This past Friday night, my wife and I had the chance to catch Sufjan Stevens live at the historic Chicago Theater – three days after the release of his latest full-length album, The Age of Adz (pronounced Odds). The moment we headed back to our car, the inevitable question showed up…
So, what did you think?
For the most part, we tend to answer this question in one of two ways… “liked” or “disliked.” And unfortunately, the conversation often ends there. With the over abundance of review sites such as Pitchfork, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, or Meta-Critic, these type of responses (or lack thereof) is of no real surprise… for in many ways, the four star rating system of critics has killed the participant’s experience. We have forced films, music, food, art, whatever into “good” and “bad” categories (largely) on the basis of entertainment value. Will I receive my money’s worth of leisure?
While nobody wants to negate opportunities for mindless entertainment, (in my opinion) this sense of entitlement that is encouraged has slowly dismantled the relationship between the viewer and the art – no matter the medium. Unfortunately, this negates the simple reality that (most) art was created with the intentions of it being experienced with someone. Sure, Sufjan certainly creates music nobody gets to hear; however, his overall hope is that it is a participatory event.
Two questions emerge. Should we maintain this relationship (between art and viewer)? And if so, how?
First off, it’s intriguing to me that the entire point of the numerous review sites mentioned above is to tell you “what” to experience. See/listen to the “good” and avoid the “bad.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is interesting to me that nobody is talking about “HOW?” to experience such art.
Back to Sufjan. Let me be honest. It was random. It was unknown. It was (as suggested) a little bit odd. And it was obvious – the thousands of devoted fans didn’t know what to do with the artist they had grown to love. This was not what they expected. This was something Meta-Critic had left out. And then it hit me…
About three-quarters of the way through the set, someone stood up in the ever-so-formal Chicago Theater, made their way down through the aisle – and started spinning. And a few moments after he started dancing, hundreds began to flow down to the front and do the same. (Somewhat similar to the Sasquatch viral video.) Here’s the point.
The audience had encountered an environment of “wonder” and didn’t even realize it. When you think about it, wonder is a two-side coin. Art itself posseses it – we encounter its “wondrous” qualities. At the same time, it does matter how we “show up” to art. Do we approach it with a sense of wonder? Is this our responsibility?
In his essay An Experiment on Criticism, the author (and renown children’s writer) C.S. Lewis suggested this:
The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.
In the case of Sufjan, he had made one of the boldest moves he could make as an artist… stop caring. Create for the sake of it. At the same time, it was not until the audience (truly) decided to participate and forgo the question “Do I like/dislike this music?” that the experience shifted. In the end, Sufjan received a five-minute standing ovation – the room realized this was one of the most wondrous and mysterious musical experiences they will ever encounter. And, it was not until the audience surrendered – opened up – that such an encounter occurred.
Albert Einstein of all people put it this way:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
In other words, it’s all about posture. How do we show up to a concert? An album? Design? While it’s not everything, the ability to pause, to wonder, to be willing to see and experience differently seems to shift the experience. And after all, we are participants aren’t we?
As Einstein (never quite) said… “open up.”