It was brought to my attention last week that I was talking about theatre criticism as a collaboration between theatre artist, critic, and spectator without really exploring what that means. I touch on the relationships between these types of people a bit in the article on The Separation of Art and Critic, but I think it might be useful for us to explore this a little more. After all, when you go to the theatre, you’re going to be (at least) one of those three things every time; don’t you think it’s better to know what you’re getting into?
I make a case in that other article for a blurring of the boundaries that we employ to rigidly separate Artist from Critic. But I don’t talk at all about what the audience does for themselves, only about how they are seen from the perspectives of the artist and critic. Today, I’m going to delve a little more deeply into the audience’s perspective, to see what we can discover about them, as well as the more vocal participants in the theatrical event.
Who is the audience? You know who you are. You buy your ticket, you sit in the third row, you might have a beer, you might not, you watch what the artists have made for you. Thank you. That’s what you do. But what are you doing when you do that? I suggest that you are participating in a collaboration with the artist to create the art in real time as you engage with it. The art isn’t art without the viewer. So you’re important, because no one can make art without you. Let me explain:
If there’s one thing we can take away from articles like this one, published in the Denver Post, it’s that all art needs a viewer. Even if the only person who sees a painting is the painter, there has been at least one audience member. The same individual can serve different roles in different moments. Looking at the concluding paragraph from that article also offers an interesting insight: “The art world […] might do well to remember that looking is participating, when it’s accompanied by an effort to comprehend, when looking is the main event, not the opening act. It’s a more demanding sort of fun.”
Did you see it? Were you looking? Looking with an effort to comprehend. That’s what you are doing when you’re in the audience: looking, with an effort to comprehend what’s happening in front of you. Yeah, being an audience member doesn’t stop with the act of observing, but goes right through to attempting to make sense and understand what’s happening in front of you. (I should clarify: despite the visual medium I’m working in, and the visual bias of the article I’m quoting – which is actually about visual art – my use of the word “look” throughout this article is to say “observe,” not to imply that theatre is a medium that’s not accessible to the visually impaired. And yes, we do hope to make our content more accessible in the future).
The first logical step here is to figure out exactly what it is to “try to comprehend.” I think we can understand that “trying to comprehend” means, essentially, trying to fit a particular sensory experience within the larger context of our lives.
Now, I think that article gets a lot of the causality wrong, because it seems to me that the audience has always been a participant in creating art – it’s not like the nature of art itself changed when people understood it differently (or did it? What is the nature of art, other than our collective understanding of it?) – but the fact of our thinking differently about it has certainly led us in new directions in our creation of it. By noticing something different about our experience of art, we changed how we do art. (By the way: I’m not giving undue weight to the thoughts of some art critic from Denver when I say this; he’s just saying in a more digestible way what Barthes, Dewey, and countless other theoreticians and artists have said.)
This is crucial: it is the audience’s job to look at and try to comprehend art, we have a new understanding of art. Where do you think that new understanding came from? It came from someone looking at art and trying to comprehend how it works. From the audience.
Let me just stack up these ideas I’ve gleaned so far: (a) the artist can be the viewer, (b) art needs a viewer to be art, (c) the viewer looks and attempts to comprehend, (d) new understanding leads to the creation of new art.
This suggests that the artist and the audience overlap to a large degree. The artist is an audience member who has taken some extra steps to articulate their understanding of the art they’ve been looking at. (Remember: Art meets Life continually)? The artist is the audience member who never stops looking at the world around them like it’s art, and takes active steps to prepare themselves to participate in it in a way that society calls “making art.” Like countless hours of training.
So what about the audience member who sits in the show with their beer? Maybe you’re not interested in being an artist yourself. You have other valuable things you do for our world, (including going to the theatre, and reading theatre blogs. Wicked!) but you want to be the best audience member you can. That’s completely incredible. I actually can’t believe that you’re real. Because I am stuck inside my own world-view, where I can’t see any way to be that doesn’t foreground trying to make art, and every time I see theatre, it makes me want to make theatre. So you are, in some sense, mysterious to me.
But let’s return to this “stack” of ideas I made, particularly (d) the viewer looks and attempts to comprehend. That is the way you collaborate with the artist in the creation of the work. By looking at and attempting to comprehend the work taking place be(for)e you, you become an active participant in the creative process; you become the viewer, and the art becomes the art in the moment of your observation and attempt to comprehend.
So we’ve spent a lot of time talking about comprehending art, and I’ve even provided a pat little definition to introduce this whole argument. Now that we’ve recognized the implications of making sense of our sensory experience in the context of our lives, a more pertinent question to ask, I think, is “what does trying to comprehend consist of?”
Somewhat shockingly, I already wrote a whole article about that called Criticism Begins with Because. “But Wes, that’s an article about how to do criticism!” Precisely. Criticism is the process articulating your attempt to comprehend your experience. So yes, everyone truly is a critic, if they are trying to be the best audience member they can be. Critics, in our society, are those people, like artists, have put in the time honing their craft and choose to present the products of their experience in a tangible form.
“But Wes, what about entertainment? Sometimes I don’t want to think about everything like it’s art, even art! That’s hard. Sometimes I just want to relax.” I get that. And that’s what we’re here for at the NOC; not to think for you, but to help make the thinking a bit easier, because for us, it’s the best part.