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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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The Real Function of the Audience

Sunday, 10. November 2013 23:33

A couple of weeks ago, I exhibited in an art show to which almost no one came. So we stood around and chatted and nibbled the refreshments and wondered why, not that that information would have really been useful. Then, last week I wrote a blog that seemed to have been read by no one, to judge from the lack of feedback.

In both instances, final outcomes were not what conditions would have predicted. An “I’ll-get-back-to-you” at the art show actually did, and purchased three pieces. And statistics showed that an average number of people read the blog; they just hadn’t seen a reason to comment on it or press a “like” button.

But these instances did make me think about the connection between our work and our audience. Theatre, the textbooks tell us, requires an audience—it’s an essential ingredient. At the other end of the spectrum are visual artists and bloggers, of course, who are pretty sure that no one is paying attention to anything they are doing. Does this then mean that the connection of the audience to art varies with the medium? Or is it that different artists approach the question of audience differently? Or is this one of those questions that requires that we look deeper?

A starting point might be to try to determine the relationship between creating art and the audience for that art: do we make art for the audience or some other reason? The answer probably depends on what sort of art we are making as well as how much we are willing to cater to audience taste.  Commercial art, for example, must please a certain audience; pop art usually caters to the perceived taste of the anticipated audience.

Regardless of what we are creating, at the most fundamental level, we make art for ourselves. Then consideration of the audience comes into play. How much consideration is given to the audience depends on the artist and the work. For example, those who work in performing arts take audience expectations into consideration—will the audience understand it? Will they like it? Will they hate it? And it’s not all trying to please the audience; in some cases, performing artists will push the envelope of audience acceptance for a variety of reasons. Playwright Harold Pinter has been noted to perceive the audience-play relationship as a battle.

On the other hand, those visual artists and writers mentioned earlier who don’t yet have an audience or who are completely removed from the audience seem to be completely unaffected by any potential viewers or readers. It’s not that they are more “pure;” it’s just that they are, for the present, unaware of how people might react to their work so they don’t think about it.

Like them, we continue to make art for ourselves, maybe considering the audience or maybe not. Then we abandon it to whatever audience is available. That audience responds to our work in some way or the other, and thus exists a conversation between the artist and the audience. It can be can be warm and friendly or, as in the case of Pinter, it can be adversarial, or it can be anything in between. And it can operate on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level or some combination. And it certainly can be and almost always is asynchronous. And in that conversation is the importance of art.

No matter why we set out to create art, no matter how much or how little consideration we give the audience during that process, the fact is that the audience functions as the other party in the conversation that is our art, and, for good or ill, completes our work.

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They May Not Get It

Monday, 4. November 2013 0:29

Leaving the theatre last Saturday night, I overheard a man saying to the woman beside him, “You can explain it to me later.” And sure enough, in the restaurant next door to the theatre, there they were, very earnestly discussing the play with another couple, and perhaps offering the sought-after explanation. It set me to wondering how many other people in the theatre paid good money for an experience that they didn’t understand.

So I began to question others I knew who had seen the show. One person I talked to did not seem to have seen the same play I did, or at least if he did, he did not understand it in the same way that I did. One person seemed to have relied pretty heavily on program notes. Another was in the same situation as the man I overheard. A fourth had gone to an actor/director talk-back and so knew what they were attempting to do. Yet another saw what I saw and interpreted it much the way I did.

It was not an easy play; it was one of those with layer upon layer of reference and meaning, so I was quite interested to see the production. It did not disappoint. What was a bit discouraging though was the discovery that possibly a significant number of people in the audience really didn’t get it.

It probably should have come as no surprise. In talking to potential collectors about my photographic work, I have learned that they see what they see and don’t see what they don’t see, which many times has exactly nothing to do with what I put into the image. I never argue or point out or any errors in their thinking—I am, after all, in the business of cultivating collectors, not correcting their interpretations.

If your art has any degree of complexity at all, it will go over the heads of some of your audience. Expect it. If it is multi-layered or complex, some of it will likely get missed. They will get what they get and miss what they miss and there’s nothing you can do about it. They may even get stuff you didn’t know was in there. (The unconscious of the artist is a marvelous thing.)

Short of writing a 2500-word “program note” for each piece, you have no way to control the audience’s response, and even then you cannot guarantee it. You have to remember that each person comes to your work with his/her own background, training, prejudices, filters thorough which he/she experiences art and the world. They may even bring their baggage and project it onto your work. So every member of your audience is likely to have a different level of understanding.

