Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11 | Author:

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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Look Back

Sunday, 29. August 2021 21:40 | Author:

Last week I had the opportunity to review some old image files that I had not seen for some time, some up to five years old. What immediately struck me was that a number of the images I had originally rejected as second or third level choices had more potential that I originally thought. Some needed to be tweaked or re-cropped, but they could, with just a little work be first-rate images.

If it’s true of images, might it also be true of writing? I asked myself. Like most people who write, I have pages and pages of written material that I have abandoned but did not destroy. A quick review of some of those yielded the same results: there were a number of worthwhile ideas contained in the abandoned writings. Then, of course, there were the idea files that contained just short paragraphs about topics and ideas, many of which had gone unreviewed for a long period. Most of the topic ideas and the unfinished writings need to be filled out, shaped, and polished, but the some interesting possibilities exist.

The reasons for the abandonments of both writing and images are many. Sometime the idea didn’t play out in a satisfying way; sometimes I hit a wall in writing and could not finish the piece. And then there were those that were simply left unfinished for a number of other reasons, often because they were to be perceived to be less than my best work.

This raises the question, of course, of why work that was rejected in the past suddenly appears to have potential. The answer is that I am now looking at it with different eyes. The images and pieces of writing are fixed, but I have changed with the passing of time. Hopefully, I have evolved since the words were written and the images captured. It’s the same reason that it is useful to put work away for a while before editing. The passage of time gives one more objectivity in reviewing the work, so one can see possibilities more clearly.

My suspicion is that all this applies to arts other than photography and writing as well. Almost all artists I know have partially-finished projects stored here and there which might could be reviewed, dusted off, and made into excellent work which could then be shared or published or produced by whatever avenues the artist chooses. Looking back at older work can also spark ideas for future work, mixing the old ideas with new insights to produce new work.

So my suggestion is that we periodically take a look back at our older work, keeping an open mind to see what can be salvaged, what can be reworked, modified, made better. We can see what new visions result from this review and what we find in the old that can be mixed with new concepts to produce new quality work. Such periodic reviews might just result in more and better work.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comment (0)

Be Prepared to Pivot—Again—and Again

Sunday, 15. August 2021 22:00 | Author:

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.

Category:Audience, Theatre | Comment (0)

Make One Just for Fun

Sunday, 1. August 2021 22:20 | Author:

In the push for productivity, we often lose sight of our artistic goals and sensibilities. Rather than creators, we become artisans concerned solely with production of artifacts for our audience, often tailoring our output to the tastes of potential purchasers. While this sort of concentration on production often does much for the bottom line, it does little to satisfy our artistic needs.

In the build-up to this point we develop as artists, honing our skills, developing our craft, finding our own voice. Once that is accomplished, we can often go in one of two very different directions: (1) we can basically turn out slightly varying iterations of the same story, poem, photograph, painting—altering each new piece just enough to say that it is different, while at the same time retaining all those characteristics that mark our work as ours. (2) The second choice is to build on our development, creating new work that represents not just repetition, but growth. We create new things which may or may not appeal to our present audience.

For a number of reasons, many artists select the first path. For example, I know an artist who essentially quit making personal work. All her work now is either consignment or for her Etsy store. And, although it is quite good work, it all looks rather alike. Another artist, a painter who works in acrylic, produces excellent images, all of which very much alike; she has quite a large following. Many of us follow this path: singers whose songs all sound alike, photographers whose work is so similar it could have been shot all on the same day, writers whose novels are nearly identical, or at least follow the same formula.

Along the second path lies risk—what we make may not appeal to our current audience, and we are forced to find another, or change what we are doing. Thus it is more difficult to find artists willing to pursue this path. Several come to mind, but not nearly as many as follow the first path.

The first path is certainly more stable financially—and easier to follow, at least after those of us who follow it find our audience. However, one wonders if those who are essentially cranking out the same pieces over and over still retain the joy of creation. One wonders if they took time out from their schedules to make one piece of work just for the joy of doing it—for fun, it would make any difference.

And that is my suggestion: if we find ourselves becoming slaves to production—turning out piece after piece of all-too-similar pieces, that we take some time and make just one piece for fun—to remind ourselves why we got into this world of creation in the first place. If nothing else, we might get a little relief from the grind that almost always accompanies constant production. Even if we immediately go back to assembly-line production, we might do so with a fresh perspective. It might just provide a renewed approach to our productivity.

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“But the Book was Better”

Sunday, 18. July 2021 23:04 | Author:

How many times have we heard that, and what does it really mean? Does it really mean “the movie was different from the book, and I liked the book version better”? Does it mean, “The film didn’t make me feel the same way the book did”?  Does it mean, “I am superior because I read the book and most people who saw the movie didn’t”? Or does it mean, “The movie wasn’t what I expected, (and I expected the book)”? Or is it some combination of these things?

