Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Trying to Truly Internalize the Subjectivity of Art

(also known as bracing myself.)

But the truth is, well, that it's true. Art -- books, movies, paintings, theatre, dance, music, etc. -- is subjective. What you love, I may not. What I love, you may hate. Or simply not connect with. We may not see art the same way.

I often remind myself of this in relation to my own writing, trying to figure out how you weather and withstand a bad review when and if it comes out. Or worse, what about a scathing one? Forget about Booklist and School Library Journal. Have you ever read some of the customer reviews on Amazon?

At any rate, I got a real reminder this week of the true subjective nature of art.

Last week, for my mom's birthday, we went into the city to see two plays (both still in final throes of previews) and have dinner. The first piece, which I will not name here out of the goodness of my heart, was a horrible, over-acted, over-directed trifle of a thing that was meant to be funny but, to me (and the other five people I was with, all avid theatre goers who have seen a remarkable amount of theatre in their lives, from Broadway to so off-off-off Broadway they ran out of offs), was not funny, nor nearly as schocking as it meant to be, but instead was stale, silly, offensive, unbelievable, and without a redeeming bone in it's ugly theatrical body.

The good news for all was that evening's play, a wonderful piece called Trust with Zach Braff in the lead, redeemed things. Everything about it -- sets, costumes, dialogue, acting, were fresh and nearly pitch perfect, at least in the first act. If the second act didn't quite hold up, it still was a great piece of memorable theatre that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

Ah, but then art is subjective, remember?

Last night, I saw my mom. She said, "remember [insert name of play]?" At first I didn't because I had conveniently wiped all thoughts of it from my mind. But then she said, "it got universally good reviews."

According to the New York Times, the matinee we all unanimously hated was "lacerating" and a "sensational comedy," and most of the other major reviewers I could find agreed with the New York Times.

Does this mean I was wrong, or does this say something higher about art? About how what we think of art truly depends on what we, as an individual, bring to its viewing?

And what of Trust? Well, no reviews have come in yet, but if they come in negative, skewering, scathing, was I wrong? Have I seen less of a show?

Food for thought anyway, as I brace myself for my own round of critical judgment to come.


  1. Isn't it interesting (and sometimes frustrating) how subjective taste is? I think you are right - people's opinions on art are always colored by their own ...viewpoint. And sometimes 'agenda' is a good word for it as well. And taste is fickle. For example, in my early 20s I despised modern/abstract art. But the more I learned about it, the more exposed I was, the more I came to love it. And how many books have you read that you once loved, but now can't stand? And vice-versa?

  2. This is SUCH a conundrum. Ironically, with the release of my film on Fri, I face the same thoughts and fears. And the more elusive something is, the harder it is to agree upon.

    But maybe THAT is what art is -- this nebulous, shifting experience that invites all these different reactions. You can't have art without it. We don't give reviews on how a bolt was manufactured, but we give endless critiques on everything creative. Interesting...


  3. Interesting for sure. Nice picture of Guernica, too. Appropriate picture for the subject matter as a lot of folks still can't stand Picasso.

    Having written a few scathing reviews on Amazon myself, I'll just say that I don't do so, or approach it lightly, especially when everyone is pushing the thing that I currently loathe -- hard. Bret Easton Ellis's new book 'Imperial Bedrooms' is such an example and it made me stop all my reading -- go back -- read it again, just to make sure I wasn't selling the damn thing short or being flip.

    Life and Art make little sense anymore, but who am I, but just another consumer filling the walleted void?

    Alas ...

  4. I've always tried to read critics with the same critical eye that they read books. Keep in mind, a lot of critics have failed at the thing they now critique.