The Audience Is In Charge

There is something mysterious, peculiar and profound about the existential relationship between audiences for art, literature, music, theatre and also the modern media of television and movies, and the objects of their attention. Critics from Aristotle to Northrope Frye have tried to turn the arts into the subject of a scientific discipline, and to my mind have been largely successful. You know how to evaluate a play or a novel because you have learned the type of thing it is and so apply the relevant criteria. Shakespeare does tragedies and he also does problem plays and you are simply mistaken if you expect to get the same thing out of both. That is what a scientist does. But people resist this impulse, if that is what it is rather than a wrongheaded attempt to make art into something that is not. Rather, what people do is evaluate first and then find reasons to back up their judgments. You think of Romeo and Juliet as a gushy teenage romance and then you find things in the plot or the poetry to back that up and simply decide not to notice or just fail to notice the dark side of the play: that these teenagers are obsessed with one another to the point of suicide. You don’t like Jane Austen because you think she repeats herself in every book when in fact she tells a different story and evokes different emotions in every novel, all in the service of her overall plot form, which is how a woman finds a suitable husband, the mystery being to discover what makes him suitable for her. It isn’t that a more callow interpretation is so much wrong, “interpretation” the right word to describe the way a reader makes sense of a book, as it is that a callow interpretation is a premature judgment that can be changed when a person gives a more sophisticated judgment to bear and so can more clearly see a book for what it is. The wise come around to Jane Austen; the rest never do, even if they are enchanted by Regency manners and the Regency setting. How does this world work, in which the audience’s prejudices and perhaps callow judgments take precedence over what is actually there, on the stage or in the text? How is it that we learn from literature by imposing our will on it rather than being its students?

Audiences are in a position to opine on whatever they see, whether a Broadway show or a movie, and feel good about their judgments, even if they cannot explain them very well, because literature and theatre and movies allow you to notice anything about it that strikes your attention and generalize from there. There is the apocryphal story of the salesman who went to see “Death of a Salesman” and decided it was a good play because north of New York was always a difficult place to make sales. My wife, on the other hand, noticed that Dustin Hoffman portrayed Willy Loman not as an everyman but as someone who was a bit crazy, what with the visitations of his brother Ben, who had made it in Alaska, and that did a lot to explain the play. These interpretations may be true or false but they are logically prior to the assertion of a propposition about a play, a statement of what is true or false in interpretation. All that is required is that the interpretation is either warranted or not by something that actually happened within the play.

The reason, I think, that the range of interpretations of literature is so broad is because all of literature is narrative in structure, which means that it is a sequence of events, these events separated in time, and it is up to the interpreter to connect the events, whether in theory or willy nilly, to make some connection between events, whether that is to show some of them are more important than others, as D-Day, I would say, was so important because it was the only battle in the war whose loss would have been catastrophic, or it is to show some causal connection between prior events and subsequent events, as when Henry James shows how, in "The Beast in the Jungle", that moments allowed to pass can also serve as causes.

The same thing happens in art, which is less well understood as a narrative because the viewer confronts a painting whole, rather than as a sequence of events. But, in fact, the viewer does not just catch the whole of the thing, but moves the eye from one part of the painting to another, creating a sequence in which attention to some details fills in an understanding garnered from observing some other section of the painting. Moreover, every viewer can create his own narrative, beginning at a different place in the painting, so that what for some viewers will be the portion of the painting that confirms what has been discovered about it, will be the portion of the painting where they start off in gaining a sense of the painting. The eye can begin in Poussin’s “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” with the lushness of the trees or the steepness of the path and only later get on to the hulking figure of Orion and the goddess perched upon him, or else you can do it the other way around. Are these elements in contradiction or in congruence with one another or is it just that Poussin is making use of the same elements that he does in so many of his paintings? (And, of course, music is an art that is often described as a temporal sequence of sounds, even if there are many different sounds which are also heard simultaneously.)

The same kind of judgment is applied in fields where the audience is given priority over the people who are engaged in the activity under examination. The most prominent of these areas is politics. The voter, who is the audience for people seeking elective office, are given the final say on the qualifications of candidates for office and yet the voter has no special qualification to make that judgment, but decides, instead, whether a politician appeals to him and her for any collateral reason other than that they are suitable for office. People liked Trump’s brashness and meanness, never mind that he knew nothing about the issues and never explained how he would get the Mexicans to pay for his wall. There was something appealing there and it was woven into a fabric of meaning which commentators insist on continuing to spin that he was speaking for the downwardly mobile or for the racists or whatever. The same thing happens with religion. People are, as a result of the First Amendment, entitled to think whatever they care to think about religion, however fragmented their thoughts may be, and that is largely alright because religion in this country is largely innocuous, except in Texas and other such places where it justifies being retrograde on women’s rights.

Indeed, it is safe to say, upon analysis, that the rush to judgment that applies in literature is in fact the main operative way people go about thinking in the world. Only professional areas are immune. Doctors and lawyers and accountants have their expertise as do firemen and policemen, their opinions taking priority over the common sense of the lay person. You don’t tell a fireman how to put out a fire even though you tell every politician how to go about his business. And for all I know, all learning from kindergarten and before onwards occurs that way, a child getting the hang of reading by sounding out a few words and building from there rather than mastering a theory of how to read. Most children would learn how to read with relatively little overt instruction and those who don’t readily learn are going to have difficulty doing so even with a great deal of professional attention. Most of life is what might otherwise be called “common sense”: judgments prior to explanation. Explanation is only required for superficial things, like how to make an atom bomb or cure cancer. In science, you know enough to know when you don’t know anything much about something and need textbooks and lectures and problem solving to make progress in developing knowledge. Not so for everyday activities like how to know when you are in love or how much to tip the barman. About such things, pretending to be in the know or experiencing oneself as being in the know, is all that is required. Everyone is an expert about that artform known as everyday life.