Some artists may take this inability to comprehend on a part of the audience as an excuse to dumb down their work so that more people get it, and so improve their chances for more sales. Some will go to the other extreme, as did a director I knew who, upon reading a review that said that his play was difficult to understand, screamed, “Then they should come back and watch it until they understand it!”

Both reactions are certainly understandable, but not, in my estimation, the best choices. A better response to this situation is simply to recognize that it exists and continue but to put forward your best work, with all its layers, complexities, and ambiguities. Some will get it and some won’t. But you can hope that those who do will tell like-minded others and they in turn will tell others, and sooner or later, a tribe supporting your work will develop.

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Stuck? Adopt a New Model

Monday, 7. October 2013 0:30

Among the many recent articles about John Boehner was one saying that Speaker Boehner’s problem was that he was using an old model that really didn’t work anymore.  This, of course, caused me to think about all those we shake our heads over because they too are using outdated models: the teachers who don’t understand why the techniques they used 10 years ago don’t work anymore, or the business man who is perplexed because his 20-year-old methodology doesn’t attract customers the way they used to.

And this, in turn, got me thinking about artists who are doing exactly the same thing: relying on old models when what we need are new ones—if we really want to succeed. This is not a suggestion to chase the most recent fad, but to evaluate and embrace what is new, fresh, exhibits potential, and will allow us to better speak to our audience.

Artists who depend on ticket sales do this. A friend who is a stage director was just this week lamenting the fact that there are number of good shows that can no longer be successfully produced—except as period pieces—because the plot hinges on a device that is no longer recognizable to the audience or because the subject matter no longer speaks to us. This same idea is also reflected in the gross structure of plays: nobody writes five-act plays anymore because audiences reject them—for a variety of reasons, and those that exist usually have to be modified to appeal to today’s theatre-goer. So theatre people who want to keep producing are forced to let go of the old and find new models.

Some artists don’t want to give up the old, so they attempt to combine it with and the new. For example, contemporary productions of Shakespeare are often set in a time and place different from those suggested in the script. Or they are given a twist to make them more appealing to today’s audience. The same thing happens with the holiday classic, The Nutcracker. And the same is true of visual arts: a photographer may use an obsolete technique to comment on an aspect of modern society, or a painter may use an antiquated methodology as part of his/her statement.

Several artists, Hazel Dooney and Marie Kazala among them, tell us to sidestep the old model for distributing art work; they advocate selling directly using every electronic and social networking means available. Although slow to learn, the music industry and now perhaps, even the movie industry are realizing that the only way to cling to old models is through the courts, and that perhaps a more productive approach would be to adopt new models for the distribution of the art they represent.

And it’s not just about distribution. Sometimes embracing the new leads to better work. A friend who is a painter recently attended a workshop where she learned not only some new techniques, but also learned of a brand new medium—a new kind of paint that allowed her to do things on paper and canvas that she had never been able to do before. Since she embraced the new material and the model that went with it, the quality of her work has soared.

Some, of course, will argue that the old ways are better. Perhaps, but if they cannot help us connect with our audience, no matter what kind of art we make, then we really are making art only for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that unless we want to share our artistic vision with others.

This is hardly a new idea. Each successive artistic movement has been a reaction to what that generation of artists thought was lacking in the previous generation, or was about the development of new ways of presenting what the artist envisioned. Each generation has adopted new models. And now it’s our turn. The world has, in the words of Roland Deschain, “moved on,” and we would do well to move along with it.

 

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Job Insecurity and Creativity

Sunday, 22. September 2013 23:47

Earlier this month, British playwright Simon Stephens, speaking at a conference on new writing, said that because of their job insecurity, actors are being “stifled” by fear of unemployment. Specifically he said, “They would have one eye on the director, to make sure they don’t offend them, one eye on the writer, to make sure they seduce and tantalise them so they maybe might want to write something for them, and one eye on the artistic director to let them know they are not a difficult person to have around the theatre….That can be really stifling and can stifle bravery in acting performance.”

Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian, takes issue and suggests that job insecurity is what is driving “brave and creative performances.” Gardner never explains her reasons for this suggestion, but goes on to explain that the condition is not unique to actors and finally state that “while the freelance way of life does not suit anyone, uncertainty can be a genuine spur to creativity, rather than stifling risk.”

