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Free Will or Streaming Service Suggestion?

Monday, 15. July 2024 0:18

Many of us have a streaming service; a number of us have multiple streaming services. And one of the problems with a streaming service is deciding what to watch. There are a number of ways to do this; however, one thing that all these streaming services seem to have in common is that they try to tell us what to watch. They, of course, don’t call it that; they call it “Suggested for You” or some such. Essentially, they suggest things that they think we would like to watch—usually based on what we have watched before. How good they are at predicting what we would like to watch depends on how good their algorithm is.

The streaming service I use most is Amazon Prime, so I am most familiar with what they offer as suggestions; all streaming services, so far as I know, do something similar. To begin with Amazon Prime has a header on the home page which seems to have nothing to do with what I might want to watch.  Rather, the header links to things they want me to watch or things they want to sell me. Most are things in which I have no interest. This does not keep me from scrolling through the offerings occasionally, on the off chance there will be something of interest. If I scroll down the home page, I will encounter “Films we think you’ll like” and “TV shows we think you’ll like.” These seem to be better selected. At least, I will occasionally will find something in these two lists that at least looks worth investigating. And while there may be in those lists, things that interest me, there are a great number that do not, so I am compelled to look, usually on a monthly basis, into the lists marked “New TV shows” and “New movies.” And then there are always suggestions from friends or suggestions that I find elsewhere.

Aside from my own experience, I know people who follow the onscreen recommendations very strictly—only watching what the streaming service recommends they watch. On the other hand, I know people who rely on email suggestions from the streaming service, rather than the onscreen suggestions. I have found that the email suggestions miss the mark more often than they hit it, but it seems to work for some people. Others will, every month, do an Internet search for “What’s new on [name of service] this month” and then select one of the sites that list such information. I have used this method myself and have found some things that interested me that failed to show up either in emails or in onscreen suggestions.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that unless we have unlimited time to explore the offerings of streaming services or we have so little time that following streaming service suggestions is the only way we can select what to watch, we might do well to consider all the alternatives. There are many shows being streamed that are worth watching, but we need to take the time to figure out what selection methods work best for us to maximize our enjoyment of the medium and employ those methods to take full advantage of the time we spend on entertainment.

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Categorizing Art

Sunday, 2. June 2024 23:04

In thinking and writing about art, one of the things I’ve noticed is that it is difficult to say anything meaningful about art in general. This became even more evident to me with the last post. Obviously it is difficult to discuss a collective that has parts that communicate so differently, as I attempted to do in that post. So, I came to question the wisdom of attempting to say anything about art in general.

It’s not that the arts don’t have anything in common; rather, it’s that what they have in common is so general as to be very vague. It would be better, I think, to divide that arts into categories, for purposes of discussion. But then the question arises as to how to break them down. The traditional way is to divide them into performing and visual arts: some add plastic arts as a separate category. Unfortunately, that leaves out a whole section of art: written art, which is neither performing nor visual. It exists more in the mind of the reader than anywhere else, guided by what is on the page.

So now we have three categories: performing art, visual art, and written art. Are there others or do we have the field of arts covered? A bit of research turns up nine “classic” arts: music, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, comic, theatre, cinema, and architecture. It is obvious that that prose could be included only by stretching the poetry category beyond recognition. And can sculpture be expanded to include ceramics? Interestingly, no reasons are given for this breakdown.

Perhaps another method of breaking down the arts is in order. Such a method is suggested by the last post. And that is by how the art in question communicates with its audience. So we have performing arts, which communicates over time, and includes music, dance, theatre, film, and all of the variants of these. Next, we have arts that communicate the moment they are perceived, although they certainly can be studied for longer periods. Art in this category are not dependent on exposure over a specific length of time to grasp the entire art work and is absorbed primarily through the eyes of the viewer. This category includes painting, sculpture, ceramics, and architecture. A third category is comprised of art which is absorbed by reading and so is not dependent upon either a specific amount of time or continuity to be appreciated by its audience. The audience can absorb the words and images primarily through the eyes over sometimes discontinuous time, with the primary communication taking place in the imagination of the reader. This applies to prose as well as poetry.

There are also crossover arts, such as audio books, which combine input through the ears, but, again, with the primary communication taking place in the imagination of the listener. One must note, however, that part of the interpretation of this art falls to the reader, thus influencing what is communicated.

This whole discussion brings up other questions: are these categories exhaustive? Do they cover all the arts? Are they sufficient, i.e. should we divide visual and plastic arts? Are these categories useful for talking about art or is this just a mental exercise? What do we call these categories? Are “performing arts,” “visual arts,” and “written arts” sufficient or do we need other names?

