Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Stepping away from your art.

When I was an art critic, I used to ask painters or sculptors the same set of questions, including things like:

"Why did you use this type of material?"
"Does the title of the piece have any significance?"
"When you were painting it, what did it mean to you?"
"What do you hope the audience will get out of it?"
"Are they supposed to enjoy it, or how do you want them to receive it?"

In my art classes, they used to tell us that any impression a viewer took from a piece or formed about a piece was probably not what the artist intended, but the viewer's impression of the piece was still valid because, like it or not, a piece immediately could lose any intended relevance at the moment someone new looks at it.

The artist's pet project, once it's presented to anyone, then belongs to "everyone," and the artist loses his say over what the piece "is." Thus, your extremely personal, brilliant painting exploring the darkness that exists within all of mankind becomes "random scribbling that could be done by a kid in grade school" to Average Joe Smith, and people might find his opinion just as true as yours. That's why I always asked both questions in an interview with an artist, "What did you mean?" and "How will they take it?" The answers can be vastly different.

When asked for what makes art "good," I used to tell people that, to me, art was passion practically (or tangibly) applied. And, from that, "good art" was not something that was pretty, but it was something that best communicated its intended message or gathered more meaning the more it was displayed. Art's quality is subjective and debatable, and, to me, it's always been fun to hear two incredibly smart people come at the same piece with vastly different opinions about it. Both of their opinions carry weight and should.

I can't explain, for instance, why the Rothko works at the Tate Modern made me cry. Rothko himself might've just been doing paintings of rectangles just to be pretentious or to do something funny. What you take away from art, in the end, is all that matters.

Last night, at my first writing class of the new session, I didn't anticipate all the new students who would be there, and I didn't bring enough copies of "Circle" to distribute. So that I wouldn't have to wait a week, I offered to read it aloud at the end of class, and Sarah, the professor, told me that would be fine. But then, in talking to me, she realized that I'd read the extremely personal, harrowing piece before to audiences. Sarah thought that it would come off as a "performance," that we would lose the ability to judge the piece on its own merit if I read it, so she did something else with "Circle," which is my baby.

She had someone else in the class read it aloud.

Actually, well, Sarah said that I had a tendency to "perform," which is true, so my friend Lynda (who'd read it before) came and ripped the manuscript out of my hand AND started to read the first sentence to the class.

I was not prepared.

"No ...," I protested aloud, interrupting Lynda. "Don't."

This belongs to me, I thought. This is my childhood. This is my monologue. Someone reading it won't know how to deal with the twist it takes.

"Is this too much?" Sarah asked me, offering for Lynda to stop.

"Not. This. Piece," I said at first.

But, I reasoned, I was already going to hand it out to everyone, and they were going to read it. And it's on the blog for the world to read, already. If "Circle" is going to work at all or if any of my writings are going to work at all, they're going to have to stand on their own, without me there to sell them.

So, in the next moment, I said, "Have Wade read it."

My friend Wade, aside from being a man (which is sorta necessary for "Circle," I thought), also used to be an actor. If I couldn't read it myself, maybe he would know how to sell the piece.

Wade started to read my essay on my place of solace from childhood sexual abuse to this group of my strangers and acquaintances in front of me, and I sat with another copy, trying to hide my face, doing my best to read along while reminding myself that I was going to have them read it anyway.

At first, oh God, oh God, it was horrible for me. This was going to alienate my new class before they even get to know me (though, of course, I didn't have a problem with that - and it was going to happen anyway when they did read it). So, a couple seconds into it, though, I just decided to let it happen because art, if it's good, can't just belong to the artist alone.

If "Circle" worked without me reading it, then it would really work.

I read along, hearing Wade trip over my brief, choppy sentences and hearing him repeat some of my mundane phrases over and over. He did his best over my quoted, ironic words. I cringed when he hit the "plot twist" involving the sexual abuse I ran from as a kid, how I'd stand in that circle in my hometown and scream. I heard him read the whole piece, and I kept thinking, "It's not working. It's not working."

Then, it was over. And Sarah called it brilliant, saying I had a unique style. She told other writers not to be intimidated by me, for my voice was unique.

She then chuckled, saying that she found it hard to believe that the only reason it was read was because I didn't bring enough copies.

And, then, I nervously said, "Oh well, as he read it, some of the modifiers were hard for him to follow, and the flow doesn't work as well as it could. And there are parts in it that really don't work. The piece could be much better."

Someone told me that hearing Wade speak of my disability as his own was jarring to hear, so I might want to excise that, lest it trip up readers not familiar with me.

Wade then stood up, handed me the copy of my essay, put his hand on my shoulder and said to me, "Damn, you've got balls, bringing that and having me read it."

I told him that it helped me to hear him read it, for it helped me find out the piece was flawed, something I never would've known if I'd read it myself.

Other people I knew came up and told me that "Circle" was good. And, of course, some strangers looked at me like I was insane and made a beat for the door.

But this one new student - a former English teacher - approached me and said something really touching.

"For me, it was an oak tree in my parents' backyard - not a circle - but it was where I went," she said. Then she hugged me.

I offered her one of the copies of "Circle" I had. Then, other people came up and got a copy from me. I hope some people mark it up, for I want it to be really, really good.

Last night was an extremely difficult experience, and I became a better writer because of it.

I remembered that art is effective if its meaning holds; art is effective if its meaning grows.

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