Viewing Art Through the Lens of Our Preconceptions
It’s been said that if one hundred people read the same book, one hundred different stories will have been read.
Let’s say the book was about coffee. In this example, 70 people loved the story, 20 thought it was okay, and 10 couldn’t get into it at all. Does that breakdown indicate a great book? An okay book? A “bad” book? Or, are these labels too artificial as they surely beg further questions…
...such as who was reading the book? For the sake of ease, we’ll pretend it was a group of 100 young professionals who all adore hot beverages. Seventy of them have fair-trade coffee subscriptions, 20 routinely alternate between instant Nescafe and tea, and 10 can’t even stand the smell of the holy bean.
I’m incredibly oversimplifying the example. But, the breakdown becomes less about the book and more about the lens through which the material is viewed. It doesn’t mean that we’re letting the book off the hook. Art should stand on its own. Yet, a great deal of how we sense art is via our own interaction with the subject.
Art interaction seeks our focused attention. It asks that we participate; that we pull from experience, emotion, deep-seated memory that might be called to, but left right below the surface. The process can leave us tired. It’s because we didn’t “just read,” “just look,” or “just listen.” It demands our engagement.
What is engagement, exactly? It’s to involve someone’s interests.
Interests come from our environments, things that challenge us emotionally and mentally, our upbringings, cultures, learnings, leanings, exposures, etc.
Which begs yet another question: when we encounter a piece of difficult art, is the onus on the art, or is does the difficulty lie in a lack of personal interesting stimulation?
It could be argued that there is no such thing as “bad art,” merely art that’s misunderstood or mis-seen through our own lens. I’m not here to make that argument today. But, our ability to engage, for art to resonate through our particular lens, accounts for significant space in determining what we “like” and “dislike.” Specifically, our entire makeup plays a role how we interact with any specific piece of art.
I recently saw Rosemary’s Baby for the first time. (Yeah… I’m a little behind.) In order to find the horror in it (besides the obvious **SPOILER** devil), I had to put myself in the frame of reference of a pregnant mid-twenties female in the 1960’s, who was afraid that everything she had could be taken from her without her consent or ability to intercede. Did I feel fear while watching that movie? No. Why? My lens is via a 40-ish woman in 2020 with civil liberties. Yet, I empathized with Rosemary’s fear as well as I could, a woman and a mother myself, and enjoyed the movie for its classic cinema feel and excellent storytelling.
Take, for example, the 1980 Kubrick classic, The Shining. Set in the isolated Overlook Hotel, viewers watch writer and recovering alcoholic Jack become increasingly more dangerous to his wife and son as his sanity appears to deteriorate. Then, watch the documentary Room 237, which explains the various theories as to the “true” meaning behind The Shining. The theories are fascinating, but are also highly dependent on the education, background, and predilections of the person positing the theory. A German historian sees The Shining as a hidden tale of the Holocaust; one theorist sees American Imperialism; a third sees subtextual clues to faked NASA Apollo 11 moon landing footage; and yet another sees a movie about a minotaur in a labyrinth. I saw a movie about a writer in psychological decline.**
Point of reference accounts for a good portion of what we feel, see, and enjoy.
Broadening our engagement with art that wouldn't normally attract us - but could - practically requires a personal inventory of our lens system, and a momentary dispelling of that system - an intellectual decluttering. It asks us to seek art with a childlike wonder, and react on a visceral level before we apply our thinking brain. Dispel the intrusionary** voices that want us to associate, connect, and link, and simply allow ourselves to “be” with the art. Then, we can stretch our appreciation.
We’ll find that we know when we’ve encountered great art, because we’ve stepped into a room. We’ll be forever changed. Sounds familiar, right? Perhaps, Mr. Oswalt, those doors were always open and waiting for us.
**Imply my lens how you will.
***Intrusionary is probably not a real word. Consider it art.