While I cannot completely agree that freelancing suits no one or that uncertainty spurs creativity, I must agree with Gardner that job insecurity is a fact of life for the professional performer. She goes on to say job insecurity is a fact not just for actors, but for any freelance professional, including playwrights, directors, journalists and accountants.  I have to agree with that as well, and would note that anyone who goes into any of the arts endures the same employment insecurity, and perhaps worse than some theatre professionals. In theatre, opera, and dance, at least, some professionals are members of repertory companies and ensemble companies, which offer employment security for at least a season. (Although very few of those professionals would presume that it is a certainty that there will be a contract waiting for them next season.)

Other types of artists have no such havens. They produce work, show it, sometimes sell it and then move on to the next project. Some, who have representation, have fewer interruptions, but still work from project to project, knowing that there are no guarantees, there are no assured sales—unless they accept commissions, and even then the commission may evaporate before the piece is finished and the sale finalized.

This is the nature of the arts business. Anyone who has entertained a career in any of the arts, should have, before embarking on such a journey, become aware that employment security was not part of the deal. That insecurity cannot be ruled out as an influencer; there are always those who will take the safe road, who will produce what they think the audience wants in the hopes of achieving some sort of stability much the way that Stephens details.

But then there are the others, the ones who want to make the best art they can and know that in order to do that, risks must be taken—whether it imperils security or not. If you go to art shows or the theatre or the ballet or the opera, you know who those people are; their work shows it. They are the ones in front of whose work you linger, the ones you come back to for a second or third look; they are the ones whose performances you want to sit through again and discuss afterward and think about after you have gone home.

The question is: which kind of artist are you?

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Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

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It’s for Our Own Good

Sunday, 18. August 2013 23:37

We all stand in need of protection. At least it seems that way if you keep up with international arts news.

Until someone called attention to it in print, Hamlet was censored in the British Library because the text contained “violent content.” Yes, I would say that it does. Now, whether the literary violence in Hamlet could possibly incite someone to commit similar acts, or perhaps somehow interfere with his/her proper growth and development is, in my estimation, doubtful. The British Museum, however, defended its censorship “saying that it wanted to protect the children visiting the building from content ‘such as pornography and gambling websites.’” If you’re sitting there trying to connect pornography and gambling to Hamlet, you begin to understand the difficulty I have with their position.

In Australia an exhibition of international documentary photography was “heavily censored” by the New South Wales government tourism agency because the images were not “family-friendly.” Further, it was reported that the choices of which images to be removed from the show were “puzzling,” which seems to mean that the rationale was not at all clear. Never mind that “the photographers for the festival had been selected ‘expressly for their integrity and compassion and commitment to human values. Their work admonishes society about the effects of violence and conflict, poverty and oppression, and the real consequences they have for real people.’” Never mind that one of the works removed had won the World Press Award and another had been featured on the cover of an international magazine; both had been seen by millions of people.

And lest you think that this movement is belongs strictly to the British Commonwealth, perhaps the most extreme case reported recently was the alleged censoring of  Koliivschina: Judgment Day, a mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, by the director of the Kiev Museum—with black paint. There seems to be no denial of the censorship, but rather the museum’s defense of the action:  it censored work that played “into prejudicial viewpoints,” which was “not in keeping with the spirit of the exhibition.”

In all three of these cases, some person who had power or influence, had taken it upon him/herself to predetermine what the audience of a particular venue could and could not see, and had decided that certain pieces had the potential of offending or somehow damaging some segment of that audience. This is the sort of thing that George Orwell ran into when he initially tried to publish Animal Farm. This fear of offending someone has permeated much of the artistic universe—at least on the part of non-artists. Salman Rushdie recently spoke in Scotland about the new “’culture of offendedness’. . . saying that people increasingly ‘define ourselves by hate.’”

Artists are impacted as well. Recently in a discussion on LinkedIn, fine art photographers discussed limiting their online offerings for a variety of reasons, all of which boiled down to not wanting to offend. Such thinking indicates that Rushdie may well be right.

In “All Art is Censored Art” I argued that the only artistically valid censorship is self-censorship. But sometimes even that validity can be called into question. If Rushdie is right and people are currently defining themselves by what they hate instead of what they like, we, as artists, are not required to play into that; we are not required to worry about whom we might offend. If children need protection, let their minders learn where the off switches are and how to control what the child is and is not allowed to see—not because the material is or should be censored, but because the child’s activities are properly monitored and he/she is taught what is and is not appropriate.

And, most important, if the artist puts it out into the world, and curator puts it into the show, then let the audience see it. Audiences, on the whole, do not need the protection of some self-serving demagogue deciding what is and is not appropriate for them to see. Let them see it and decide for themselves, and their children.

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