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All Good Art is Escapism

Sunday, 25. September 2022 22:19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aesthetics, Bigotry, or Something Else?

Sunday, 11. September 2022 20:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Doesn’t Love You

Sunday, 28. August 2022 21:04

A friend of mine, who is an actor and director, tells a story about when he first learned that theatre didn’t love him. Seems that he was hung over at 9 am, putting on makeup for a morning performance of a children’s show when he discovered this truth. Some time after he learned that, he tried to leave theatre, only to come back, a pattern which he repeated at least two more times.

Imogen West-Knights talks about giving up on her dream of acting in a Guardian article, “Why I Quit Acting.” Theatre didn’t love her either. The stories go on and on about those who gave their all to theatre and got very little, if anything in return. Even those who succeed in the eyes of the world find themselves dissatisfied with performance; just google “quit acting.”

And it’s not just theatre. None of the arts love us, regardless of whether it’s photography or painting or sculpture or dance or poetry. They demand our allegiance; they exert an influence over our lives and relationships, but they give very little back, particularly in terms of worldly success. The most we can expect is the bit of joy we get from the creative process. And that is often laced with anguish. We spend hours, sometimes days or weeks—or even months and years trying to create, and the return: acknowledgement of the artifact, but very little for the pain involved in its creation. It’s a very lopsided relationship that we have with our art.

Yet those of us who don’t quit continue to do it. Even those who quit one art, such as Ms. West-Knights, pick up another. It’s because those of us who are addicted to art have a strong urge to create, to tell stories, to invent, to make. So completely quitting everything creative is difficult for us, if not impossible. And even though some individuals succeed, for many, it’s a sad life. There are many articles connecting sadness or depression and creativity. But we still keep doing it.

And we continue to do it, in one form or another. And we all have the satisfactions that come from creating as well as the attendant pain. We do it because we must, because we are driven to create regardless of the toll it might take on other aspects of our life.

Not that there are not rewards. There are, although for most of us they are small. We sell a piece here; we get a good critique there. And all the while we get to create, and that’s the bottom line for most of us: satisfying the urge to create. So we continue to act and direct and photograph and paint and sculpt and dance and write because, for us, there is no other way to feed our addiction to creation.

And the fact that our chosen art does not love us does not deter us. We persist, not because we think that we are going to “make it big,” not because we think we will become famous, but because we must. We seem to have been born with an imperative to make things, to tell stories, to create. And so we continue to actively demonstrate our love for our art, unreciprocated though it is.

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Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When It Clicks

Sunday, 31. July 2022 20:40

Sitting in rehearsal on an evening not long ago, it clicked, and I suddenly understood that the show would indeed come together. In the world of educational theatre, that is never a foregone conclusion. I cannot explain what factors came together to provide me with this information, but it was suddenly there, and so I relaxed a little. This did not mean that there were not still things to do, but that bones of the show were solid, and the rest was more-or-less cleaning up.

Educational theatre is not the only area in which this phenomenon happens. I have known it to happen both in photography and in writing, although it happens in a slightly different fashion. In photography, it often happens with an edit. Most shoots result in a number of less-than-great photographs. Sometimes a re-crop or some other edit will move that image from uninspired to brilliant. And sometimes that comes as a surprise. The photographer expected the change to make the image better, but did not predict the degree of improvement the edit would make. Again, there may be other clean-up to be done, but the “click” has happened.

In writing it is much the same, and, as in photography, often happens in the editing stage. The author will rewrite a sentence, or insert a new sentence, or move a paragraph, and suddenly, “click.” The whole piece is better. Not that it was necessarily bad before, but now it, like the play, has demonstrated that the piece will come together, and will be far more successful that it would have done otherwise.

Perhaps it’s just a natural part of the creative process, but I know from experience that an artist can work to complete a piece and never really get an indication of whether it will be successful or not. It certainly does not mean that the piece will be bad, or ever mediocre; if fact, it may be great. It’s just that with some projects there is never a “click,” a prior indication that all of the elements have or soon will all come together in the best possible way.

Whether this happens in other media I cannot say, but I rather suspect that it does. Creativity is, after all, the process of making connections between sometimes disparate components, and in that process it is quite likely that a key piece will snap into place much like the key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and “click.”

Please note that that “click” is simply a recognition that a piece is coming together. It is strictly from the creator’s point of view and has nothing to do with whether the piece will be well-received by its intended audience. It is probably just the conscious representation of the largely unconscious knowledge that all the components of the piece are in place and nothing has been left out—and nothing more. And though, as noted, it doesn’t happen with every project, it is comforting when it does happen. Making art is hard, and anything that tells us we are on the right track is welcome.

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The Trouble with Taste

Sunday, 17. July 2022 22:35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Appropriate Response

Sunday, 3. July 2022 17:13

My Instagram feed is normally a quiet place where I can look at pictures and view things related to art—very different from my other social media feeds. This week, however, it blew up. A number of artists who have never published anything remotely political were not only publishing political statements, but very strong ones. The cause, of course, was the egregious series of US Supreme Court rulings that came out at the end of June. Collectively, they were just too much for many of the people I follow on Instagram, so they spoke out.

In talking with people who are normally the most pacific of people, I have found that a number of people have been depressed by the actions of the Court. Others are extremely fearful of the future of individual rights in the United States, particularly for women and people of color. Yet others are ready to take to the streets—with any number of potential outcomes. And some people are talking about emigrating, or at least moving to a different state. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like this before.

All of this led me to wonder what the appropriate response for an artist to such a setback in human rights should be. Of course, no one can tell anyone what a “proper” response should be, but perhaps some responses are more suitable than others.

