Topic

Art

"Art is whatever you can get away with." – Marshall McLuhan

Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth

You were probably told Your high school English teacher probably told you to avoid using passive voice in your writing. “The satellite was hit by a meteor” isn’t quite as impactful as “a meteor hit the satellite.”

The latter is more direct — a quality you typically want in your writing.

But sometimes, we’re not writing or speaking to maximize our impact. In fact, we often want to soften our words to avoid placing blame on someone, reduce the effect of delivering bad news, or simply skirt around an issue.

Word choice matters. Consider how the following sentences all say something similar but can have very different implications depending on their context:

"I didn’t submit the grant proposal.”
“We didn’t submit the grant proposal.”
“The grant proposal did not get submitted.”

Concise communication is good communication, but sometimes, a few extra words can transform what you’re saying and inject humor to diffuse a situation.

“The rocket experienced a rapid unplanned disassembly” has a very different effect than “the rocket exploded,” even though they both say the same thing.

And in times of conflict or grief, when emotions run high, the way we assemble and deliver words can be the difference between starting the healing process or leaving an open wound.

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, killing all seven people on board, we turned to language, because in that moment, there was nothing else to do.

President Ronald Reagan, in his address to the nation written by Peggy Noonan, used language from the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee Jr. to help the country process the tragedy:

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

In that moment, a shocked nation found space to grieve. And with those words in hand, it could begin the excruciating, gut-wrenching process of moving on.

For life is for the living, and language sustains us.

The Power of Poetry

According to Matthew Zapruder, poets and tax professionals have a lot more in common than you might think: They're both concerned with the precise meaning of language.

As a professional poet and son of a tax lawer, Zapruder would know. In his book Why Poetry, Zapruder takes on the herculean task of using prose to explain the value of poetry and what makes it such a vital art form.

He suggests that the way poetry is typically taught in high school robs it of its potential, arguing that good poetry doesn't obfuscate its meaning behind hidden symbolism that the reader must untangle. There is no subtext – simply the words on the page, arranged to invoke an emotional response in the reader.

This emotional response is key to what distinguishes poetry from other types of writing. When a poet is freed from the boundaries of linear narrative and argument, they can begin the work of reminding us of "a time when we were, as a species, in a sort of childlike state of perpetual wonder."

According to Zapruder, poetry often achieves this state through rhyme – not just by rhyming words that sound alike, but also through conceptual rhyme. "Tears" and "ocean" have a kind of inherent connection because they're both comprised of salty water. Even without making that connection explicitly, a poem can take advantage of these conceptual rhymes to create an associative daydream.

This invokes a personal shift in the reader. Zapruder writes:

When a person truly falls in love with a poem, it is usually because it feels like a private experience. Moving through the poem, the reader feels a kind of understanding that is hard to paraphrase or resay. Therefore, the essential knowledge of a poem, what can make it feel so necessary, cannot ever fully be put into other words. The better the poem, the harder it is to talk about it.

This is the key to a successful poem: Its ability to use words to tell us something vital beyond what language can normally communicate. He continues:

The experience of getting close to the unsayable and feeling it, and how we are brought to that place beyond words by words themselves, is the subject of this book.

Upon further reflection, this is the experience I seek from all art. When I go to an art museum, I'm there not just to learn, but to find the pieces that give me a slight sense of vertigo – of falling into the painting, if only briefly, and transported to a heightened state of awareness.

This awareness can start to feel like a religious experience, even for someone who doesn't otherwise identify as religious. As I've written previously, an amazing poem can be a kind of secular prayer, which Zapruder agrees with:

It could be said the relationship of poems to what we intuit but can never fully say makes them like prayer, that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.

So, why poetry? What is the purpose of all this? Ultimately, poetry is an antitode to a noisy world – one that often seems driven to drown out the kind of reflective, thoughtful state poetry can return us to.

Theatre director Anne Bogart wrote in her book And Then, You Act, "In a culture where daily human hopes have shrunk to the myriad opiates of self-centered satisfaction, art is more necessary and powerful than ever."

Zapruder agrees:

The more we are colonized by our devices and the "information" and "experiences" that they supposedly deliver, the more we need a true experience of unmonetized attention.

This is the true power of poetry: Its ability to reclaim our attention, to reawaken our childlike sense of wonder and restore our presence in the current moment – in all its vivid beauty.

Everything is a Remix

There's a popular myth about artists sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. In a flash, a song or poem comes to them, wholly original.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Most artists go to work each day incrementally making progress on their work. Brilliant art is almost always crafted after making something average or mediocre, then making it better. And it's always inspired by what came before.