Not long ago I found myself saying exactly those words in connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I had just listened to the Audible audio book of Dracula (narrated by Alan Cuming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance and others). Then I followed it up by re-watching Francis’s Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version by the same name, which I had remembered as being quite good—and I remembered correctly.

The first question that should come up when making a statement such as the one in the title is: “better” according to what standard? If the answer is any of the ones presented in the first paragraph, it’s time to move on to another discussion because none of those, while they may be honest, are legitimate answers to the question of standards. In the case of Dracula, the book was better because of the level of detail and nuance available to the reader/listener in the book that was not available in the film.

There should be no question that the two versions would be different. They are presented in different media; therefore, they communicate in different ways. Description of locale, for instance, can take pages in a novel; the same information can be presented visually in a film instantly, thus allowing the film to be more compact than the novel. But again there is that issue of nuance; sometimes, directing the audience’s view to some tiny particular detail may be more difficult to manage in a film without being clumsy than it is when describing the scene in words. And if we were to consider a stage play version of the same material, it would be different yet, emphasizing certain things, diminishing others.

And the book does have the advantage of being able to be longer, not being meant to be taken in at a single sitting. For example, the audio version that I listened to is 15 hours and 28 minutes long; Coppola’s movie is 2 hours and 8 minutes. Just the idea of compressing hundreds of pages into such a short time frame is staggering. What is interesting about the film and novel in question is how closely the film follows the events in the novel, but is really telling a different story—no more or less interesting, just different.

And difference, I think, is the point. The book is not always better, but it is always different from the film, which is different from the stage play, which is different from the miniseries. What really matters is how well the medium fits the story being told. And each medium has its own impact, its own advantages and its own disadvantages, and we need to recognize that—particularly before selecting the medium for our next project.

As creators, we must select the correct medium to be the vehicle of our creation. Even though we could force the idea into a hostile medium, the best choice is to exploit the medium that the idea requires, even though that may not be our forte. The material selects the proper medium, and we must serve the material if we are to reach our full creative potential.

Category:Communication, Presentation | Comment (0)

More Thoughts on the Artist/Audience Relationship

Sunday, 20. June 2021 23:17 | Author:

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.

Category:Audience | Comment (0)

The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10 | Author:

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.

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

Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56 | Author:

Neil Gaiman, in his book of essays and introductions, The View from the Cheap Seats, says that “no two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” In another place, he discusses other aspects of this collaboration, noting that “you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.” He takes the idea further in citing an instance of someone remembering the excitement of a particular scene in a book, only to find, upon returning to the book, that the exciting part had been supplied by the reader. Gaiman goes on to say of the reader in a different circumstance: “then, perhaps, you will come back to it [a book] when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.”

This is not a new idea; it is one of the fundamental tenets of post-modernism. Gaiman, however, develops the concept further than most, boiling it down to the notion that each reader “builds the book in collaboration with the author,” and is likely to build a different book each time that reader comes to the book, even though the text remains the same.

You may have experienced Gaiman’s ideas yourself, finding that a book or poem or play that you had experienced was not the same as you remembered it. Or you may have had the experience of discussing a painting or performance with someone and wondering if they really had seen the same thing you did, so different were their impressions.

This notion of collaboration gives considerable power to the reader. The trick for the author is, of course, to create a narrative that will engage the imagination of the reader regardless of what the reader brings to the book.

The same is true for other arts as well. Whatever the art, audience members bring their preconceptions, feelings, and imagination to the interaction with the art work and thus build the meaning and impact of the work in collaboration with the artist. And sometimes, like the children Gaiman noted above, imbue the work “with magic that not even the author knew was there.”

If that is the case, how does the artist then create for her audience? She can make some assumptions about what response her work is likely to get, depending on what sorts of responses she has gotten previously. That, however, is no guarantee. She can, of course, manipulate her materials so that she has a fair idea of what reaction the work is likely to get. The fact of the matter is that she has no idea what the audience members are likely to bring to the collaboration.

So what we as artists to do? Exactly what our hypothetical artist above finally does: manipulate the materials so that we have a fair idea of the reaction the work is likely to get, and then put it out into the world without further expectations. The audience will bring what they bring, and while all the collaborations will be unique, there is likely to be enough similarity that we can judge our “success” or lack thereof. And if our audience finds things in our work that we didn’t know were there, so be it.

Perhaps the best that we can do is create work that simply satisfies ourselves, release it into the world, and then see what our audience makes of it.

Category:Audience, Creativity | Comment (0)

Reopening the Performing Arts

Sunday, 9. May 2021 22:49 | Author:

Earlier this week, I attended a combined band/choir concert at the college where I teach. It was their first performance in 17 months and was an outdoor event on a warm Texas early evening. The audience was invited to bring their own chairs and many did.

