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Honing Your Edgy

Monday, 10. August 2015 0:12

Edgy, in terms of art, is one of those words that fall into the I-can’t-define-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it categories. Since the term has come up in conversation recently, I thought I would seek some definitions. Here are a few: “new and unusual in a way that is likely to make some people uncomfortable;” “Applied to books, music, or even haircuts which tend to challenge societal norms and reveal the dark side. Cutting edge;” “things, behaviors or trends which are provocative or avant-garde.Edgy seems to have connotations that go further than those associated with cutting edge, generally defined as “forefront; lead.”

Both Charles Bukowski and Edward Albee have been called edgy, and both have earned that label. Albee has always exceeded contemporary norms for playwriting. When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit the stage in 1962, much of the talk was about how edgy it was; when it was released as a film in 1966, it was considered to be “pushing the envelope both in terms of language and content.” When the play was revived on Broadway in 2005, some of the language was updated, e.g. “Screw you!” changed to “Fuck you!”—probably to reflect the times and keep the play as edgy as it could be 43 years after it was initially performed.

Bukowski, so far as I can determine, did nothing that was not edgy. In fact, edginess seems to have informed almost everything he thought or said publicly. For example:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

Bukowski was talking about poetry in a magazine he had run across, but he could have been talking about any form of art. While Albee is much more reserved in the advice he offers, Bukowski encourages, almost demands that artists be edgy: “Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick…We must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary.”

So what, if anything, does that mean to the individual artist? An artist certainly does not have to produce edgy work. An artist can produce work with very round edges if he/she wants. Some would say that Thomas Kinkade did exactly that and made a great deal of money in the process. Again, such an approach is not limited to painting or poetry or any particular medium; it rather is a philosophy of what art is really about and what it should do.

If an artist decides that he/she agrees with Bukowski and really wants to produce work that will be avant-garde, provocative and perhaps dark, it is certainly his/her prerogative. The trouble is that when the artist steps completely out of the safe zone and goes too far, he/she can lose any potential audience. And that is a risk some artists are willing to take. But if an artist wants to produce edgy work and still have an audience, then he/she will have to produce work that goes almost too far.

Deciding how far to go and still produce honest work can be challenging, but worthwhile. For example, in the past my photographic work has tended toward the subtle; recently I have begun to experiment with edgy. Whether these experiments will alter my overall body of work remains to be seen, but I have certainly found the experience valuable. Based on that, I would encourage you to give  a try, or at least think about giving it a try. Of course, the most difficult part will be deciding how far to go and exactly where the line is between too far and not far enough.edgy

Good luck.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

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) | Autor:

Where is the Line?

Monday, 9. February 2015 1:10

Some artists have been told in school that their work is “too commercial.” Some have been told their work is “not sufficiently polished,” which is another way of saying that it is “not commercial enough.” Ultimately, most artists do what they want to do and try to express their inner vision. But somewhere down the road, they decide that selling to an audience wider than friends and family seems desirable, and unless they have already established a practice that produces salable artifacts, they may be faced with the decision on which direction to take their work. Advice is always forthcoming—often from many directions and with zero consistency.

The questions confronting an artist in that situation are always which direction, if any, to go and how far. And exactly where is that line that indicates that he/she has gone too far?

These are questions that producers of both film and the theatre know well, as do other theatre and film artists. Playwrights, actors, and directors all want to do edgy work. If the work is too bland, it won’t be appealing to the artists. On the other hand, general audiences want material with which they are comfortable, and that usually means less edge. If the audience gets too much edge, they close their pocketbooks.

One might think that the solution is to find a niche audience, and that does help for some artists, but regardless of the size or specificity of the interests of the audience, these questions must still be answered.

These questions are just the beginning; others follow: how much, if any, am I willing to change what I’m doing? Will the potential change still allow me to say what I need to say? Will it allow me to better say what I have to say? Will a change really benefit me as an artist? Am I selling out?

Of course “selling out” is not really selling out. What it really means is “trying to reach a wider audience.” This sometimes means the artist modifies what he/she does in order to do that. This happens often with bands. The band signs with a label and suddenly are faced with the prospect of a larger audience. They play larger venues. They record in a different studio with a different producer. They may develop different concerns. Somehow their work is no longer “pure” in the eyes of their old audience. The band probably thinks it is just trying to reach more people with its music.

And the ultimate question, of course, is “where is the line?” and that is a question with many dimensions: where is the line that separates “real” art and “commercial” art? Where is the line between “real” art and self-indulgence? Where is the line between staying true to oneself and “selling out?” Where is the line between “just enough” and “too much?”

Like film and theatre producers, the individual artist who is interested in selling art must try to determine where that line is, or if the line even exists. And then, of course, comes the question of whether that artist wants to approach the line or just stay where he/she is. Maybe that depends on why the artist is making art in the first place and how widely he/she wants that art distributed.

Only the individual artist can answer. Where are your lines?

