty generally ruin the works that they love.

What are these “original” works that they love? In the case of the Sandman, it’s a graphic novel. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the originals were novels and stories, although many fans are basing their opinions on the film series by Peter Jackson in the very early 2000s.

The specific objections to Rings of Power are not limited to the introduction of non-white characters, but also include making the harfoots, prototypical hobbits, Irish who resemble 19th century cartoons, and minimal facial hair on female dwarves. The objections to The Sandman are similar; they include Death being played by a Black actress instead of a white Goth girl, Lucifer being played by a woman,  and Desire being played by a non-binary actor—and they look different from the comic book drawings.

Neil Gaiman has been quite active defending casting choices and reminding fans that his characters have taken many different forms and genders even in the comic series. Gaiman has also weighed in on the Rings of Power controversy as well. So now a number of fans on Twitter think he was one of the creators of Rings of Power, a series that he has no association with at all. His arguments point out the foibles of most of the critics, and those are many. Some have even tried to say that having people of color in Rings of Power is “historically inaccurate.” Gaiman has suggested that many have not actually read Tolkien.

But what is all this really about? Is it that a certain segment of vocal fans are simply bigoted? Is it that making gender and race changes in an established fictional world is offensive to the audience’s sense of aesthetics? Or is it just that any sort of change to a fiction solidly seated in an audience’s mind is unsettling?

To claim that change in an artwork is unacceptable is an untenable position, particularly while the artist is still active. There have been for example, a number of versions and editions of The Sandman, including both color and black and white graphic versions, film versions, and audio versions; Gaiman has been involved in several of these. Even when authors are no longer available, other artists often reimagine the fictions they have created—sometimes to great effect. The best example of this, of course, are the vast number of interpretations given to the works of Shakespeare, or works based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Certainly, we do not have to like all changes or all adaptations or all interpretations of an existing work, but when we do voice our dislike for something another artist has created or modified, we must be sure of our footing; we must be sure that our reasoning is solid and based on something other than bias. Just as we hope our audiences will stay open to our efforts, we must remain open to the work of others.

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Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55

Having just retired from my long-time day job, endings are very much on my mind: not only the ending of jobs and projects, but the endings that we craft for our creations, and the comparisons between the two.

Even though we all know that all things must come to an end, there are sometimes emotions attached to arriving at the end of a project (or a job), particularly if that project has held some great interest for us or has been especially difficult or especially rewarding or both. We may be happy that it is over, or the opposite, but we are likely to have feelings one way or the other. And these feelings may be complex: we can be both sad and happy at the same time over the same termination. How long these feelings may last is another issue: they may last minutes, hours, days, or weeks even, depending on the project and how attached we were to it.

Crafting endings for our audience is a different thing altogether. Every created work that is experienced through time must have an ending, and unfortunately, there are as many types of endings as there are types of stories, songs, plays, poems, or stories.

And endings are difficult. Obviously, the primary reason for the ending is to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. If pieces that I read and write are to serve as a guide, this is not as easy as it sounds, particularly with regard to short pieces. In fact, one of the last pieces I read came to an abrupt conclusion with a six-word sentence voicing a semi-philosophical statement; it was as though the author got to the end of what they had to say and simply tagged a short statement on the end so the reader wasn’t just left dangling. Authors are tasked with bringing the narrative to an end in a way that wraps up the piece and is aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Therein lies the problem. In my experience it is one of the more difficult tasks required of an author, particular if the work is not a formal academic paper of some sort.

Additionally, very often endings serve a twofold purpose: there may be loose ends to tie up. There may be a call to action of some kind to be embedded. There may be a sequel to set up. There may be any number of secondary purposes. This compounds the author’s problem in that they have to create an ending that satisfies the requirements of any ending plus insert the elements to accomplish the secondary goals as well, making the process all the more complicated.

And what do endings inside projects and the ending of projects have to do with each other? Simply that they both have to with wrapping things up and finding a stopping point, in one case for the author and in the other case for the audience. However, it should be clear that although they bear the same name, they are two entirely different processes, and have in common only that they come at the end of projects.

