Lately, I’ve had to take a break from this writing in order to catch up a bit on my day job and my more domestic duties. It is interesting, in the absence of being able to write about my random threads of thought, to watch my brain rev and churn on certain ideas without truly having a chance to sort them out. For me, writing this blog helps align the many different strings of thought about the arts (because I’m one of those guys who seems to be constantly thinking about art) into something closer to a nice tight grid. It allows me to see what is useful, what connects, and what can go by the wayside, or at least be pocketed for later.
Does something similar need to happen when I go to a piece of art? Or, more outwardly directed, when I present a piece of art to others? Like the many, many feeds that I pull in consciously and subconsciously as I curiously wander through the world, the artistic experience of the patron is often a distillation of incredible inputs, presented in faucet form, gushing out and then complete. Is some interpretation in order? And do we need to help?
The technical jargon-y term I have heard for what I’m zooming in on is “interpretive artistic mediation,” which can come in basically three temporal forms—pre-performance mediation, post-performance mediation and, most controversially, in-performance mediation. The idea is to create obvious and circumspect activities that help the patron, essentially, make sense of their experience. You, as the presenter, mediate the experience, make it easier to get more out of it, encourage the lingering that I do over the best ideas I pull in rather than the discarding that happens with the worst of them. Essentially, you stack the deck for retention of the experience.
Which can all, of course, be interpreted as creating a bridge between someone incapable of assimilating an artistic experience without your help, and a piece of art too opaque or complex to be fully considered without your ordering lens. Gulp.
I sit on the board for Z Space here in San Francisco, an arts incubator and presenter founded by David Dower and now run by Lisa Steindler, a good friend of mine. I was telling Lisa about some of these mediation ideas and I saw her visibly wince. Her reaction isn’t unusual, especially for artists and artistic directors. Why, they ask, do we need to be mediating this artistic experience? Why do we need to be building out bridges and then hand-holding people to help them cross? Why the crumbs? Isn’t, in a way, the journey to whatever artistic understanding a single patron ends up generating about an artistic piece part of the piece itself? Doesn’t augmentation of that journey—whether by tagging along and whispering in the person’s ear or by posting signs along the road—get in the way of the truth of that journey?
I am sympathetic to this impulse even as I’m not sure I agree. Art has, after all, been relatively unmediated for a long, long time. But I also think there’s something different now, in part because for most people we’re not talking about people who believe in a basic amount of artistic/cultural competence, who have been raised in an art-rich environment, who have a leisurely amount of time to linger over the implications of the work. We instead are dealing with 3 or more decades of destructive anti-arts and culture sentiment, an entire generation or more who have no particular compassion or yen for art, and who, more than anything, are defined by an incessant need to be doing many things at once. In the face of this, I think this fear of mediation can seem at once sort of snobby and lazy (though I know it’s not meant that way). In my head, I see a bunch of people anxiously sitting in a library all staring at a door, some of them seasoned and jaded, some of them newly engaged in whatever’s about to come through the door. The artist sits behind the door, art in hand, and when the clock strikes 8 he opens the door, flings the art inside, ducks back behind, and dives away—“Here is your art, 1, 2, 3, go!”—like it is a bomb about to explode all over the audience, messy and personal but not in need of further articulation; as though (and perhaps this is exactly how they see it) when someone has the art in hand the artist’s work is done, and the clean-up is on them.
I guess. Maybe. In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s new book, he tells a story about how frustrated Bob Dylan would get when people would ask him to interpret his lyrics. I get that impulse.
But I also think that we overestimate how much parsing a lot of our patrons are doing once they leave the experience. For a lot of artsgoers—especially jaded, older patrons who have been to lots of arts experiences in their lives and, on the other end, anyone who is leaving an arts experience in order to plunge back into a life of work and kids and nine zillion other demands—lingering on and dissecting an arts experience just isn’t in the cards. For those people, if an experience is quite strong, then some memory might linger and pop up with the right alchemy later, and the brain may churn away at parts of it subconsciously, but it is scattershot. Some might argue that’s how it’s supposed to be—random, unexpected, a sudden wash over you and then it recedes again. I’d ask why, if we can attempt to make it more than that.
This isn’t about dumbing down work anymore than it is about the audience not being smart enough to get it without our help. It’s about recognizing that art can be opaque just like Ulysses is opaque, that art can be challenging just like Guernica is challenging, that art can be unsettling and gigantic and detailed—and that for some people, they actually want to know what sits behind the veneer.
When supertitles were first proposed in opera, there was an uproar. Supertitles, it was argued, distract from the experience, pull you away from the music and the visual, require your eyes to jump, overlay a level of processing that would inevitably engender less impact. In hindsight, as supertitles (or now, more usually, subtitles run on a personal screen in the seatback in front of you, which is much less distracting if you don’t want them) have become more ubiquitous, the idea that for some people actually understanding the words might be a useful step along the way to a fully absorbing experience seems obvious. What about understanding the intentionality of a dance piece? What about being prompted to hear leitmotifs in a piece of orchestral music? What about a director whispering in your ear about why certain choices were made as you watch a play unfold?
I’ve got to say, I’m biased. I’m one of those guys who bought the entire Lord of the Rings DVD box set, watched all of the movies without commentary and then went back and watched all of them again with the commentary on. And then I watched all of the extra documentaries on the costumes and the sets and the digital effects. I’m one of those guys who reads synopses of Mad Men before I watch the episode and then goes back afterward and reads what the recappers are saying. I seek out spoilers for my favorite shows and read supporting materials for the theatre, music and visual art I see. I read (all of) Ovid’s Metamorphoses before seeing Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. I love interpretation. I love knowing what the thoughts were that existed before the piece itself, what the considerations were that led to this moment, this night, at this point. I think it makes things richer, and rather than proscribing anything I think interpretive mediation has the potential to still give people freedom to curate their own impact, just with more options.
How can the peripherals help dissect an experience? What can we do to help connect people’s artistic experiences to their life experiences, thereby jumping the rails onto a mental track that is already well-worn and easily accessed later?
In a way, this plugs into a larger conversation that is going on about the accessibility of the fine arts to this new world of not-yet-patrons. This same basic issue drives much of the conversation about new play development, curation, “participation” in all its forms, assessment, impact and relevance. Accessibility comes in a lot of forms, but in this case I think that creative solutions to interpretive mediation may mean allowing us to maintain the core form of theatre (or any of the arts) while increasing its relevance. We don’t need it to all be sing-along Sound of Music, we don’t need it to all be people sitting around reading a play to each other—we can still have people sitting in a room breathing together watching people who have honed their craft present concentrated life experiences on a stage. By innovating to accessibility through creative interpretive mediation techniques (before, during and after a piece of art is consumed), I believe we might all get a little closer to being relevant to more people more often.