While the concert itself was interesting, the audience was equally interesting. The audience arranged itself into rough rows with people who came together sitting together. Between every group there was a space: without direction, the groups had socially distanced themselves. About half of the audience was masked.

The concert seemed to provide a concrete example of the way people are feeling in May 2021: anxious to get out and do things, but cautious because there’s still a pandemic going on. And, of course, there are those who have pretty much ignored the virus from the beginning in the mix as well.

One wonders what this bodes for performing arts in the future. Some movie theatres are already open. Broadway is scheduled to reopen in September. But will the audiences be comfortable with going back inside for their entertainment? If the concert I attended is any indication, audiences who voluntarily social distance outside will certainly want to be socially distanced inside. To accommodate that need/desire, some ticketing software companies have added a social-distancing feature to their software which automatically creates a “bubble” around sold seats. Then there is the question of masks: will an audience be comfortable wearing masks for the entire length of a performance? Will they be comfortable with no one in the audience wearing masks, or some wearing masks and some not?

With all that social distancing, at what point will performing arts, which struggle to make a profit under the best of circumstances, be able to support themselves? How will they manage to survive if social distancing limits them to 50%-75% of capacity? Or, if they operate at 100% capacity, will audience members be comfortable enough to purchase tickets?

In addition to the question of finances, there is the question of audience response. It is well-known that a tightly-seated audience will respond better than when audience members are separated by empty seats. If a significant portion of seats are empty due to social distancing, what will that do to the audience response? And what, in turn, will that do to the performance?

As difficult as performing arts have been during what we hope was the height of the pandemic, the return to “normal” may be just as difficult. Just as we had to climb the learning curve of virtual production and adapt our techniques to streaming, we will have to adapt again—to the “new normal,” which will not be, cannot be as things were before March 2020. Then as the situation hopefully improves we will have to adapt again, and again, and again.

And we will. The world has seen pandemics before, and the performing arts have survived. And so will they this time. However, I suspect, they will be changed. Indeed, some performing arts companies have already announce permanent changes based on things learned during the pandemic. So we may never go back to “the way things were before.” And that, once we figure it out, will be just fine.

Category:Audience, Theatre | Comment (0)

How Do You Measure Success?

Sunday, 25. April 2021 23:58 | Author:

Sometimes when I tell people that I teach theatre, they will ask, “Have you taught anybody famous?” as though that were the ultimate measure of success for a theatre professor. I suppose the same gauge could be used for any field, but I suspect that it is used more for the arts, specifically the performing arts. Given that criterion for success, I would imagine that there are a number of quite successful arts instructors out there who would suddenly be labeled “unsuccessful.” Success in teaching in the arts is not measured by famous ex-students; that’s a marketing technique used by for-profit arts schools.

But that question raises other questions, the chief one of which is: how do we measure success in the arts?

If you are a producer is it a whole run of full houses? A run of three-quarter full houses? Breaking even financially? Making a profit? Winning an award? Making the audience laugh or cry? Bringing attention to a political or humanitarian situation? If you are a director, do you measure your success the same way a producer does or is there another way? And if you are an actor, is it the same measure? Or is it the response of an audience?

If you are a painter or a photographer, is success getting into this or that show? Is it winning an award? Is it having x number of collectors? Is it having individual pieces of your work featured on the cover of magazines? Is it having your work accessioned by this or that museum? Is it bringing in y number of dollars with your work? Is it making work that moves people? Is it making work that records world events or that comments on them?

If you are a writer, does success come with publishing your first book? Does it come with publishing your 50th book? Does it come with writing a “best-seller?”  Does it come with being published in this or that journal? Does it come with begin reviewed by the New York Times? Does it come with winning an award? Does it come with acquiring a specific number of readers? Does it come with being able to support yourself with your writing?

If you are a musician, is success measured by being able to play or sing a certain piece of music? Is it making and distributing recordings of your work? Is it making money from your work? Is it public recognition of your work? Is it performing before huge audiences? Is it getting a gold or platinum record? Is it being able to play multiple instruments? Is it winning an award for your work?

Other artists have similar problems in determining what makes for success. The quick and easy answer is that if we can make a living doing our art, we are successful. The difficulty is that we all know artists who do that who do not consider themselves successful because they have not created their masterpiece or accomplished this or that goal. At the same time we all know artists who do consider themselves quite successful even though they have to have a day job to survive financially. Then there are the artists who don’t trouble themselves with the question of success at all; they just keep making art. The obvious conclusion is that—at least in the arts—we all measure success differently. It turns out that it is a very personal thing that is tied to our artistic goals. And it’s likely to be different for each individual.

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