Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Audience as Artist

Everyone talks about the creative process in terms of the artist. No one, it seems, talks about the creative process in terms of the viewer or the reader or the listener. After all, people think, it is the artist who is creative. 

I can’t argue with this, but what I can say is:  A successful artist lets the audience be part of the creative process. He makes his work interactive in a way that hyperlinking can never do.

Obvious examples of the kind of interaction I am talking about are Escher’s illustrations. The mind becomes totally engaged every time it looks at one of his images. An example from literature might be any of the works by Dickens. There is always something new to discover about one of his characters, who because they are so vividly portrayed, feel as though they are part of your world. You identify with and care about the people he brings to life in his books. And as for music, choose any of a number of composers who allow you to create without words or pictures a special place in your mind to explore.

In some ways, I am saying nothing terribly new. Writers are always admonished to let the reader feel the emotion. A good writer doesn’t say, “He got really angry.” Instead, a good writer is supposed to say “He threw the vase against the wall so hard that the sound of shattering glass drowned out the insults he hurled at his girlfriend.” A good painter suggests a hot day by his choice of color not by showing the sun in the sky. I could go on, but you get the point: you always leave room for people to come to their own conclusions about what is going on.  If they don’t get the feeling that the boyfriend was angry or that it was a hot day, then the artist has failed. 

This failure is easy to see in children. If they are not engaged, they simply close the book and look for another. They flip to another channel, or—heavens!—they go outside and hope to find a friend to play with.

I am reminded of a Psych 100 teacher I had who played a mental game with the two hundred or so freshmen crammed into the lecture hall. He was going to read a list of words and our task was to remember as many of them as we could. His plan, or so he told us, was to show us how collective memory works. He began: snow, salt, paper, clouds, waves, sugar, baking soda, teeth, toothpaste, etc. We all did well collectively reconstructing the list, but we all failed at the same time: we all insisted that the word ‘white’ was on his list. It was not. We had created ‘white’ out of association. I realized then and there the power of not saying what you want to say.

But this power is only part of what I have to say about inviting the viewer, the listener, the reader to be part of the creative process. 

A few months ago, I saw the movie “The King’s Speech.” What amazed me was how the writer had engaged the audience by anticipating their reaction and building upon that reaction. Here was Prince Albert George, etc., etc., the future king of England seeking help from a commoner, a speech therapist not of the ilk of those on Harley Street. Of course, the prince didn’t want to say who he really was; so it was a delight to listen to the audience’s reaction when the therapist insisted that the two of them be on a first name basis. Imagine! Calling a prince by his first name. Imagine! Calling Queen Elizabeth Liz. It’s this ‘imagine!’ part that I mean by engaging the audience. This was only the first in a series of ‘imagine!’ scenes in the movie. By the middle of the movie, the audience was audibly ensnared: they oohed and aahed and were deliciously tickled by what was happening.  In the end, when the prince had become king and had to deliver the greatest speech of his life, he succeeded and you knew that the audience was hanging on to his every word. The audience just didn’t identify with the characters. They didn’t just make all of the right emotional associations. They created that movie in their minds just as much as the actors, the director, the producers, and above all, the screen writer did.

It is hard to understand the power of anticipating the audience’s reaction and building upon that reaction. Not only is Dickens going to create unforgettable characters but he is going to let you think that you already know them. Not only is Escher going to surprise you with impossible pictures, but he is going to let you think that you can understand them. Not only is Mozart going to give you a series of beautiful notes but he is going to let you think that you had something to do with creating them by his preparing for their arrival, just as the screenwriter—David Seidler—prepared the audience for what was going to happen in the therapist’s office in “The King’s Speech.”

It is hard to image how all of this is going to work in a children’s picture book, but it does work. Look at the great books such as Blueberries for Sal. We are in that kitchen in Maine. We are out there picking berries with Sal, and—what is really important, the author and illustrator Robert McCloskey generously lets us create the next scene in our minds before we turn the page. 

I have only begun to put down in words what I have been thinking for many years. The important thing is: maybe with this start, you can make your own observations. Start with commercials on TV. Why do you like watching some commercials over and over? Why do other commercials annoy you? I have a feeling that for those you like, you’ll say that you felt part of the creative process.

No comments:

Post a Comment