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More Thoughts on the Artist/Audience Relationship

Sunday, 20. June 2021 23:17

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.

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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

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.

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Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56

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.

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Reopening the Performing Arts

Sunday, 9. May 2021 22:49

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.

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Take a Moment

Monday, 15. February 2021 0:04

Yesterday, I was half-finished with my blog post, which was about the artful response to the once-in-generation winter weather event that we are about to experience, when I stopped. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea about the circumstances of my readers. While I know that most of the readers of this blog are interested in the arts and creativity, I have no idea what their lives are like, and I had made the mistake of assuming that they were much like mine. So I took a moment to think about it.

A number of creative people are, and have been out of work for almost a year. This likely means that they have had to change their lifestyles, including their living arrangements. They may have had to take other types of jobs to make ends meet. Or they may be trying to survive without making ends meet. Others have seen markets dry up and have had to turn to different venues to sell their work, with differing levels of success. Certainly they are operating differently than they were a year ago.

And there is no reason to think that all who read the blog, or even a majority, are in the same life situation that I am in at the moment, so what I was writing not only might not have resonated, but may have been an affront to them—something I had no intention of doing when I sat down to begin the post.

I had been thinking about this severe weather event as providing a temporary respite from pandemic fatigue, which is plaguing many of us as we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic. It did not occur to me that it might well do that—but in a negative way. And one of the things we do no need more of at the moment is anything negative.

What we do need is something positive. So if the once-in-a-generation winter weather event can bring us something positive, I am all for it. And it doesn’t have to be something big or life-changing. It could be something as small as a warm bowl of soup, a mug of hot chocolate, a moment when we can sit by the fire and read, a minute to stand by the window and watch the snow fall, or just a short time when we don’t have to think about the pandemic and all that that means.

One of the positive things that it has provided me is an occasion to take a moment to appreciate my own situation. For all the complaining I do, I have been very fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided me the opportunity to take a moment to say how much I appreciate those who take the time to visit this blog. And it allows me the forum to voice my hope that you are somewhere safe and warm and dry as the temperature drops and the freezing rain and snow begin to fall.

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If You Build It . . .

Sunday, 31. January 2021 23:35

. . . they may or may not come. The fact is that art does not sell itself. No matter how good our art might be, no matter what our art is, there is no guarantee that it will be appreciated or purchased. There are, of course, artists who become famous after their deaths; Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickenson jump to mind immediately. But what of those artists who may have been equally talented but were not “discovered” after their deaths? What of their art? It’s gone, lost to us—forever.

Many of us did not enter the world of art to become famous; rather, we got into art because we were compelled by something inside. Still, if we do good work, it would be nice to at least have our work acknowledged. But that is something that does not happen naturally. Oh, family and friends might appreciate out work, but most of us would like to have our work known in a bit wider world. “Oh, that’s just ego talking,” some might say. In some cases that might be true, but in others, it’s about the work, about sharing our work with the world.

There are many artists who would like to share their work with the world, but they don’t know how or don’t want to take the time away from the work to figure out what “sharing” really means to them. Does it simply mean getting the work out into the world? Or does it mean getting the work out into the world and being paid for it? This is not a new phenomenon; it took James Joyce literally years to get Ulysses published.

And it’s something that is not taught in most schools. We can take classes in writing, sculpture, painting, photography, dance, directing, or whatever art we might want to, but nowhere in the curriculum is there training in getting published, or collected, or known. That is left up to each individual artist. And it’s something every individual artist must deal with, even those who are reclusive or eschew sales and promotion.

“Well, there’s always the internet,” some would say, and yes that is a way to get our work out. We can snag a YouTube Channel or put our work onto any of the myriad of platforms offered by the internet. The problem is that we are then just one of the thousands of others vying for the attention of the public. For the writers (and maybe photographers and other visual artists) there is always blogging or self-publishing, and there have been successes in that area, but again, we find ourselves competing with hundreds of others.

So, we not only need to get our work out there, but we need to find a way to get people to look out that work. We have to connect with our potential audience. We need to promote—our work, our selves. And even if it takes time away from creating, it is absolutely necessary. And even though it does not represent who we are, it is absolutely necessary. And no matter how much we don’t want to do it, it is absolutely necessary—if we want an audience.

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Make Your Work Known

Sunday, 3. January 2021 23:11

Some artists are notoriously introverted and reclusive. Emily Dickenson, Vivian Maier, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind. These were artists who were concerned almost exclusively with creating rather than selling their work. A number of us follow in their footsteps, so many, in fact, that Austin Kleon felt compelled to write a book called Show Your Work, which he says is a “guide to getting discovered.”