Paul Simon, of Simon & Garfunkel, shares his process for writing "Bridge Over Troubled Water," one of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest songs of all time, in a 1970 interview (starting at the 6:08 mark):

In short, much of the song was directly inspired by other works ranging from Bach to gospel.

Soaking up broad influences to remix, therefore, is the precursor to creating great work.

Self-Delusion

In Bill Watterson's introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, he writes:

To persist in the face of continual rejection requires a deep love of the work itself . . . But in the midst of repeated failure, some self-delusion about your abilities also comes in handy.

After years of struggling to make ends meet with his art, Watterson finally prevailed when he created one of the most acclaimed comic strips of all time.

But in those interim years, there was no guarantee that the hours spent honing his craft would amount to much.

This is the core struggle young artists face. To succeed, sometimes you need a crazy belief in yourself – that success is in the cards for you, even with little evidence.

It's a dance between arrogance and humility; delusion and confidence; and between blind hope and quiet faith that you will one day arrive at your destination.

Anticipation

There's a scene in Sam Shepard's play True West where one of the characters acquires a dozen or so toasters through dubious means.

One by one, he inserts a piece of bread into each toaster and presses the levers down.

If you're sitting close enough to the stage, you'll experience a sudden thrill as the unmistakable smell of toast starts to waft over the audience.

Describing this moment doesn't do it justice – it's surprising to smell the action on stage and exciting to discover that someone went through the trouble of running all those extensions cords. The actors really are toasting all that bread.

And there's the suspense. As the scene unfolds, the audience sits on the edge of their seats waiting for every one of those toasters to pop up.

Anticipation is a powerful force.


Some advice for next time you host a dinner party: Make sure that your aromatics – garlic, ginger, thyme, etc. – have landed in a pan of hot olive oil before your guests walk in.

In that first moment, the smells that wash over them will help them anticipate the evening to come.

@visakanv points out that dinner parties are theatre:

Offer up some cheese or nuts as exposition. Serve drinks as you build to a toast before the main course. Then second helpings. And finally, pass out dessert to provide a resolution to the evening.

Savory and sweet. Tension and release.

As audience members and participants in the ritual, we want to feel taken care of.

We want to go on a journey together and discover at the end that we have been – ever so slightly – changed.

What is Art?

In 1971, Chris Burden asked his friend to shoot him in the arm for art.

The resulting eight seconds of footage (titled "Shoot") has been collected by museums like MoMA and the Whitney and is widely considered to be an iconic piece of performance art.

The performance begs the question: If shooting your friend in the arm constitutes art, what is art, exactly?

I've always loved philosopher's Marshall McLuhan answer to that question: "Art is whatever you can get away with." Even though it's an incomplete definition, it speaks to the way so many great artists throughout history have successfully nudged society towards the adjacent possible – expanding our culture and shining a light on our humanity along the way.

Certainly, Burden got away with something in "Shoot." But did he shine a light on our humanity? Many would argue that he did. His performance occurred amidst the Vietnam War, also known as the “first television war," which left many Americans desensitized to images of the horror and tragedy that guns inflict on the world.

But surely, just shooting your friend on camera isn't enough to constitute art, right? It's clear that intent plays an important role too. The dadaists understood this, which is why Duchamp's toilet ("Fountain") is still so famous (though its attribution really belongs to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven).

So, intent to create some change in the world is important in defining art, but of course, originality matters too. As marketer and author Seth Godin is fond of saying, "The first person to install a urinal in a museum was an artist. The second was a plumber."

Godin's offers his own definition, which is perhap the most expansive of all. Here's a condensed version of it from his book Linchpin:

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.

In other words, artists engage with the world with the intent to make change in their own original way.

Does that make you one?

Ship Your Work

One of the upsides to being a theatre creator is that your work is malleable. Unlike a painting or photograph, which are difficult to modify once you've put them out in the world, theatre can change over time, because it's recreated for every performance.

This is a luxury, because it gives you the opportunity to improve based on the public's response.

Shows most frequently take advantage of this by staging previews, and in some cases, out of town tryouts before moving to a larger stage and inviting critics. As a creator, an audience makes you better. And having the deadline of an opening night improves your art. It forces you to put your work out into the world and embrace the fact that done is better than perfect.

Marketer and author Seth Godin argues that for something to be considered art, it must be shared. Someone who creates watercolors in their bedroom, but never shows them to anyone else is a painter. But if they show someone else what they've made, they're an artist.