All of those questions are worth considering, and I certainly do not know the answers. But it does seem to me that by grouping arts into three categories gives us a more accurate way to talk about those arts than if we refer to all arts as one thing.

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The Core of Art

Sunday, 19. May 2024 22:47

A number of artists I know consider themselves story-tellers. They firmly believe that art is to be found only in stories. Some even say that if there is an artifact that is not story-based, the artist would do well to create a story to accompany the artifact in order to attract an audience, or, at the very least, incorporate a story about how the work came to be. That may or may not work.

There is, however, art that is not story-based: many still-life images, both painted and photographed, are not story-based, for example. A number of sculptures are not story-based, nor are many musical compositions and choreographic pieces. All of this raises the question, what is at the artistic core of a piece of art if not a story?

Let’s take as given that art works seek to engage the audience and communicate something. The next step is to determine how they do what they intend to do. In narrative forms, that seems to be story—at least in most cases. The story carries the audience along, keeping members engaged until the something is communicated. Sometimes this takes the entire length of the interaction, and sometimes it’s all just leading to a single moment.

Non-narrative forms, on the other hand, do it differently. Some of these forms present the whole of what they are and what they are attempting to say all at once. These are mostly photographs, paintings, and sculptures. Some of these may be story-based, but many are not, and present whatever they have to present on first viewing, although multiple viewings may be warranted. Other non-narrative forms, such as dance and music present their content through time, but in a non-narrative fashion. Unless stories are added to the presentation of such pieces, they rely solely on what is presented to carry their messages.

So are all arts just different in the ways that they communicate with their audiences? Of course they are. As we have seen, some rely on stories to carry the message while others rely on mere seeing. And, of course there are all the possibilities in between. If this is the case is there anything that the arts have in common? I believe that there is, and I think it is that the core of a piece of art relies on a moment of connection between the piece and the individual audience member. Sometimes, there are many such moments in a piece; sometimes there is only one. The number is immaterial. Also unimportant is whether there is a story or not, or the nature of that story if it does exist. The important thing is that there is at least one such a moment in an artistic piece, so the piece can speak to the audience member.

And those moments do not have to be profound. There are all sorts of levels of artistry, and some have very important things to say, while others are of lesser profundity. What is important is that there is a moment of connection, a moment when the piece speaks directly to the audience member, and the audience member recognizes that connection. It’s why we appreciate art.

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“There’s No Accounting for Taste”

Sunday, 7. April 2024 22:28

It’s an old saying, and it’s true. As we established in the last post, not everybody likes Bob Dylan. And the same holds true for every artist, every genre, every art medium, even art itself. Some people like rock and roll; others hate it; still others tolerate it. Some find abstract expressionism offensive; others think it is the advanced form of visual art that has ever been practiced. And it’s not just contemporary art: Some people believe Michelangelo’s David to be a masterpiece while others find it obscene. Some theatregoers love the work on Tennessee Williams, but eschew the work of Arthur Miller; some like Miller but not Williams; some like both playwrights; still others like neither.

The question is why is this the case? And the answer is that nobody knows, at least as far as I have been able to tell. Oh, the question of taste has been considered by various philosophers, but with very mixed results, most of which come down to “it’s in the eye of the beholder.” Hardly a sufficient answer, but it does seem to be a very individualized thing. Some art resonates with some audience members, but not with others. The question of why remains.

Some work resonates because it strikes a nostalgic chord in the audience member, perhaps from their childhood Sometimes this resonance can even be subconscious, but still it gets a positive response. Likewise the resonance can be trigger a certain memory which causes the individual to respond in a positive fashion. Some work can resonate because it satisfies the audience member’s sense of aesthetics. This sense of aesthetics can, in addition to arising naturally, be developed from the person’s education and experiences as well as their exposure to other art. It can be something that has been learned in school and incorporated into the person’s belief system to the point that when one encounters artifacts that satisfy their aesthetic criteria, they respond positively, and report that they “like” the artifact.

It turns out that having a work satisfy the whole of an audience member’s aesthetic is a very complicated business. As noted above, individuals construct their aesthetic in a number of ways, building from a number of sources, and the aesthetic may be organized in a complicated fashion. An audience member may like most of a piece, but be repelled by some smaller part of the work, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, this sense of aesthetic is so individualized, it is nearly impossible for an artist to appeal to a large segment of the potential audience without subscribing to a pre-existing philosophy of art or one of the existing artistic movements or creating in an already-established genre. This is why it is so difficult for an artist to have genuinely ground-breaking work accepted.

Given this, there are two takeaways for the artist working today: (1) stop trying to get everyone to like your work. It’s a fool’s errand; your work will not resonate with everyone, and you will not be able to make that happen no matter how hard you try. (2) Make what you like; make what satisfies you. Some people will like it and some people won’t. But whatever you make will be yours, and it will be authentic.

