(Note, June 2019: I have lightly edited this post, and a short postscript from 2019 follows at the end.)
We were talking about the performing arts: the event itself, the space in which it happens, its effects upon audience and participant.
Some of us had just participated in Solstice River that evening, and some of us had watched. One of the performers pointed back at the building she’d danced on. She said it would never be just “an old building by the river” anymore: she would always remember it now as a general space made into a specific place, a location that had become real through her occupancy and her actions, how she had danced there, looking down on the banners, and wings, and the river.
Of course. This was, after all, among the choreographer’s goals: to make the Mississippi into a real location rather than simply another cartographic and economic element in the abstract landscape of our society. She created a largely secular ritual that allowed people to inhabit, for twenty minutes or so, a votive space that could be as profane or sacred as they wanted it to be.
Then we started chatting about our society’s fear of art, and how difficult it can be to overcome this fear. Some people are frightened by its ersatz spirituality, others are disturbed by its lukewarm humanism. Art, it seems, can’t win.
Then someone invoked the old saying, the willing suspension of disbelief, and suggested that people tend to take comfort in art as an escape from the harshness of our society’s bleak commercialism. Art, from this point of view, is a reprieve from the soul-bruising skepticism and radical ambiguities of modern secular society.
And I realized why I’d always felt uneasy about this saying as it has come to be used in the twentieth century. It implies that disbelief is our resting state, and that we leave our real world when we enter the artificial world of art — a world which (if we’d kept our wits about us) would strike us as silly at best and utterly uninhabitable at worst. It implies that art is a frivolous diversion and that we must give up our critical faculties in order to enjoy ourselves. And this is simply what people are supposed to think art is. But if this is so, I sure don’t see the point, and perhaps peoples’ distrust of art is that they don’t see the point either.
Because we don’t surrender anything when we enter into an artistic space, we gain something. These dancers — and the people watching — enriched the space they occupied; they made it real in the intimate sense that a place becomes real when something meaningful happens there. (Of all the millions of dorm rooms in the world, there will always be one real place in the Hillhead flats of the University of Aberdeen where I lived for five months. Where I lived.)
When you think about it this way, it makes sense of something that I don’t recall anyone ever explaining. When we speak of “creative” people, what do we imagine they are actually creating? What are all those novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings — are they really just “art objects”? things for sale? things to be consumed?
Suppose, instead, that artists are creating the world; suppose they are telling the story of the universe. Having a story, or a place in a larger story, is what makes a thing or person real. (This also explains the tabloids: celebrities made real by scandal. The scandals don’t even have to be real. Only their effects matter.)
Coleridge, by expressing this idea in the negative, got it exactly backwards. It’s not so much that you have to stop believing in the so-called real world in order to appreciate an artistic performance, it’s that you have to agree to believe in the heightened space and event.
This is where the performing arts most resemble sporting events. During the course of watching a game, we take everything very seriously. We discuss the rules. We care deeply who will win. When the game ends, the attention we paid to it vanishes. We get up and go home. The groundskeepers can walk across the field without having to obey the rules of the game. Where is the game now? Nowhere. It has ceased to exist because we have all agreed that it’s over.
This is what also happens during a play. And in missing that analogy, the vast majority of people piss me off when they mistakenly think that art is stupid but football is great.
Art — either as something to observe or participate in — fills empty spaces with meaning, making space into place. This is not frivolous. It is necessary.
Postscript (June 2019)
In the sixteen years since I wrote this, I’ve come to think that art bears a strong resemblance to spellcasting. If I’m unmoved by a work of art, it’s at least partly because the artist failed to ensorcel me. I’m asking to be enchanted. I want it.
In the SFF community (well, in one of them, anyway), there’s a great way of saying that you didn’t like a book or movie or story, or whatever: “I bounced off of it.” It wouldn’t let me in: the gate didn’t open, and I was stuck outside. Maybe the illusionist didn’t cast the spell properly, or maybe I’m just immune — either way, it simply didn’t work on me. (And of course, spell means story.)