Friday, December 02, 2005

where is your line?

Back in the last century, I made a mad dash through art school. Some very powerful stuff came out of it, and it changed the way I viewed the making of things, from paintings to poems. I learned a lot about intentionality and audience. Not as much as I would have liked about color theory, but I guess that's what happens when you drop out after three semesters.

In the interdisciplinary "Visual Dynamics" class I took my first year, we had to make a self-portrait of ourselves using a material we believed represented who we were. I punked out on this one; I couldn't think of anything good, and did the project at the absolute last minute, producing a muddy, ill-conceived piece of work that did not sing so much as slump.

But there was a young woman in the class, a newly-minted angry teen radical vegan lesbian, complete with fresh-shorn head and Ani diFranco tapes, who made an intense image. At a friendly hair salon she was allowed to sweep up the cut hair; she brought it home, sorted it by color, and "painted" with it by gluing it to a piece of paper. The resulting work was ghostly, primal, and disturbing. In other words, it worked.

But it worked in some ways she hadn't expected, which came out in the crit (a deeply humbling experience where you stand with your work in front of the class, woozy with sleep deprivation and jangling with nerves, and the class tells you exactly what they think of your work and, to some extent, you). Because I looked at her hair portrait and told her that it reminded me of the Holocaust. Of the long beautiful hair of Jewish women being shaved off and stuffed into pillows.

She completely flipped out. That's not what I meant, you're seeing something that isn't there, I'm not talking about the Holocaust, you're nuts etc.

It's not what you meant, sure. I responded. But you need to think about your materials and what responses they may evoke in your audience. You need to do your research. And to my surprise, both professors (two very different men) backed me up. Your selection of materials and images set up resonances, said one. It's your responsibility as an artist to know as much as you can about what you're using, said the other. I was seeing the Holocaust too, said another classmate, but I didn't know whether to mention it. Another couple of people nodded in silent agreement.

A fruitful discussion blossomed about the artist's relationship with her audience, one that all by itself was almost worth the thousands of dollars I spent to be a returning student surrounded by youngsters. Because I think about it a lot, as a writer, and when I'm being more conscientuous, as a blogger. The upshot was that we must be free to make or say what we want and/or need to, but we need to be conscious of as many of the ways it might be taken as we can, and work accordingly. In this way we take ownership or responsibility for our work. Go ahead and put it out there, sure, but be prepared for a range of responses, and don't be surprised when someone catches something you might not have intended. Especially if you haven't thought through what you're using.

This may seem like a leap, but it's a little like all those people tattooed with Japanese symbols who don't really know what they mean and are stunned to find out that "brave warrior" is actually "foolish weakling" or something. The more you know about your images, symbols, materials, intentions as you work, the better your chances of making the point you want to make and not sending out a completely contrary message. In my case, I learned a great trick for surviving crits: whenever someone said something completely unexpected about what they were seeing in my work, I would smile and say, wow, you got that, how interesting. And then I would go home and think about how they got from point A (my work) to point B (their response) and about whether I was making the points I wanted to make, or needed to rethink what I was doing. I did not go home and think, I need to censor myself. But I did think about whether I was being as accurate as I could be, and as... conscious of how my audience would take my work. Did I want to upset people? Make them queasy? Charm and seduce them? Make them feel hopeful? What was the best way to do that visually, while still respecting that they chose to experience and interact with my work?

Lately I've been thinking about this with blogging as well. What are my words up to, out in the world? At some point, I think virtually every blogger posts a variant on, this is my damn blog and I must be free to say what I want. And all of their friends and readers write in and say, yes, yes, it's your blog, we love it when you speak freely, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, and so forth and so on. And to a large extent, I agree with that, as long as you're not inciting people to perpetrate violence on other people, or slandering someone by spreading lies and unfounded rumours about them. The latter, incidentally, is legally actionable if the person you're talking about can be identified by clues you give about them--even if you don't use their name. Word to the wise.

But there is a line, and for months I've been stumbling around in the dark, tripping over crap on the floor, trying to find it. Not easy because I think that it's in a different place for everyone.

I'm realizing that my particular line has to be that I actively work not to distress anyone I care about, or who cares about me. And I don't want to make anyone, whether I know them or not, feel lousy about themselves or a situation that they're in. Even if I don't agree with their politics or their worldview (such as that slew of MRA's a few months back--remember them? Wasn't that fun?), my readers are my guests, and unless they abuse me or other readers (which some of the MRA's did certainly do) I'm going to try to treat them accordingly. Operative word being try.

I leave the affliction of the comfortable to people who are better at it than I--or save it for my paid writing. Because there's something delicious about getting paid to afflict the comfortable; something I'm working on right now in another window.

Where is your line?