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Everybody Loves Bob Dylan

Sunday, 24. March 2024 22:19

Actually…they don’t—not everybody. Admittedly, a great number of people love Bob Dylan, and an even larger number like him, but some only like one or two songs, and some don’t like him at all. And that’s the thing about art: most art does not resonate with everyone, and some art resonates with just a few people. This is what makes it so difficult for an artist to make a living doing their art—finding enough people who not only like the art, but like it well enough to spend money on it. It has been a problem from the very beginning of art until the present.

Even people who work in the art world, artists included, acknowledge that they don’t like all art. What they understand, however, is there is a great difference between liking a piece of art and understanding that it is good art, regardless of how well it is liked. Take Dylan for example. While not everyone likes his music, there is near universal agreement that he is “considered to be one of the greatest songwriters in history.” “Liking” something indicates that we have a personal resonance with the object; it speaks to us. Acknowledging the quality of something, on the other hand, indicates that we recognize that the art in question meets certain standards and has intrinsic value. Thus, while we may or may not like Dylan’s work, we must appreciate that the quality of it is such that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his song lyrics.

Such a distinction applies to all arts. Take, for example, professional wrestling. At first glance this activity may not seem to be an art, however, it is clearly defined as “a form of athletic theater that combines mock combat with drama, under the premise that the performers are competitive wrestlers,” and we can generally agree that theatre is an art form. Many, many people like professional wrestling— because it is highly entertaining. However, that does not mean that it is a highly-valued art form. In fact, it is difficult to assess the quality of professional wrestling at all, since much of it is loose improvisation. Some entertainers are certainly better than others and may be lauded for their performances. Still, the art form itself lacks the qualitative stature that is common to other theatre forms. Certainly, one does not expect a Nobel Prize to be given to professional wrestling. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a great difference between being liked and being considered “good.” Sometimes being liked is the desired goal.

So what are we as artists to do with this information? We need to decide whether we are trying to do work that is good or work that is liked. Ideally, we would do both, but often we cannot have that. We must decide what we are trying to do with our art. Are we trying to impact our immediate audience, or are we trying to create work that will speak to audiences in other times and places as well as our own? This is not to say that one choice is better than another; rather, it is to say that sometimes we must clarify what we are trying to do, so that we can better hone our craft and speak to whichever audience we choose.

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Continued Artistic Relevance

Sunday, 28. January 2024 20:10

A large number of people swear that when they go back and re-read Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, it’s a different book; it has different things to say; there are things in it that the reader has not seen before. This is a phenomenon that is not limited to Illusions; rather, it happens with almost any work that manages to stay relevant over time, or “hold up,” as some would say.

Composer and pianist Philip Glass has noticed the same phenomenon with regards to pieces of music, although he does not believe that the pieces have changed. Instead he believes that other things have changed and that change impacts the music: “What I found most interesting in coming back to many of these pieces is that something has changed. The music remains the same but I have changed, the world has changed, the way people hear, including myself, has changed. That change, or metamorphosis, is what interests me.”

It seems that there three ways to classify works of art over time: (1) there are those that “hold up,” that is, they continue to speak to their audiences, although, as noted above, some things seem to change or parts that were of lesser importance early on are now very important. (2) There are also those works that do not hold up without help, that is to say they lose their relevance and have to be made relevant to interest a “modern” audience. This often happens with musical theatre revivals, perhaps because musical theatre is so topical and temporal. This also happens with other types of works as well, often comedies—for the same reasons. (3)Then there are works that lose their relevance entirely as time passes. This is usually work that is tightly tied to temporal and topical aspects of the era in which it was created. There is very little way that such a work can resonate with an audience not of its time except as a cultural curiosity.

And while Glass is interested in the change itself, others are concerned what it is that makes a work continue to stay relevant to an audience over time, even though the specifics of what parts of the work actually speak to the audience may change. Certainly, a study of all types of art could be done to isolate those qualities that cause a work to remain relevant even though the audience may go through decades of cultural change, but the result would likely be a rather dry academic work that would say that those works that present problems and conditions that are universally human are the ones that will remain relevant. This, however, would be of little use to the working artist, because we all know that if we make our work too universal, it will not gain traction with the current audience and thus have no current relevance, much less relevance to future audience members.

The best solution is, I think, to forget future relevance. We need to make our work relevant to our current audience; we need to allow it to touch on universally human characteristics. Beyond that, we need only to strive to make it the best it can be. Whether it is relevant in the future is really up to future publishers, producers, and audiences. We need to worry less about some nebulous legacy and more about the art we create and its impact on its immediate audience.

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How Big Does Your Audience Need to Be?