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

The Trouble with Taste

Sunday, 17. July 2022 22:35

A friend of mine, a professor of art, did an interesting experiment several years ago.  He had a book called The New Erotic Photography, which is essentially 591 pages of images that the editors, Dian Hanson and Eric Kroll, considered erotic. Looking through the book, he decided that some of the images were truly erotic and some were not. So he asked individual students to go through the book and place a sticky note on the pages with images that the students thought were genuinely erotic. Regardless of questions of propriety or the informal, unscientific nature of the experiment, the results were very interesting. Students marked 53 images. Only 14 pages were marked twice, 8 three times, and 1 four times; none were marked more than four times. Admittedly, there is no way to know the total number of students who participated in the experiment or, because of the limited number of colors of the sticky notes, how many images each particular student tagged.

I have done similar experiments myself: one with a book of paintings and sculptures, and one with photographs. The results were similar to the experiment that the professor ran. Only a few of the images really impacted me, and even fewer were sufficiently compelling that I would have hung them on my walls had they been available.

So what is the point of these stories? Probably something that most of us already knew: the appeal of art is unique and individual. Of course, there is some agreement on what makes a good painting or sculpture or photograph; otherwise any discourse about these arts would be impossible, but beyond that, deciding which art actually “speaks” to us is a very personal thing, conditioned by any number of variables unique to each individual, including, but certainly not limited to our sense of aesthetics, our experiences, our prejudices, and our sense of self.

Is it any wonder then that artists have such a difficult time earning a living from their art? The task of creating work that will appeal to a sufficient number of individuals enough for them to spend money to own that work is daunting at best and nearly impossible at worst—unless, of course, one is doing commissioned work. But in order to do commissioned work, one must become known. And that happens in any number of ways: making work and entering shows or contests or finding retail outlets that will handle work for a percentage of the sales, putting art on social media or any number of websites. Still the odds against making significant sales are quite steep.

Still artists have choices: they can modify their work to appeal to greater number of people, assuming they can figure out what will make their work more generally appealing. Or they can continue to make work that they want/need to make and hope that by targeting where they show it, they can reach an audience with similar taste.

Both paths have positives and negatives, and which path an artist chooses to take is strictly up to that artist. But the likes and dislikes of an audience must be taken into account in some way or the other if the artist is to be successful. And unfortunately, there are few formulas that will work because, as the old saying has it, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

Category:Audience, Marketing, Uncategorized | Comment (0) | Author:

Art Can Do That

Sunday, 8. May 2022 23:36

At one point in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is on a train headed to New York City opens a book and begins to read, “trying to forget who he is and where he is and what he’s doing for a little while.”  He succeeds. Books can do that. Books can take us into worlds that are fantastic or realistic or horrible or joyous or curious or delightful or romantic or…. When we read, particularly when we read fiction, we become completely lost to ourselves; our surroundings seem to cease to be. We ourselves seem to completely disappear, overtaken by action and characters and ideas in the world of the book. And that, very often, is completely wonderful.

The same sort of thing happens with plays and movies. We find our surroundings fade as we focus on the stage of screen, and fade further as we become interested in the characters and their behaviors that we find there. Then as the film or play progresses, we begin to disappear as our whole attention is focused on the characters’ development and the unfolding plot. And once again we have been removed from out every-day existence in our every-day world and immersed in a fantasy or a war or a mystery or an intrigue radically unlike our own lives.

Music transports us in slightly different ways. When we read or watch movies or plays, our bodies are passive, however, in the presence of music, our bodies very often are moving to the rhythm of the music, whether that movement is tapping our feet, moving our hands to the beat, or giving our whole body over the musical experience. Regardless, we still have many of the same responses. Our self-awareness is diminished; our thoughts turn from ourselves and our every-day worries to a complete oneness with the music. There may be visual aspects as well as aural to complete our engagement with the performance, so that all of our senses are completely focused on the event.

