Earlier this week, The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, one of the more nuanced pop culture writers around, published a piece titled “Art is about surrender. Stop asking for it to be custom-tailored.”
Framed as a rejection of the worrying, internet-age tendency to demand narratives that suit audience expectations — not to mention the even more worrying impulse to attack and threaten artists personally for failing to deliver the pre-fab stories some audience members crave to a frightening and pathetic degree — Rosenberg’s piece is reasonable enough. We ought to surrender to the text as we find it, not send hate-mail to its creators.
As a study in how art works, though, it falls way short. By emphasizing viewer (or reader) submission to the authority of a singular artistic vision, it’s in a long line of bourgeois critiques that imagine audiences as empty receptacles waiting to be filled, rather than active participants in the creation of the works we consume.
We could start with the declarative insistence of its title — “Art is about surrender” — but it’s entirely possible Rosenberg had nothing to do with that. So let’s look at the text itself. Rather than surrendering to it, though, let’s pay attention.
The piece begins by considering the increasingly porous barriers between artist and audience. In the age of Twitter, and the necessity of “openness” and relentless self-promotion, we’ve largely done away with the idea of the reclusive genius, issuing artistry from a mountaintop somewhere, an idea that was passe two centuries ago but still somehow lives on in our imaginations.
And that’s a good thing: you can contact your favorite author or filmmaker, and sometimes even receive a response! I distinctly remember writing a fan letter to Lloyd Alexander as a child, and the incredible thrill when he wrote me back. That was rarer then. Today, all it often takes is a social media presence on your part, and a willingness (or requirement) to “connect with the fans” on theirs.
But, as Rosenberg points out, this can take toxic turns. The internet is an incredible place full of wonder, and also a shitty dystopian hellscape full of vitriolic assholes. That same openness has allowed for fans to harass and demean their would-be favorites, to insist that content be changed to their liking like an army of foot-stomping children, and worse.
Rosenberg is clear, though, that this isn’t the main concern:
It’s not news that the Internet can get out of hand, but stories like these, or the response to a Marvel comic showing Captain America as a Hydra agent, suggest something about the changing nature of the relationship between audiences and the art they love.
And what is that relationship? According to her piece, it is one of structural imbalance, its core feature the demotion of the reader in favor of the writer’s supremacy, the subjugation of viewer to text. Curiously, this is explicitly framed as something of a D/S relationship: when viewing a movie, we “submit”. We “surrender”. Our pleasure is located in powerlessness before the unfurling of authorial intent.
In case you think this is an exaggeration, here’s Rosenberg again:
The idea that fans should be able to get their art made to order has always felt odd to me, because on a fundamental level, art is about trust. When we open a book, put on an album, start a new television show, or settle in as the lights go down in a movie theater, we’re preparing ourselves for what is fundamentally an act of submission. We’re giving ourselves over to a world of someone else’s making, a piece of music that emanated from someone else’s brain, a story where we have no ability to control the outcome, or, at minimum, someone else’s interpretation of a familiar narrative.
And what if we do not care for what we find, from our prone position in the dark?
None of which is to say that this is a one-sided experience. There are plenty of ways for us to withdraw our consent to the artistic contract if we find that we don’t like what’s happening in a piece of work. Critics may grit our teeth and work our way through to the end, but audiences can always put down a book, change the channel, click over to the next Pandora station, or walk out of a movie, concert or stage performance, as I’ve done at two successive operas.
It’s a binary construction: accept the work you encounter, or leave. At no point does it seem to occur to Rosenberg that the viewer herself is a constitutive aspect of art. We, as viewers and readers, are irrelevant to our own reception. There is only an author, there is only a text. We are incidental to its existence, at best. It would seem movies don’t even need viewers. They are complete in and of themselves, and would be meaningful even if no one ever saw them.
That’s a very strange idea. But it’s one that has occurred through generations. “Reader-response criticism” addressed this decades ago. The Frankfurt School wondered how structures of mass production would come to affect discourse. Dreams of automatic texts and related textual criticism posited bodies of work with no author at all. There are other ways to look at things than this fundamentally bourgeois concept of submission and surrender.
I’ve been reading and writing about the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami recently, and seeking to watch all his films. He is fascinating in this context, and provides an entirely different conception.
For Kiarostami, the audience completes the film. There is no film until a viewer sees it, and so he sought to undermine narrative expectations at every turn. In his Taste of Cherry, the dying protagonist rises and comes over to talk with the director and cameraman about the shot. What does it mean? For Kiarostami, it means whatever you find in it. The image is unfinished, waiting for us.
In the July/August 2000 issue of Film Comment, Kiarostami was asked why he favored such open-ended structures, why he wouldn’t demand “surrender”. He replied:
It’s a difficult question. People do have different ideas, and my wish is that all viewers should not complete the film in their minds the same way, like crossword puzzles that all look the same no matter who has solved them. Even if it’s “filled out” wrong, my kind of cinema is still “correct” or true to its original value. I don’t leave the blank spaces just so people have something to finish. I leave them blank so people can fill them according to how they think and what they want. In my mind, the abstraction we accept in other forms of art—painting, sculpture, music, poetry—can also enter the cinema. I feel cinema is the seventh art, and supposedly it should be the most complete since it combines the other arts. But it has become just storytelling, rather than the art it should really be.
This is a more appealing vision to me, and a more radical one. Elsewhere, Kiarostami talks about our role in the films we do or do not see, registering their existence and shaping them to our own ends as viewers:
Every movie should have some kind of story. But the important thing is how the story is told—it should be poetic, and it should be possible to see it in different ways. I have seen movies that didn’t attract me or make a lot of sense while I was looking at them, but there were moments in them that opened a window for me and inspired my imagination. I have left many films in the middle because I felt I already had an ending. I felt quite complete and fulfilled with the movie, and if I stayed longer that feeling would be ruined, because it would keep telling me more and forcing me to judge who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and what’s going to happen to them. I prefer to finish it my own way!
Rosenberg is certainly right to worry about the implications of angry, anonymous idiots demanding one story rather than another, to insist that every story reaches the conclusion they deem appropriate.
But the focus on audience surrender ignores the role we play as viewers, our power (from the bottom, I suppose, in her metaphor), in creating the art we adore or despise. We have a role to play, and the idea that the only things that exist are the author and the text, without a world to engage them, marks a basic misunderstanding of how cinema works.