4.13.2010

"Creating Artifacts to Experience"

I read a very interesting article on Bobulate recently (Bobulate, btw, is a very wonderful blog that talks about beauty and design and their interaction with our lives - the author Ms Danzico is a unique genius, and if you've never read her blog, you're missing out. If you're keeping your blogroll short, drop mine and read hers - I fumble awkwardly at ideas that she presents iwth clarity of a grocery list). Anyways. I read an interesting article, talking about design, particularly in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright. Conceptually Wright designed buildings to generate a particular experience - his determination of 'perfect' home living. The houses are beautiful and well designed for that particular experience. But unfortunately, many people who actually LIVE in the houses come to dislike them. The kitchens are small and out of the way for instance, the furniture is built in usually and difficult to move. The little things that they want to be their own way simply aren't that way, aren't MEANT to be that way. The assumption in a Wright house is that the occupant should adapt to the perfect lifestyle Wright discovered for them, rather than the house adapting to the lifestyle the occupant wants.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of Wright's work, and I don't bring this up to get into an argument about architecture (a subject which I admittedly know very little about). What was interesting was the way the author described this problem - designers cannot design experiences, they can only design artifacts to be experienced. In other words, designers (and I would argue all artists) must eventually accept that they cannot force an experience on their audience, they can only give fodder that the audience generates their own experiences out of.

I, as a budding, awful writer, have struggled with this myself. When I write, the writing comes not because I have these plots float through my head, but because I have specific impressions, sensations, and internal moments that I want to communicate. My writing, thus, has a tendency to be very pedantic, sometimes even badgering, as I smash the reader over the head, INSISTING that they FEEL THIS ONE THING. Which, when I go back and read it, if I'm not feeling that one thing, is grating and a little dull. Some writers make me feel this way too, and I see the outlines of it in the reviews people put up of some of the books that they dislike (or like - it can be quite flattering to have a book tell you that what you believe is ever so clever).

The BEST books, of course, are EXTREMELY subjective, and SHOULD be so. I was thinking of this after reading the very intelligent review Ms Nymeth put up recently of "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ." She put this very well in terms of the Bible:


The appeal of stories is of course that they’re both memorable and open to interpretation, and this allows them to illustrate more complex realities than simple definitions ever could. But this also means that absolute truths cannot really be built upon them.

This gets into the problem with most religions to me - the law is a series of strict, dogmatic standards by which things can be scientifically judged, but the stories largely deal with the exceptions to those rules. To accept the stories as evidence of the law too often leads to an exclusionist megalomania, either saying that the rules apply as long as the church leaders say so (there is, for instance, in my mind, a subtle kind of arrogance in the Papacy deigning to forgive the sins of the Beatles or to allow Galileo posthumously back into the arms of the Church), or even beyond that, as long as God says so. It is, I guess, something that is a bit dangerous to say, but I offer this as a struggle, not as an attack: it was always difficult for me not to think the God of the bible was something of a hypocrite, like a parent who teaches their children rules they themselves are unwilling to follow (in this sense God seems very human, since parents make this mistake all the time, but it undermines my desire to worship him, since it seems to me to point out his fallibility).  Either way, the problem is that the power of stories is best used to make people look at themselves and others and society and the universe, not to tell them what they would see if they bothered to look.

But, again, at some level this is advice that goes beyond the composition of scripture and the building of houses. This can be true of any book (or work of art). The power of literature is in it's ability to draw people out of themselves and illuminate the bits of human nature that it's difficult to see on our own. But, the power of this illumination comes from us nooking ourselves into the empty places. Like a fortune teller, the great author tells enough to compel attention, then leaves the listener to fill the magic in themselves. That's the thing - there is no perfect work of art, because art requires two things - an artist and an audience, and neither of those things ever SHOULD be under the control of the artwork.

4 comments:

Nymeth said...

I completely agree: it takes two. This ties in with a post I've been drafting about, among other things, the impossibility of objectively defining "meaningfulness", and thus building a hierarchy of literature that is based on anything other than the desire of some people to appear so much cleverer than everyone else. Except I'm trying to say it more kindly :P

Jason Gignac said...

It's interesting because, now that I'm helping my children learn to read, I begin to see that you HAVE to be able to show your children something, you have to be able to say 'try this, because this book is something that will mean something to you'. And there ARE books that are 'more meaningful' than others. But I think people narrow that idea of 'more meaningful' to being meaningful in a specific way that's easy to be high-nosed about.

Trapunto said...

I think there's a typo. I think you must have meant to say, "budding awesome writer."

I wrote the start of a long comment last night and erased it. It can be condensed into:

Trapunto is a rabid enthusiast for vernacular architecture and old wooden stuff, hates plastic houses, and can maunder on about the subject using the word "experts" in sarcastic quotes.

Trapunto really likes the way you related these three things.

Trapunto agrees with the idea that great works are subjective, however she thinks certain very clever authors can start with an exact feeling, and bring you round to that exact feeling without making you feel pushed. Though this is impossible to prove.

But Trapunto also loves plot, which she believes is an underutilized tool for evoking feeling.

The BEATLES? For what?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - Re: The BEatles... for being more popular than Jesus? Jesus can be a rather jealous fellow, and doesn't like being talked over. Drug use? Fornication? John being an Atheist? George worshipping Shiva? Hard to say, but it certainly seems an exercise in futility. You'd think if it was that damned easy, they ought to just do a blanket 'forgive everybody' just to be nice. I mean, most of us MEAN well, Pope, even if we don't write 'Norwegian Wood'...

As for the rest - NEVER feel obliged to delete a rambling comment, I LOVE rambling. Even if the actual INFORMATION can be condensed down into a short space, you learn alot about someone from the way they ramble, you know?

When we lived in Wisconsin, we had a BEAUTIFUL old wooden house, the kind of house that has a soul. It had been the doctor's house, with the clinic attached - there was still paint on the walls pointing to the 'X-Ray Room', and 'Dr Terry's Office' and 'Splints and Bandages', and there was a tiny room between office and home that still had apothecary shelves and a marble for preparing prescriptions on. IT was a lovely old house. We ripped up the carpets to find beautiful inlaid wooden flooring, we ripped out an old, useless closet to double the size of our kitchen, we replaced the roof, and painted the Dining Room dark purple - it was the only dining room on earth you could get away with it in because it was huge, and with 10 foot ceilings. WE ripped off old panelling, to find old newspapers wallpapered over the walls, and our boys shared a room that was 16 by 30 feet, with windows along three walls. IT was a wonderful, ramshackle old house. WE sold it when we moved, and the new owners ripped out the 120 year old trees, carpeted the floors, and repainted everything with 80's style textured white plaster. I cried.

On the bright side, I'm glad my rambling sort of descriptions of the three things made sense to you.

Now, on the subject of how subjective art is - I don't think people will normally get completely opposite reactions to a particular piece of art, and, say, John Steinbeck certainly wasn't writing Grapes of Wrath thinking some folks might find it funny. But I think the difference is a book like Grapes of Wrath quite clearly shows you WHAT to feel, but doesn't tell you HOW to feel - I know that sounds kind of namby pampy, but does that make more sense?

I agree. The 20th century can be difficult for me for the very reason that people decided plot wasn't important anymore. Which is fine. If you're Virginia Woolf.

Thank you, I'm very much enjoying your lovely, detailed comments :)