The reasons for our reticence to get our work out there are many. Some of us are simply introverted. Many of us are insecure. A number of us don’t want to take the time or learn the skills required to sell our work. Some of us don’t want to take the time away from away from the process of making work to show our work. Another group of us has entered shows and contests, even won awards, developed web sites, and found that those activities did not materially enlarge our audience—at least in a way that we could see, so we pulled back. A few of us simply lack ambition. There are hundreds of other reasons, but these are the ones that seem to predominate.

So we do our work in isolation, subsisting solely on the rewards of creativity, eschewing discovery. Still, many of us harbor a small wish to be, if not famous, at least to be known to a group outside our family and friends. We would like for our work to be recognized.

And perhaps that’s the key; perhaps that’s a way to get past our own introversion and insecurity: to think of it as not promoting ourselves, but promoting the work. Perhaps if we focus on our work instead of ourselves it will be easier to find the time and the wherewithal to put it out into the world. After all, we know that work has value; we spent hours, days, weeks making, refining, and polishing it. What we don’t know is whether the work has value for other people. And the only way we are ever going to find that out is by putting it out into the world.

And yes, that will take some time, and some effort, but it may well be worth it. We may find that there exists a group of people who appreciate what is that we do, a group of people who are interested not only in what we do but how we do it. And once we find that group, we may be able to figure out how to grow it. And we may find that some in that group are interested in not just seeing but owning some of our work.

And although it will take that time and effort, our work will become known. And we can stay personally introverted if we like because it will be about the work and not about ourselves. Except now there is a larger audience for the work. The only questions that remain are when and where to start. When is easy: now. Where is a more difficult question, given that there is a myriad of venues. One place we might start is with one of those advice books, like Show Your Work. We just need to remember that what we read are suggestions, not rules. We can take what is comfortable and useful and leave the rest. After all, it’s our work that we are showing and we should do it our way.

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And the Winner Is…

Monday, 17. February 2020 0:56

The Academy Awards marked the end of the awards season for films, but not the end of the discussion and controversy surrounding the awards and the films, actors, and directors who did and did not get nominated or who did and did not win this or that award. Coupled with that are the discussions of who or what film should have won this or that award, and there is discussion of the snubs and the possible reasons for them.

There were two lessons to be taken from this year’s award season. The first is that nominations, wins, and snubs are political as well as aesthetic.

Artists who do not work in film understand that the various awards shows are simply spectacles attached to juried film contests. Unlike standard juried art shows, however, film awards programs are fostered by a series of advertisements not unlike electioneering. The reason is, of course, the potential income that winning such awards can bring. Still, at the bottom, the awards are nothing but grandly publicized juried contests with a great number of jurors.

As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of any juried show. Each juror has not only a personal aesthetic which informs his/her judgement, i.e. what is artistically worthy of an award, but a personal political view as well. That political view may include any number of considerations of what is politically appropriate at the moment with respect to the contestants and the milieu in which they work. Of course some of these considerations will overlap juror-to-juror; some will not. Multiply these concerns by the number of jurors and it is easy to see why some films rise to the top and some do not in any particular year.

Awards are voted and announced and then there is great indignation that someone’s choice did not win. However, if pressed, that person cannot tell you why this film should have won over the one that was chosen. The second lesson to be learned is that many film enthusiasts cannot articulate why they think one film is better than another one; they just think it is.

Perhaps the first problem to acknowledge is that comparing films is like comparing apples and roses and tricycles. Films are one-off creations, much like any handcrafted artifact. Yes, there are series and franchises, but each film is expected to stand on its own just like each painting or sculpture or photograph is expected to stand on its own.

If we are to compare a film about a “members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family” and a film about “a stand-up comedian…whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal” and a film about “two young British soldiers during the First World war who are ordered to deliver a message” we must have some sort of set of standards as to what makes a film good. Most people seem to have that, but are unable to articulate it. When questioned, they simply say, “It was just better.”

So my two take-aways from this year’s film awards seasons are: (1) these awards shows are simply hoopla associated with juried contests for films. There are hundreds of jurors, and they all come with their own aesthetics and political positions which influence their votes. (2) Non-jurors (and perhaps jurors as well) also have their own aesthetics and political positions with regards to the evaluation of film, but they cannot articulate their standards.

We should take these two considerations into account the next time we submit pieces to juried shows; it is likely that responses to our work will incorporate them.

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Art Must Communicate—Immediately

Sunday, 18. August 2019 23:08

We are told repeatedly that it is impossible to please everyone, so we might as well make art to please ourselves. That is not terrible advice, as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. If we make art only to please ourselves, we run the risk of creating masturbatory art. (See “Art or Masturbation?”) Don’t we really want an audience larger than our three fellow artists who “get it”? If so, perhaps we ought to change our approach to the work we create.