But how about arts that are more static, such as paintings, photography, and sculpture? We find that much the same thing can happen. We can get lost in a piece of static art just as surely and completely as we can in a more dynamic piece. Whether it’s the use of color or line that engrosses us or the composition or the detail, each piece of visual or plastic art has its own appeal, and many pieces have such an appeal that we need to spend some time with them. It’s why galleries and museums have strategically placed benches—so we can be comfortable while we are contemplating the work on display. It’s quite easy for many of us to become so absorbed in a photograph or sculpture or painting or drawing that we momentarily lose the use of our unoccupied senses and even become temporarily detached from our immediate environment.

It’s one of the undeniable appeals of art: the facility for involving us completely, for taking us, at least temporarily, out of ourselves. Most of us appreciate a respite from our everyday lives, no matter how pleasant or rewarding our actual lives may be, and art provides not only an escape but completely engaging experience that often returns us to the real world more enriched than when we left it.

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The Art is Not the Artist

Sunday, 10. April 2022 23:32

Serendipitously, in the middle of a conversation about “terrible people” making good art, I received a text telling me that playwright director David Mamet was/is a supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, Mamet had done an interview with Bill Maher, and his political leanings, of which I had known for some time, came as a surprise to many people. Clearly, one of these was the person texting me, who is an outspoken liberal, and who was using this discovery to put Mamet into the category of “terrible people,” or at the very least, “terribly misguided people.”

Of course, the judgement that anyone is a terrible anything is subjective. It depends first on the judge’s point of view. To some, a person’s political leanings make them terrible. For others, it’s their behavior. Equally subjective is the definition of what constitutes terrible beliefs or actions. Third is the assumption that the judge has the “correct” view of what is right and wrong, what is desirable and what is not. And fourth, of course, is another assumption: that the judge has all the information on the subject at hand.

Once we’ve gotten past the subjective areas of such judgement, the question of the proper response comes up. We all know that one of the most frequent responses is the knee-jerk response to “cancel” the individual in question. For example, in the case of Mamet, a number of commenters to the Tweet said that they could no longer watch his films or plays because of this new knowledge. Some even said that this knowledge changed the meaning of his work which was created long before his political views shifted to the right.

We incorporated this “new” information into our conversation and continued. We discussed instances where really excellent art was produced by people that most would consider “terrible.” The facts of the artist’s life did not really impact the art work itself. In fact, in most instances, the personal proclivities were not apparent in the work at all. The conclusion was that it is probably better to try to separate the art and the artist, and that while neither of us would condone nor excuse bad behavior, once the art was created, it was no longer part of the artist. Therefore, it should be evaluated on its own merits rather than as an appendage to the “terrible person” who created it.

Separating the art and the artist is, of course, easier to do with artists who produce physical artifacts: plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, film. In the case of actors and performers, the separation is much more difficult, since the artifact and the artist are inseparable. Additionally, there seems to be a difference between artists who integrate their bad behavior with the work process, and those whose objectionable conduct happens away from the creative process.

It also seems that society is much more likely to forgive transgressions if the artist involved is dead. Also it seems that the further removed in time society is from the artist and the transgression, the easier it is to overlook terrible behavior. It turns out that a number of revered past artists were terrible by many standards, and society, which is quick to cancel contemporary artists who exhibit bad behavior, simply looks the other way in hindsight.

This is not a simple issue. It must take into account the art, the artist, current society, as well as the observer/judge’s own beliefs and biases. There may be no right answer. I am convinced, however, that the art and the artist are not the same and that to judge one in terms of the other is to do both a great disservice. And even after we separate the art and the artist, we must respond to both; how we do that is up to each individual and depends on who we are and how we relate to both the artist and what they create.

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

The Sensitivity Police

Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

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Be Prepared to Pivot—Again—and Again

Sunday, 15. August 2021 22:00

Counting from March, 2019, we are now half way through the second year of the COVID pandemic, which unfortunately, in the US, is becoming increasingly politicized. At one end of the spectrum, some theatres in Washington, DC, and various concert artists are requiring proof of vaccination, masks, or a negative COVID test for audience members. At the other, venues in Texas are forbidden by the state government from requiring any sort of proof of vaccination to the point that restaurants have been threatened with revocation of their liquor licenses if they require patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

What does this mean for live theatre, for the arts in general? Nobody knows. In states where mask or vaccination requirements are forbidden, will audiences be comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre? Will audience response be what the production needs in theatres where the audience is socially distanced? Will patrons feel comfortable mingling in art shows, with or without masks? Is there really any way to know who is really vaccinated and who is not? How will all this impact the world of art, in all of its aspects?

