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The Essence of Preference (A short essay into writing)

Dan Brady ... Copyright, 1998

This is an essay concerning writing. I was with a group of writers and we were discussing various aspects of creativity, art, artists, and their productions.

At some point in the discussion we began to talk about why people like, appreciate, or value a work of art when they could not give any conscious or rational reason for their preference. We wondered just what it was in a piece of artwork that made a viewer, listener, or reader respond positively even when they could not say why they did so.

We mulled this over during the evening hours and we each made suppositions or proffered to the company the theories that we'd read or those that came to mind inspirationally during the meandering discourse. Later, I wrote down my thoughts and later still made amendments. This is a polishing of those notes.

First let me say that it is hard for me to describe what I, as an artist, do even as I try to achieve a positive response from an audience. Artwork is a productive dialogue. I feel, artisans moderate a message from themselves through a symbolic format, a set of elements: imagery for painters, photographers, and graphic artists, words for writers and poets, the various media used by sculptors, or pure sound for the musician. The work of art is created by the artist in response to an inspirational event which is translated into the artwork. Since we will are talking about what is the essence of preference we will consider works of art that have audiences. But let us begin at the beginning, with inspiration, and then continue on to what I feel is a cause for the essence of preference.

I feel there are three classes of inspirational experience and though they are related and have commonalties, they are still subtly different from each other. I have tried in what follows to distinguish them from each other.

First, most commonly, there is some event, action, or stimuli that provides an artist with a point of departure. In this case something in the world provokes a thought or feeling and then emotions take flight, as the artist leaps from this world into the interior realm of the mind or spirit where each successive idea forms a springboard for further ideas, in other words, a flight of thought fueled by inspiration and from this the artist creates, bringing into form some impression of that which so moved their soul in the first place. Something new is created, a new realization is seen, and recorded.

Second, and similarly, when a set of circumstances in the world reflects, connects, contrasts, highlights, or otherwise brings to mind an inner reality to the artist's attention, then, there is a meeting within the artist's soul between the spirit and outer world. In a virtual eye blink, these two universes meet beneath the artist's gaze on a vista limited only by the imagination. When the artist becomes conscious of this, there is that kismet where life becomes transformed, or more rightly said, transubstantiated, as the worldly is elevated, in the artist's perspective, to the symbolic. This route of inspiration is the kind that provides insights, illumination, the eternal in the moment, the universe in a grain, where the world is perceived as an allegorical reflection of what is within and it becomes a "message" that is received by the artist in this moment of the muse. It may seem to the artist in this kind of inspiration that the world is actually "telling" them something, that a secret is being revealed, or true meanings are being explained to them.

Then, there is another path-where, not only is there a connection between some exterior reality and experience with an inner response, or visa versa, wherein one becomes moved, but there is also the experience of being in both those realities at the same time and yet, in neither of them, if the truth be told. I believe that this is the source of a particularly strong artistic jolt, when these two universes swirl and blend with the artist as the conduit of their conversation, the mixing bowl, if you will. It is in this nexus of timeless, dreamlike, stream of consciousness, that the spirit takes to flights of fancy as it perceives anew or tries to interpret the dreamy maelstrom of universes wherein conceptions blend, form and reform, or cascade from visions, to notions, to images or phrases, all in a timeless fugue state that is the eternal present. The artist is in a singularity, a transcendent state, that lifts the spirit wholly and that is the beginning.

This happy state continues until the artist's sensibilities ignite and they are impelled into creative action that then breaks the spell as common consciousness comes to the fore as the artist responds. It is the emotional quality brought forth in that fugue state that is their motivation for interpreting what went through them and the joy at a new revelation that provides the ample energy for the work to follow.

The artist, coming out from under the intoxicating influence of the muse, has seen anew and this discovery impels creative action, it is a communication first to the artist as he or she records it, and later to the world through the work itself. Their reward for such work is the heady up welling of sensations that are an admixture of joy, insight, learning, consciousness raising, and more. Just as a child will ask you how to do something that you know they have just discovered and are longing to demonstrate, share, or teach someone else, so the artist wants to share what they have discovered.

The artist's experience is coded into the work on levels that can include but not be limited to the emotional, the thoughtful, the sensory, or symbolic, allegorical, and even mythical.

I will interject here that the artists, need not be fully conscious of their inspirational process, or how it works, common sense will tell us that. Also so the symbols used by the artist need not be those that would allow detailed, logical, analysis-indeed, most often they would, by their nature, defy such analysis. It is these two facets of the artistic experience that effect the next phase of an artistic experience, that of the audiences receipt of the work.

Because communication only occurs when there are two parties, a sender and a receiver, artwork is often considered complete only when it has an opportunity to communicate to an audience. It is worth a passing note, that the artist, at some time or other, may well have a self-awareness or foreknowledge of the artwork being received and so, perhaps, is aware of the subtle presence of these future audience. But this does not make the artist's task easier, consider that the inspirational moment lasts but an eye blink, that time and work intervene before the piece of work is done, that time and space intervene again before the artwork is received by an audience. Then, also, consider the "translations" that have to occur. The inspiration is a form of transient energy, this effervescent, non-substance, is translated into thoughts and feelings, which are then translated into a work of art, then, perhaps long after, some other person will view the work and gather their impressions from how they perceive it. There are several layers of interpretation through which the inspiration and its meaning must remain clear for this kind communication to succeed. This is an unfortunate aspect of artwork is that it may be considered complete only when it is "heard" by an audience.

