The Art of Dropping Your Guard

When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.

For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.

The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.

But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.

2 responses

  1. Wow, this is a evocative post, thank you! I totally agree, I think the magic of any form of art exists in its gestalt and in its reveal – that first moment of encounter, when you are struck by an artful brushstroke, a compelling melody, or a perfectly crafted line of prose. It is that openess to beauty, I believe, that allows us to experience magic in what can otherwise be a painfully rationale and cynical world. There is a place for critical analysis and deconstruction in art of all kinds, but we need remember to also make room for joy and wonder.

    October 6, 2011 at 3:33 am

    • Exactly. My best friend’s father is a movie critic, and growing up he instilled in her – and by proxy, me – the notion that movies have different purposes. (I actually stole the Jackie Chan vs. Truffaut line from him.) Many movies seek to be Entertainment, some try to be Art, and the best are both. A movie that is trying for Entertainment and succeeds is generally a lot more fun than a movie that tries for Art and fails.

      Or as I put it to my writing students, a “beach reading” paperback thriller that knocks your socks off is, by any reasonable standard, a better book than someone trying desperately to be Jonathan Franzen and failing miserably. And there’s nothing wrong with just aiming for Entertainment in the first place!

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      October 7, 2011 at 1:32 am

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