The first and biggest question is whether we should use our artistic skills and imagination to produce political pieces that express our outrage, or despair, or fear. While each artist will have to answer that question for themselves, I do not think that such a move is absolutely necessary. A number of artists depend on their work for income, and to suddenly shift to political content would require the cultivation of a completely different audience, and that would, of course, take time and energy which may be better used elsewhere. This is not to say that we should not make political art. For some that might be the most direct and forceful response, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. But, for some, the downside would be too big.

What to do then? The first thing is what a number of artists have already done: speak out and continue speaking out—using whatever platform is available. Thus the numerous statements that came across my Instagram feed. Some have, or will want to demonstrate. The important thing, I think, is to be sure that those in power hear our voices. Some politicians have already heard the voices and have responded in a positive fashion. Speaking out—at least in this instance—may bring us negative feedback, but it may also bring us allies, which will make our voices all the stronger.

The other thing that we can do, while it still matters, is vote and encourage others to vote. There are a number of elections that were decided by a very small number of votes. And in these times, every election at every level of government is important. So we need educate ourselves about those who are running for office—and I cannot emphasize this enough—even the “smallest” office. They are all important. Once educated, we need to educate others, and get them to the polls. Our rights and freedoms depend on it.

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Make Bold Choices

Sunday, 19. June 2022 21:56

In actor training we stress making choices, encouraging actors to make bold choices.  While it would seem that making choices is basic to creating anything, but this does not seem to be the case. Evidently making conscious choices during the creative process is not intuitive to everyone who takes up an art. To many beginning actors, this seems to be a foreign process; they make no choices at all, particularly not strong ones. This has led me to wonder whether the same is true for other arts and artists as well.

Most of us come to art because of a natural aptitude. It’s something we don’t think about very much; we just do it. We draw; we paint; we photograph; we act—all because it’s an easy thing for us to do. Then we get to the point where we are no longer progressing and we make a decision to continue as we are or to get some training to help us get better. Training comes in lots of formats: it may be formal classes, or it may be a self-directed course of study, or it may simply be a disorganized study of the work of masters. Still we may not be making conscious choices in our work, and, of course, making no choices is really making choices, probably weak ones.

But what about flow, some may be asking. Surely, in flow, we are working almost subconsciously. That is true, and I am, as most of you know, a great proponent of flow and a great believer in the contributions of the subconscious to the creative process. However, I have also observed the differences between actors who make decisively bold choices and those who do not—or even between work done by the same actor before and after making conscious choices. The difference is remarkable, and the work is always better after strong choices are made. This phenomenon is also observable in other arts, for example, making strong choices almost always means the difference between a good photograph and a mere snapshot. Drawings made with a conscious choice are invariably better than off-hand sketches.

It is as if the conscious choices that the artist makes serve as a foundation for the subconscious work and mixed-conscious work that follows during the process of creation.

But what about those projects that just seem to evolve? The idea appears out of the air and is then turned into preliminary notes which then develop into a full-blown project. How does this idea of conscious choices come into play with them? My suggestion would be that at some point in the process, if we want to make the project all it can be, that we stop and look at what we’ve done so far and make some conscious choices about where the project should be going. These will provide a strong foundation for the project, ensuring a strong finished project.

It may be that that making bold choices is already a part of our process that we don’t fully acknowledge, or perhaps we call that part of the process by another name. Regardless, it would be well to examine our process and verify that this happens early on in the creative journey. As in the case of the young actors noted above, our work will only benefit,

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Is the First Idea the Best?

Sunday, 5. June 2022 22:28

Last week I was discussing an issue with a set piece with the scene designer of a show I am directing. Actually, it was more of him thinking out loud. Finally he said, “The first idea is always the best, isn’t it?” I agreed, knowing that this was not necessarily the case. In this particular instance, he had considered many alternatives; then we brainstormed some more. He returned to his first idea as the best choice; it was more a matter of picking the best rather than returning to the first.

Many teachers and students say that in taking a test, your first answer is usually your best.

Regardless of this anecdotal evidence, an even larger number of writers say that the idea of your first idea being your best is not true, Helly Douglas, among others, has written an article on “Why Your First Idea is Never Your Best: Developing Amazing Writing Ideas.” Another explanation is provided in “The scientific reason why your first idea is rarely your best one.” The notion that the first test response is the best is refuted in “Myth: It’s Better to Stick to Your First Impulse Than Go Back and Change Multiple Choice Test Answers,” which appears on the Association for Psychological Science web site.

However, the notion that our first ideas are our best ones persists. Roger Waters for example, in Pink Floyd: the making of The Dark Side of the Moon, says that the first take is usually the best take. It is much the same idea. However, it did not prevent the band from doing multiple takes of pieces that make up their albums. I have often found that in headshot sessions, the first shot of a particular pose is often better than those that follow; still I shoot more than one.

Given these contradictions, how should we proceed in our day-to-day artistic pursuits? Much the way the scene designer in the first paragraph actually proceeded: take the first idea, then consider alternatives, perhaps develop one or two of these concepts and see where it leads. We may find that our first idea was, in fact, the best alternative; however, we may find that something radically different is a better choice. At first glance, this looks like a long drawn-out process. It isn’t really. Our minds work very rapidly, and once we hit on an idea, most of us find that it blossoms almost automatically, sometimes reforming itself almost instantaneously. If we take a moment—or even longer—to examine each iteration of the idea as it evolves, we will discover which will work the best.

This is not to suggest that this is merely a passive activity. Each of us has their own process and methodology. Ideas sometimes pop into mind, but they must be evaluated and perhaps massaged and developed before they can become a full-blown project. And that preliminary process may or may not better the original idea, but it certainly can facilitate moving only our best ideas forward.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the idea that turns into a project was the first idea or the fifteenth. What matters is that we have a way to advance our best ideas and let the lesser ones either support those best ones or fall by the wayside.

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Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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