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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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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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Creating Through Collaboration

Sunday, 5. May 2013 23:42

Although there exist legends about dictatorial theatre directors and outrageous choreographers and tyrannical movie stars, most of us who work in theatre know that the best theatre work is consistently produced by collaboration. Ensemble acting is valued above the star system. Ideas come from everywhere. Even though the director is responsible for putting everything together, musical directors, choreographers, actors, designers, cinematographers, assistant directors also contribute. No one denies the vision of the director or the producer, but there are also views that are presented by others that the wise visionary will consider. Only the foolish refuse to listen.

All photographers who shoot people understand that a really good session is the result of the teamwork between subject and photographer, as well as art director if there is one (and sometimes even the client). But the collaboration of subject and photographer is the core and is undeniable. Shooting someone who has modeling or acting training produces results that are far superior to those involving an unschooled model. It is true that some photographers can get excellent results from the untrained, but the odds are against them, and if the stakes are high, most photographers will choose skilled models every time.

Some artists claim to work completely alone, neither giving nor receiving input from others, no matter how casual. Those people, I think, are rare. We all talk to others, and often we talk to other artists. What is said cannot but influence our work. Even in the arts that appear to be the work of the isolated artist, collaboration can play a very important part. Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, makes this point clearly, suggesting that the successes of the many artists living in Paris in the 1920s resulted from their close association and sharing (or stealing) ideas and concepts. Indeed, painters, [still-life] photographers, collagists, sculptors, animators, computer artists, and writers often explore ideas with other artists, or get ideas from conversations with other artists either in their own media or in others.

On several occasions, discussions with other artists have caused me to take a new approach to a piece of work, or consider possibilities that I had not done before. Some would say that this is just stealing an idea, but it is actually more than that. Instead of just an idea put forward, the interchange would actually lead to a different way of thinking and then to the new piece; sometimes, in the process of creating the new piece, other conversations would occur, perhaps the seeking of advice or clarification of the idea or perhaps just exploring the subject that was on my mind. There have also been occasions in working with a model when a suggestion or a particular shot or something in the dialog would lead to an idea, which might then lead to further conversation, which would then lead to scheduling another shoot specifically to explore the new idea.

While these examples bear little resemblance to the production meeting that many theatre people experience on a regular basis, they are still very valid forms of collaboration. Unfortunately, many artists deny such experiences, or do not recognize them as what they are: the sharing and embryonic development of creative ideas—creating through collaboration. If, however, we allow ourselves to recognize what is happening, we can then participate more fully in the process, expand our creative potential, and ultimately profit from it.

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Actors and Salaries and Art, Oh My!

Monday, 9. July 2012 0:11

A headline attributed to Forbes appeared not long ago in my news reader summary: “Kristen Stewart’s Lavish Pay A Sign That Nobody In Hollywood Knows Anything.” It turned out that the headline belongs to an op/ed piece by Kyle Smith, a Forbes contributor. Smith’s position seems to be that Stewart, who topped the current Forbes Highest Paid Actresses List, earning $34.5 million, did not make a significant contribution to the films she was in. Smith cannot find connections between the high incomes of major movie stars and the number or earning power of the films in which they appear. Nor does he see any connection with branding of the films.

Anyone who has studied film should understand that movie-stardom and the quality level of film are not really related. Movie-stardom is about a relationship between a movie person and his/her audience. It has very little to do with acting ability, profitability, or anything other than celebrity. Sometimes, movie makers can cash in on that popularity and utilize it for marketing (Historically, it has been used as an aid to market stability); sometimes not.

Smith also seems to miss at least one point that Forbes staffer, Dorothy Pomerantz, in a business news article, “Kristen Stewart Tops Our List Of The Highest-Paid Actresses,” makes quite convincingly. Stewart is in demand; fans would allow nobody else to play Bella Swan in any of the latter Twilight films. Thus, she (and her co-stars) could command a significant salary and a percentage of the profits. And why would the studios not pay? Hollywood, after all, is (and has always been) about the money, and if the producers want the movie to make more money, they will give the potential customers what they want, and if what the customers want is the actors they are used to seeing, regardless of the level of talent or skill, then they are who appear on the screen. And that same fan base justifies a higher salary for these actors in other movies.

Putting any actor in any role is a gamble into which many factors play. As far as I can determine (without digging too far), at least nine other actresses were considered for Stewart’s role in Snow White and the Huntsman. Replacing any actor playing any character can and does change the nature of the film. The choice of Stewart, and her accompanying higher price tag, was not a chance thing done for no reason.

Another thing that is evident is that the money paid a person working on a film is not automatically related to “crafting a story.” Money in American film is allocated not in a way that will necessarily contribute to artistic improvement, but in a way that will make more money. One reader of Smith’s article points out that Forbes also nominated Stewart as one of the most profitable/bankable stars of 2011 because “she was netting an estimated $56 for every dollar she was paid.” That is a pretty good return on investment according to almost anybody’s way of thinking.

Aside from finances, there are a number of considerations in putting a film together, artistic considerations being only one. Creative projects, as any of us in the arts know, tend to take on a life of their own. Once you are committed to the project, we will do almost anything to bring it to life. In the case of movies, this involves many compromises and much collaboration. And it includes scheduling: is this actor available when we want to shoot? Do we modify the schedule? Do we find another actor? Will these actors working together make the project better or worse? Should we pay more for this person, material, location, or less for that person, material, location?  What is the nature and availability of our funding? What is our window of opportunity? How will modifications impact audience acceptance? How much are we willing to compromise? What about the project is really important? How badly do we want to do it?

In the end, what becomes important is completing the project, realizing our vision. And we do what we have to do to make that happen, whether we are collaborating with others to produce a multi-million dollar movie, a stage play, a concert, an art show, or working individually to produce a photograph, painting or sculpture.

 

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