This brings us to consider the audience and a good step closer to this essay's conclusion. Many in an audience are "ill-read" in the "language" (meaning the mode of communication: music, words, image, constructions) of the artist. The artist is, after all, a specialist, in an arcane area of life. Most people are not artists. So most of an audience, receiving, a "message" will be unfamiliar with the technique, or methodology the artist uses. The "ill-read" are the ones attempting to understand the "language" of the artist and so it appears that the inexpert judge the expert.

For example, in the case of a poet reading to an audience, an experience that I am familiar with, I must read the audience's response: what does a smirk mean, a yawn, a giggle, nod, frown, and the like. How do I decode the post performance commentary? So not only is the audience "ill-read" but the comments often given are difficult to sift and learn from, and in some ways negative responses are easier to discern than the false positives one often hears, post performance.

This brings up the question of what a positive audience response really means? Would it mean the art is good? Is a simple prior popularity, the cause for a future audience to prefer a work? Certainly this possibility exists, and there are works of art, so interwoven with a culture, that social momentum or inertia guarantee it and others like it a generous hearing, certainly this occurs. There is also a measure of success that accrues to those artists who focus on forms that are acceptable, common, or functional, however, these do not explain phenomenon of preference among works of art that are new, from other cultures, or viewed as radical, avante garde and so forth.

I believe that popularity alone does not provide an accurate gauge, of what may or may not gain preference from some neutral observer(s), nor does the esteem of the artist's peers necessarily provide an accurate predictor of whether a particular piece or work would be preferred amidst those same neutral observers.

Many people think that time is the final judge, what a culture hangs on to, what it values, is usually reflected in the art it chooses to keep, learn from, or revere. In one sense this is so. Art is communication, after all, and our cultural art, our story, our interpretation of our selves, our communication to us, reflects what we want to say about us, what we believe in, and in one sense this is close to what I feel the essence of preference is all about.

In the ever present pulse of life, not just the artist's life, there are infinite permutations that appear and disappear as those two universes within and without touch, combing and spark within the spirit of humans and it is something like viewing one kaleidoscope through another, there can be a new reality with each breath, and each of these bringing an insight, a realization. A moment of inspiration is nothing less than an epiphany, wherein new forms spring forth from the void, and it is this that lifts the artisan's spirit. The communing of inner and outer universes within the perceptive range of the artist provides, like the proverbial wellspring or cornucopia, a continual resource to inspire new realizations or concepts and so new works of art.

Now, back to the question: what is the essence of preference? I feel that it has to do with one of arts essentials, communication. This process begins with the meeting of the symbolic or interior universe, and that of the exterior or "real" universe, wherein the artist discovers something new, has the revelation that inspires creation, brings this original knowledge or discovery into form, and communicates through the artwork to others. I, in my heart, believe that art was originally all about communication and that is still its essence today. Therefore, it is the message that an audience or viewer receives that attracts them to a work. If we find meaning, or importance in a work, then we value it and we also want others to see it and learn from it as well.

A receiver, therefore, needs only find, in being part of an audience to a particular artwork, a reaction to the communication from the artist. They do not have to understand it, or be able to create a like work, or be an expert in its technical aspects, nor does the work need anything more than express a true moment of revelation that the receiver in the audience can understand, empathize with, enjoy, or learn from. Just as two persons who do not speak a common language can interact with one another based on body movements, emotional qualities, apparent intent, or need so to can a viewer respond to the symbols gathered by the artist with the intent of transferring the essence of some inspirational moment from themselves to an audience. It would also seem that insofar as the artist is honest, and skilled in their medium, so will the artwork portray the essence and power of their original inspiration. Their revelation will be there and the audience will receive, albeit indirectly, that communication and with that some change will occur in the minds or spirits of the audience. It is the change, the new perceptions of the audience due to the experiencing of the artist's communication that can cause a particular work to receive favor.

Now, you might say that is all well and good, but what chance does a message have that must be translated several times and interpreted subjectively and individually by the members of an audience receiving it? Perhaps little, but there is something else to have in consideration. Look at the words revelation, discovery, insight, inspiration, they all are terms that relate to artistic creation, all used by artists describing their moment of the muse, but there is another common thread that runs through them, all of them relate an uncovering of the Truth.

Truth is the essence of the inspirational moment and it is one of the most powerful aspects of the universe and so it is the Truth which, being communicated all the way through the artistic process, is primary cause for an audience to find value artwork and give it preference over others. The truth will out, as they say. And I feel that nowhere is that more so than in art.

It is the artists capability to for allowing the Truth to flow through and suffuse their work with its power, to keep their skill focused in order that their work maintain a fealty to the original shimmering perception so that a receiver may in fact take their own step toward the Truth even while they might wonder why this statue, picture, painting, sonata or sonnet, should move their spirit to some new feeling or reality. This then is the essence of preference. How well does an artwork transmit the Truth?

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