The answer, of course, is that no one knows. And beyond that, the question becomes what is the correct response for the art world. No one knows the answer to that question either. Some theatres are trying to come back with live theatre; others are honing their online production skills. Some are trying to do both. It’s all a balancing act (and it’s going on in arts other than theatre). Those who are going live are trying to figure out how the audience will respond to whatever restrictions. Those who are online are discovering that the best way to do online production is to turn theatre into cinema.

And what of departments and schools of theatre? Does anyone want to train in a field, the future of which is so uncertain? Again, nobody knows.

What we do know is that theatres, art galleries, arts schools and departments must be ready to reevaluate their practices if they are to survive. They must have alternative plans in place and be ready to pivot to any of those plans on a moment’s notice.

In the words of Shakespeare, “The readiness is all”—because there is no “normal” any more—not even a “new normal.” Every day is new territory. We are now in a time when what we have learned in the past is of little value, because today’s present is so very different, and the old rules and ideas simply do not apply.

So what do we in the arts world do? We become agile. We become prepared to pivot—on a moment’s notice, in any of a number of directions—because we cannot be guided by the past. And not only that, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. There is no research to support our decisions. All we can do is make our best guess. Some organizations and individuals have already guessed wrong. That’s okay, because if they are nimble and can pivot, they can correct their courses, and make better decisions going forward.

The world is different than it ever has been, particularly for live performance. If we are to survive, we must be ready and willing to pivot.

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More Thoughts on the Artist/Audience Relationship

Sunday, 20. June 2021 23:17

The relationship between the artist and the audience is a complicated one. If the audience is really a collaborator in the work of art, then it behooves the artist to take that into account. But how do artists do that?  It much depends on the artist.

This relationship is perhaps better understood if we talk about the performing arts. At one end of the spectrum are producers who are interested primarily in income. These producers mount productions and make movies that are calculated to, above all else, make money. Thus we get the annual stage productions of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker ballets. This is the same reason we get the 10th sequel of whatever film franchise pulls in the most consumer dollars. At the other end of the spectrum we get shoestring theatre companies who produce bleeding edge stage work that appeals to a very tiny audience. In dance, we get productions that appeal to a very limited clientele, and in film we get Jim Jarmusch.

This latter group of producers seems to not care about their audiences, but my intuition is that they care very much, but are not driven by greed. Rather they would prefer to exchange potential income for more artistic freedom. Please understand that this group is not superior to the first group; it’s just that they have different artistic goals. And members of each group can be successful—or not—on their own terms. Each can be said to have, in the words of Seth Godin, found their tribe.

There are also those producers who fall somewhere between the extremes, trying to produce works of artistic vision but, at the same time, maximize the audience and therefore the income. These are more or less successful depending on the approach of the producers and the production content.

The same sort of breakdown applies to other media. So no matter whether we are writers, photographers, painters, sculptors, or composers, we must make decisions about our goals in creating art, and also about the audience we would like to reach. As noted above, these are very much intertwined, perhaps inseparably. This is not intuitive; we more often come to creating art as an inner need, often not thinking about the audience until later, and then the question often generates confusion because it implies needs other than the urge to create. Making such decisions can, however, lead to far less frustration on our part when we discover our work appeals to a group different from the group we hoped, even though we were not consciously aware of that hope.

So we might want spend some time thinking about that potential audience we are creating for—if we haven’t already. One of the things that we are likely to find is that knowing who that audience is influences the work that we produce. If we are producing work aimed at the general consumer market, we are likely to produce a very different artifact than if we are making art for a very specific like-minded audience. Again, one choice is not necessarily better than the other, just different. However, if we are to really involve our audience in the collaborative art experience, and perhaps guide that collaboration, we would do well to know who our audience really is.

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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

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