This is not to say that our art does not have to satisfy our own aesthetic; certainly, it does. But shouldn’t our art try to communicate our vision to an audience outside ourselves? If we’re not going to do that, why bother to create an artifact in the first place? We create to record or reproduce our vision. This, though, is not enough, at least not for Edgar Degas who said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Reading that quotation this week caused me to think about how artists approach their work in general. (And thanks to Lori McNee [@lorimcneeartist] for the tweet where I read it.) Many artists are so intent on transferring what they have seen and felt to the page or computer or canvas that they forget they have an audience. They don’t concern themselves with making their art to “make others see.”

When we do concern ourselves with that, it changes how we think about what we do. Communications theory holds that the responsibility for the success of the communication rests squarely on the person doing the communicating. If the other person doesn’t get it, it’s the communicator’s fault. Likewise, the responsibility for whether a piece of art communicates rests on the artist. When we accept that, we concern ourselves with not only recording our thoughts and feeling and insights in our art, but in being sure that the audience “gets” those thoughts and feelings and insights as well. So our focus changes; we become concerned with structuring our art so that it becomes accessible—at least to that group of people that we call our audience.

If we do not adopt this approach, we run the risk of looking and sounding as foolish as a stage director I knew once. I happened to be in the vicinity of the bulletin board where a newspaper review of the recently opened play just been posted. The reviewer said essentially that the direction of the show was muddy and s/he had difficulty determining what the play was really supposed to be about. The director of the show stopped, read the review, and began to rail loudly to anyone who would listen that the reviewer should come back as many times as it took for him/her to understand it. He completely missed the irony of calling for an audience member to repeatedly attend an art form that is designed to be absorbed and understood in a single viewing. And he had no idea how arrogant and foolish he sounded. (By the way, the reviewer was correct—the direction of the show was muddy, and the play went nowhere.)

Most of the art we create, even if it is not theatre, must be created with the idea in mind that our audience is likely to see it only once and must be able to grasp at a single viewing what it is that we are attempting to communicate. Realistically speaking, our work will probably not be hung in a museum or saved in a library for leisurely study by our audience.  Our work can be subtle, but it must communicate immediately. Once we realize this, and adjust our process accordingly, we are likely to see a change in audience reaction—for the better.

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Want to Be Famous? Make Some Friends

Sunday, 3. March 2019 23:03

We’ve all heard the saying “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” It turns out that in the case of artists, it’s not what you know or who you know; it’s how many who’s you know. In a 2018 study of abstract artists’ fame, Paul Ingram and Mitali Banerjee determined that cosmopolitan social networking was a better indicator of fame than either creativity or originality. Essentially, the study found that artists generally labeled “abstract” were famous in direct proportion to the size of their circle of friendship, with more fame attributed to those whose groups of friends were multinational.

A thorough discussion of this study by Casey Lesser can be found at artsy.net. In this article, Lesser posits that not only were diverse networks important as indicators of fame, but that they were also a “source of creativity” and had the additional benefit of providing the artist with a “cosmopolitan identity.”

Much of the data for this study originated with a 2012 exhibition about the birth of abstraction at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. MoMA has provided an interactive diagram of who knew whom that clearly makes the point that the most connected artists—in this case Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky—were the most famous.

And lest we think that this study represents an anomaly, remember that Emily Dickinson did not become famous until relatives who had much wider social networks worked to get her poems published. It is also notable that people who are famous in one art can let it be known that they are involved in another art and instantly be more famous in that second field than many who have worked in the field for a lifetime, but who have had much smaller networks of friends and acquaintances. For example, Jim Carrey and Jonathan Winters are two comedian/actors who have become almost as famous for their paintings as for their performing.

So what does that mean to us?  It means, simply, that all the hype about establishing a diverse social network isn’t hype, it’s the path to recognition. Of course, there is no indication as to whether today’s social networks, e.g. Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, et al constitute networks of “friends” as the term is used in this study, i.e. a group of people who actually know each other. One would guess that the more active one is in any given forum, the more likely s/he is to be able to call it a real group of friends.

Please note also that the more diverse the group of friends, the more likely it is to indicate potential recognition. Also, internationality counts.

In concrete terms, this means that we must “meet new people and network across professional industries in order to open [ourselves] up to career opportunities and advancement….We won’t become famous in a vacuum and should seek to diversify our social circles.” And although we may not want to be movie-star famous, we probably do want to have our work seen and known. That, in itself, is a kind of fame. To achieve that we must not only maintain social networks, but we probably need to curate our followers and followings, so that we come to actually know those with whom we interact.

And we must not forget personal, in-person networking, which is probably the most potent form of networking going. If Ingram and Banerjee’s study is to be believed, in order to have our work known to the world we must enlarge our circle of friends. Today would be a good day to start.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Social Media | Comment (0) | Autor: