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?

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