And John A. Shedd said, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

Ship your work. Even if you can't improve it later.

Caring for Your Audience

“Will I feel taken care of?”

That question is on my mind every time I sit down in a theater.

Performers require a lot of their audiences: Put your phone away, stay still, and don’t talk, eat, or sleep for the next 90 minutes.

The requests are reasonable. Since the audience is part of the work, the performers can only succeed if the audience plays its role too.

It’s a non-verbal contract, but we rarely talk about what the other side of that contract is. We expect a performance, certainly, but we also expect to be taken care of.

What does that mean? It’s complicated, but it boils down to a handful of things:

Are the creators of the show respecting my attention?
Did the show start reasonably on time? Are the transitions short? Did the marketing honestly represent the experience and set correct expectations?

Was there care put into the overall design of the show?
Is it cohesive? Can I hear OK and are the sound levels balanced? Can I see what I’m supposed to?

Are the performers having fun?
Or are they straining to hit their note, find their light, remember their text, and connect with each other and the audience?

It’s easy to conflate taking care of your audience with creating a good show. The two certainly go hand in hand, but the former is more intangible. I can often tell if I’m going to feel taken care of as an audience member long before I know if the show itself is good.

This idea is not limited to theatre, of course. It holds true if you’re hosting a dinner party, writing a memo to your colleagues, or running a soccer practice.

Anytime others have given you their attention, you can thank them for it by showing up prepared. If you’re trying to create work that matters, start by taking care of your audience, and the rest will fall into place.

Theatre Synchronizes Audiences Heartbeats

A small study conducted at the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences showed that when a group of strangers watched a show together, their heart rates began responding in unison.

Dr. Joe Devlin, who led the study, provides some additional context to the results:

Usually, a group of individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other. But romantic couples or highly effective teammates will actually synchronise their hearts so that they beat in time with each other, which in itself is astounding.

This suggests that theatre can do more than break down cultural barriers between us. It can temporarily reduce our physiological differences too.

A useful reminder that our biology and the world around us are inextricably linked.

Via the Guthrie's Artistic Director Joseph Haj

Security Theatre

In the postscript to yesterday's post reflecting on how the world has changed in the decades since 9/11, I linked to Jon Stewart's first monologue on The Daily Show after the attacks. Comedy plays an essential role in our society, especially in the wake of a tragedy, when it's hardest to create.

As another example, look no further than the first episode of SNL that aired after the attacks. (After the initial segment, you can cut to the 7:14 mark to skip the song and watch the rest of the opening.)

It’s remarkable for multiple reasons, not least because Rudy Giuliani still had bipartisan credibility back then. This exchange between him and Producer Lorne Michaels particularly stands out:

GIULIANI: Having our city’s institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business. Saturday Night Live is one of our great New York City institutions, and that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.

MICHAELS: Can we be funny?

GIULIANI: Why start now?

In college, a Second City leader talked to one of my classes about an interaction he once had after one of their performances. The show included a joke about 9/11, since enough time had passed since the attacks. Afterwards, an audience member approached him to say that she’d lost someone close to her that day, and that it was too soon to joke about it. The executive empathized with her, acknowledging that there may never be a day where 9/11-based humor would resonate with her. But the rest of us, he argued, needed to be able to laugh in order to process the events of that day and move on.

Comedy isn't the only form of entertainment that serves a broader purpose. Theatre in general often serves as way to restore trust in public safety. This is true not just of security theatre, which dramatically expanded after 9/11 and has been written about many times. It's also true of regular theatre.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in May of 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and the public was wary of its safety. Steel wire suspension bridges were still a new technology, and 27 people had died during its construction, including its designer. Just days after it opened, 12 more people died when a panicked crowd stampeded across it.

If you’re a city official, what do you do when the public is scared of a new bridge? Call in the circus, of course.

A year after its opening, after previously turning him down, New York City asked PT Barnum march 21 elephants, 7 camels, and 10 dromedaries (another type of camel) across it to help prove the bridge would hold.

As the report of the event in The New York Times stated, “it seemed as if Noah's ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”


After 9/11, Broadway needed to encourage audiences to return, so they assembled a crowd of Broadway stars to perform in Times Square. A recording of the performance served as the basis for a national TV campaign, and ticket sales started to rebound.

(And because history often rhymes, today Broadway shows find themselves collaborating once again on marketing after disaster. This time to get vaccinated, masked crowds to return.)

Theatre provides more than just entertainment. Watching people (and animals!) put on a show reminds us that life must go on and reassures us that it’s safe to enjoy the ride.

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