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Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

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Art and Reality

Sunday, 29. June 2014 23:49

Tim Crouch writing in The Guardian maintains that reality, any reality, kills theatre, particularly reality in the form of working clocks, running water, fire, and kisses, not to mention full nudity, children, and animals. He feels that those things, precisely because they are so real, break the illusion of the theatre and essentially stop the show.

He’s right of course. Reality can intrude on the narrative flow of a performance. But the causes of the stoppage can vary. In the King Lear example he cites, the cause of the stoppage was not, I suspect, the Edmund-Goneril kiss, but the young audience’s lack of maturity: they were unable to distinguish between the reality of the kiss and the fiction of the kiss. Experienced actors can pull off the fiction of a stage kiss, or nudity, for that matter, but they have to have an audience sophisticated enough to make the distinction.

In other instances, it certainly can be an acting or directing problem. One of my earliest lessons in theatre came in a notes session after a rehearsal of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. At one point in the play, the character Mick throws props about, wrecking the room. The director told the actor that he had to pull back because he was too real, and in being too real would threaten the audience. Once threatened, they would no longer be watching the play.

This incident contains the kernel of a principle I have used ever since: once the audience stops worrying about the character and starts worrying about the actor, or themselves, you’ve lost them. And often you don’t get them back. And if you are working before an audience that is not sufficiently mature to handle the material, then it is up to you, the actor or director, to adapt the work to your audience—if you want to keep them.

Where I think Crouch is not right is in his assumption that artists want to put more reality into art. To make his case, he quotes the beginning of Reality Hunger by David Shields: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” A brief examination of the history of western art will demonstrate that this is not true, not to mention that in artistic traditions other than western there is often no attempt at reality.

What is true is that since the beginning of time artists have tried to put into their work more of what they think is true. Truth and reality are not the same thing. Artists who work in figurative styles, which, according to Crouch would be some older painters and theatre practitioners, usually aim for verisimilitude, not necessarily for reality, and most would agree that verisimilitude is very different from reality. A quick comparison between the movements of theatrical Realism and Naturalism make the point quite clearly.

Crouch notes that “the visual arts left this figurative dependency behind years ago.” And there is a reason for that. Visual artists learned that there were better ways to present their vision of truth. Some performing artists have attempted to abandon “figurative dependency” as well—with varying degrees of success. Embracing reality is but one of the ways that can happen; the result is, as Crouch suggests, performance art, not theatre.

At the bottom of it, we all know that Matisse was right. It is not a woman, it is a painting, or a photograph, or a narrative performance, or a ballet, or a musical composition. It is not reality; it is an artistic representation of truth.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Communication | Comment (0) | Autor:

Give It Away

Monday, 5. May 2014 0:31

Almost all artists come to the point in their artistic development when they feel that they should no longer work for free. Yes, it’s all about the process, but we begin to want a tangible return on our investment of time and materials. But then we have another issue: how to find a paying audience for our work. Since artists seldom have neither the training nor the inclination to be good salespersons, it becomes a problem.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, Austin Kleon in his new book Show Your Work, suggests that solution to getting our work out and ultimately selling it is not only to share it, but to do so freely and tell whoever will listen how we made it. His rationale is that if we can engage potential collectors through the story of how we create what we create and provide examples, there is a higher likelihood of selling it.

Hazel Dooney has said much the same thing. She publishes much of her work on the internet to generate conversation and, instead of copyrighting it, releasing it with a Creative Commons license. She too has written about the idea of giving work away. She will even go so far as to release high-res images of her work and agree to sign them if collectors will print them and send them to her (paying postage both ways, of course).

At the other end of the spectrum is an artist I know who will not even store his images on a cloud drive for fear that someone will steal them. He would not dream of establishing a web site showing his work. Because he has no media presence, very few people have ever heard of him, and, although his work is quite good, he sells very little—no one knows that he exists.

If we are concerned about the image itself or the idea, perhaps we don’t want to give it away. If, however, what we sell are original pieces, then sharing a copy may not be such a bad idea, particularly a low-res version. How else will potential collectors decide whether they want this or that piece? It’s not like anyone will be able to take that low-res internet image, blow it up to display size, and print it at a level of quality that could compete with our originals. And there are other advantages to sharing our work. We can create a tribe, a following, a group of people who like what we do an who are anxious to buy our next book, painting, original signed photograph, sculpture, those who will want to see our next movie or play or listen to our latest piece of music. That can’t happen unless they have a way to know about it in the first place.

And then there is this thing about sharing working procedures. Even the most secretive of us can have our work reverse-engineered. Once an idea escapes into the universe, anyone can give it a try. If we withhold process and procedure, it won’t stop those who want to copy; it will just slow them down a little. Why not explain what we’ve done and encourage others to try it out as well? Even using the same methodology, no one will be able to reproduce our work—simply because it’s our work and sprang from our brains. Even using our techniques, others will have to create what springs from their own brains. And knowing our secrets does not necessarily make the implementation easy. Some techniques, as we know, require years of practice before they can be mastered.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about sharing our work is overcoming our fear that our work will be “out there” and out of our control. There are ways that we can protect ourselves, but that is a topic for another time. The potential upside far outweighs the downside. Sure, someone might turn our art into a screensaver, but whoever then sees it may want an original for the living room or to give to a friend, and he/she would never have known about our art unless we had given a little of it away.

