The dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, got me thinking about the relationship between artists and their audience members with an interesting thought that she presented in her book, The Creative Habit:
Everyone who presents his or her work to the public eventually realizes that there’s a quasi-legal transaction between artist and audience… You feel gypped when the [artist] breaks the contract.
There’s certainly something to that. A humorist is supposed to make you laugh. A mystery writer is supposed to build a murderous maze and then lead you out of it. A musician sets a mood and then within that mood creates and resolves tension. A choreographer presents bodies moving through space. On one level, the dancers defy the physical limitations of an average human, as well as the restrictions of gravity. The dance itself also defies the chaotic, often random nature of moving objects. But on another level, the choreographer and dancers connect the audience to universal emotions and ancestral impulses.
And a photographer… does… selfies?
We do similar stuff. The pictures that move me the most connect me to landscapes, they awaken memories, maybe deep memories, and they evoke emotions and awaken those same ancestral impulses that Ms. Tharp referred to.
Yet to take any single point of view, any one breakdown of an artistic performance or piece of work and conclude that that’s the one, that that’s what art is, misses the relational nature of art. And in that misunderstanding, we set aside the capacity for change, for growth, for the opportunity to deepen our appreciation of ourselves, our fellow travelers on the journey through life, and for a richer apprehension of the wonder of it all.
Maybe what we’re ultimately seeking in our work, and in our interaction with artwork that speaks most clearly to each of us, is less a transaction than a conversation.
A transaction includes an element of choice—I’d like this one over here, not that one over there—and we offer some form of compensation, whether it’s currency for a shirt or a bag of potatoes; time, as well as money, for a movie, concert or play; or devoting our time and attention to visual art. But with all due acknowledgement to post-sale marketing and the ongoing relationship we have with many of the products and services we buy, the transaction itself happens once, and then it’s over.
When art resonates with an audience member, he or she can return to it again and again. In fact, when art works really well for someone, the work itself seems to come back to that person. When this happens, the work seems like it’s gotten under our skin, or like we can’t get it out of our head. We notice things we hadn’t seen or heard before, or we go back to parts of the work that we noticed earlier, but that hold more significance for us now. When this happens, at least for me, it can seem that piece of art that I’m responding to changes, revealing more, or deeper, meaning over time. But it’s we, the audience, who change. We become different people, people who have changed through our experience of life, as we learn more, as we absorb the pain of our own struggles and defeats, the joys of our successes and victories, and the poignant realization of the inevitable connection between victory and defeat. We change as we experience success and failure, and as we gain a deeper realization of the fact of our own aliveness, even as we age and grow closer to our death.
This isn’t sad or depressing. As we mature I think we realize satisfaction that’s tinged with myriad memories, perceptions and emotions. It’s not the shallow sense of “Wow, life keeps getting better and better!!!” Rather, it’s the understanding that life is hard, and beautiful, and surprising, and wondrous, and worth every moment of struggle. That realization can continue to unfold for us throughout our life, and a relationship with artwork, an ongoing conversation with it, can enhance it.