Sunday, 23. April 2023 21:22

The answer is, of course, “as large as possible.” So perhaps a better question is, “when is the audience big enough?” This is a question that in one form or another I have put to a number of artists who work in different media, and the answers reflect both the artist and the media involved. Some theatre artists, for example, say that it depends on the venue while others say that it is a matter of the average audience size for that particular genre in that particular theatre. One director I know says only that there should be more people in the audience than there are on stage.

Visual artists, of course, differ in their answers, and those answers have to do with whether an audience are those who look or those who buy. Musical artists take into consideration the type of music being played, type of amplification, and the acoustics and ambience of the space. Some artists will answer the question with “when it provides enough revenue to break even”—or make a profit. Some artists don’t seem to be concerned with income; they just want to make the art. Every artist, it seems, has a different answer. And perhaps that means that we are once again asking the wrong question.

To get to that, we must ask what artists want from the audience. Is it enough for the audience members to sit through the presentation or look at the work on display, or do we want more? Most artists do want more, but what is the “more” that they want?

If we are trying to get rich, we will give one answer. If we are just trying to make a living from our art, we will give another. If we are trying to do neither, what are we trying to do? Perhaps we should examine our motives for making art in the first place. Are we trying to entertain, create beauty, change minds, challenge political stances, instill empathy, highlight a social problem, impact the audience members in some other way?

Once we can articulate why we are creating art in the first place, then we can better determine when the audience is “big enough.” In other words, how many of our audience will have to “get” what we are saying for us to be satisfied that  our work is successful in what it is trying to achieve? That is, how many must we entertain? How many must perceive beauty? How many must change their political stance? How many begin to understand empathy? How many recognize that social problem? The number, of course, will vary from artist to artist, but it would be well for each artist to know the answer for themselves.

Perhaps a greater problem for artists are that we may never know how many of our audience were impacted by our work in the ways that we intended—or when. (I once sold a piece a full month after the show in which it was shown.) We can, in some instances, discover how popular our work is by the numbers in our audiences or the number of likes we get on social media, but we can never really know who we have actually touched with our work—unless the audience member tells us. The best we can do is to keep our eyes on our goals, continually evaluate our methods and motives, and keep producing work that we are proud to have done.

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Your Art Doesn’t Have to Speak to Everybody

Sunday, 9. April 2023 22:33

It’s fairly common knowledge among artists that not everyone will like everything we produce. A piece has to resonate with an audience member to be appreciated, particularly to the point of purchase, and even then it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. Ask any artist who has rented a table at an arts fair and displayed work, or who has tried to get poetry published, or a comic accepted anywhere. In some of those instances there are gatekeepers, while in others, the art is presented directly to the potential audience—either physically or electronically. Still it’s unpredictable who will like what, and even more random when trying to determine who will buy what.

Many of us cannot afford to keep renting art show spaces, or self-publishing with no accompanying marketing effort. But we can’t not show our work; the result of that would be absolutely no sales. So we seem to be caught, and do the best we can—showing our work when opportunities we can afford present themselves, and holding back when we have no affordable alternatives. Given this situation, what are we to do?

Since not everyone is going to like everything we produce, we need to examine the relationship between our work and our potential audience. We need to realize that our work and our audience should match. This realization often leads artists to modify what they do so that what they try to say does appeal to everyone. This, of course, waters down the artist’s voice and, more importantly, the message of the piece.

Rather than modify our art, we would do better to concern ourselves with our potential audience. To increase our chances at finding those who might find our work resonant, we could do one of two things: (1) If we can find an existing potential audience whose members are interested in the sorts of things we have to say, we increase our chances of sales tremendously. (2) Failing that, we might develop an audience whose members are interested in the subject matter of our art.

The first alternative is perhaps a little easier—it means that we don’t enter every art fair we can afford, or show our work in every possible show. Rather, it means that we pick our shows carefully, that we research what sorts of work have been shown in the past and whether there are particular criteria for work that might match our own interests. Show listings are not all that difficult to find on the internet. There are a couple of web sites dedicated to directing artists to shows, and usually the criteria for the shows are clearly stated. This is not something that can be said of most art fairs.

Developing an audience is a more daunting task. However, there are at least a few conferences a year, and a number of books devoted to just that. Admittedly, these are aimed at the live theatre market; however, there is much they can teach artists in all media. Theatre folk are constantly trying to match material that they want to produce with potential audience and determine ways to increase the size of that audience. Some are very successful at it, so there is much they can teach the rest of us.

The point is that once we realize that our art doesn’t have to speak to everyone, the sales/marketing side of our artistic lives become just a little easier. Once we learn to curate and cultivate our audience, we can spend more of our time concentrating on actually making the work that matters to us, and that is the important thing.

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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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