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Artist or Entertainer?

Sunday, 20. April 2014 23:56

In 1956 Studs Terkel wrote of Billie Holiday:

When she went into ‘Willow, Weep for Me,’ you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.

Whether the difference between being an artist and being an entertainer is the willingness to reveal one’s self is open to discussion, but there certainly is an easily observable difference between the two.

In acting classes and workshops that I lead, it has become a topic of discussion. Seldom do you hear a young actor say “I want to create art.” More often, you hear, “I want to be a star,” or “I want to entertain people,” or sometimes, “I just want to do good work.” Whether the goal is to be an entertainer or an artist is not just an academic question. It is an important question that informs the choices that that actor makes during his career path.

While the basic skill set for the person who wants to create dramatic art and the person who is concerned with dramatic entertainment are much the same, the measurements of success and the rewards of the two goals are very, very different. Artists, taken as a group, probably can expect to make less money and will certainly make very different choices, and travel a path different from those who consider themselves primarily entertainers.

A recent Chicago Tribune article profiled Chicago actor Will Kiley who works in a storefront theatre for no pay for artistic reasons; he said, “I did some industrial voice-over stuff, and for two hours of work I got paid a couple thousand dollars…but that work felt artistically shallow and super-easy.” So in order to pursue his artistic needs, he works two day jobs to support himself, and at night he says he will “work my tail off on a storefront show, which is what I want to be doing, and get paid in, you know, beer.”

It’s the difference between Daniel Day Lewis and John Wayne or Gary Oldman and Sylvester Stallone or Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons. It’s not about audience appeal or fame; it’s a matter of the direction a performer wants to take.

And this choice of direction exists in arts beyond acting and music. This decision is one that every person in the arts must make at one time or the other. There are analogous paths in each of the arts. For writers there are choices besides novels and poems, and for visual artists there are numerous choices. Sometimes the choices intertwine and overlap; many times they do not.

One choice is not necessarily better than another, and certainly either choice or some combination is valid. And these choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, it seems to me that, realistically speaking, it is a choice that must be made because wherever an individual wants to go, it’s much easier to get there if the individual knows what direction he/she is going early on in the journey.

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Phoning It In

Sunday, 26. January 2014 23:52

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: a teacher, a student, an actor, a photographer, an artist, a writer—phoning it in. The results are usually not terrible; they’re just not as good as they could be. So phoning it in is something to be avoided, at least in my estimation.

There are a hundred reasons for it, and none of them really matter. What matters is the reduction in quality. When we phone it in, our work may be passable, sometimes even good by certain standards. But it’s not our best.

Because of all the activities in which I am currently engaged (and cannot eliminate), I feel that I am getting very close to phoning in this blog; and that is something I do not want. To avoid that a change is necessary. Rather than just taking some time off as some have advised, this blog will be moving to a bi-weekly publication schedule. How long this will last I am not sure. That will probably depend on how this new schedule fits and functions.

This move is not due to lack of material, rather for lack of time to deal with the material that I have, material that continues to grow on a weekly basis. What is lacking is the time to think it over and allow myself to see connections and patterns and decide what is really worth talking about.

As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I am a firm believer in artistic discipline, so moving to a longer time frame will still keep my publishing regular but will provide a little more time for thinking and development. I don’t know that the quality will improve, but hopefully it will not diminish.

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Rejection: Part of the Gig

Monday, 20. January 2014 0:19

Acting students learn early on that they must deal with rejection. It’s the result of the way things are done in the world of theatre: eight roles in a play, twenty-four actors auditioning, sixteen actors rejected. It happens every time there is an audition. Actors also learn that the reasons for rejection are manifold and often have very little to do with them personally. The tough ones keep auditioning; the others find another way to live.

Rejection comes to other artists as well, but those other artists, even in theatre, usually have not been taught the way actors have and so have to develop ways to deal with rejection on their own. The alternative is to take a path that leads away from a world filled with rejection.

We all want to be wanted and accepted. Sometimes it seems that we aren’t, or at least our work isn’t. Only the artist him/herself can decide when it’s no longer worth trying. But before you decide that continuing to pursue your artistic dreams isn’t worth the continued rejection, consider this:

As evidenced by these examples, those who connect the artist to the audience are sometimes lacking in foresight, but we still have to deal with their rejection. We may, like Shaw, who became first a critic, then a playwright, change our course slightly. Or, if the work is important to us, we will keep making it and putting it out there, submitting it to the next agent, publisher, producer, juried show, gallery, and the next and the next.

The bottom line is if we want to be artists, we will experience rejection. Therefore, we need to grow thick skins and maintain enough confidence to keep going. Rejection is, after all, part of the gig.

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The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

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