The experience of art and entertainment

22 May 2017, Patrick Towell

…or why art & entertainment are not just about their authors and their works

(with apologies to Susan Sontag)

Each person’s experience of a ‘piece of art’ or ‘entertainment product’ is different, as it is subjective. Our experience is made up of our feelings – physical sensation as well as emotions – and more conceptual reactions which we may perceive as thoughts or which perhaps may be less structured associations and other ‘recallings’, prompted by our sensory experience of the creative work in question.

Creative works are not reality. If a photographic image could be projected into our minds so that it were indistinguishable from reality then it would cease to be art, although it might still be entertainment in the form of simulation. By allowing a person experiencing a creative work to maintain a distance from it – that they wouldn’t have from their experience of their cycle to work or a spot of gardening at the weekend – we are providing a supplement that is beyond the sensory experience and physical artefact(s).

Although creative works may contain references to – or representations of – real things (people, places or objects, for example) our experience of them is different to our experience of such things being co-present with us so that we may sense themselves ourselves directly. But the process of capturing and representing a likeness that is mechanical reproduction does not alone turn an object into a creative work.

It is human agency exercising choice which creates the supplement to reality – the added value of the creative work over the objects themselves or mere representations of them. Even where mechanical reproduction (of still or moving image or sound, or physical object, for example) is involved, creative acts are made through exercising choice over physical materials and digital platforms; framing, juxtaposition, grouping and ordering; labelling and categorisation; and changes to tone, texture and colouring.

There are many other cases of creative expression where – rather than the physical world being reproduced – the human body (body, voice etc) is producing in ‘performance’ which creative works result in visual and aural experiences. Human agency and choice is in every exertion.

A third way to exercise human agency creatively is through making tools which themselves generate objects or media to stimulate people’s senses. It is the design of functions of those tools – and the rules by which they take inputs from the physical world (including people involved in making a creative work, or experiencing it) – which represent the authorship in such tools.

Of course, in the 21st century, many pieces of art and entertainment products are a subtle blend or dizzying mix of the three. Filmed performance. Social media with video and audio. ‘Happenings’, exhibitions or site-specific installations with in-venue and online media and in-person and at-a-distance participation.

Every choice exercised contributes to the ‘style’ of the creative work – ultimately, the combination of all the choices being the expression of the will of the author (or authors) within the work. In this way, a creative work is not just a combination of all the ‘content’ – which we take here to be either things in the real world or abstract concepts which have a common understanding in a particular community of use – represented or referenced within the work.

A creative work may span multiple media or artforms: still and moving image, music and other sound, text – and ways of interacting with all of these; physical objects and performance as well as digital ‘touchpoints’. It may have common style or underlying content applied across all its expressions, or specific to some. For people making creative works across more than one media, what can be a common organising principle for creator across all these touchpoints? The attributes of the experience of an ‘audience’ member, user, participant, listener, reader…

This experience is co-constructed between creator and experiencer. Regardless of how consciously engaged are the wills of both, their choices – of making, structuring and selecting on the one hand and of focus and association on the other – represent how both co-author the experience. This is why when considering what experience a creator might want people to have of their work, she must consider who that person is, where they are – as well as their cultural, physical, emotional and social context (current) and background (history).

Describing the intended experience is then a question of the intersection of two wills and two unique sets of experiences. What does a creator want them to feel, think, learn…? What of their life does a creator want their creative work to bring fourth in terms of emotions, memories, ideas…? What would a creator have changed in the understanding by ‘audiences’ of themselves, other people and the world? Ultimately, what would a creator have them do as a consequence – how might the world be different? And how much of this is achieved through the communication via an artwork of a creator’s own experiences – of the artwork, of creating the artwork, of other things that have inspired the artwork?

Why bother thinking about this? Artists and other creators need to grapple with the impact their work has in order to attract or justify funding, from public or private sources. Ways of thinking about how people interact with single artforms or media don’t accommodate works that span many. Extensions of arts, culture and entertainment to digital and social media can be so much more than just communications and marketing – they can be an authentic and engaging artist expression and experiences in their own right.

The design of experiences in culture, entertainment and wider commercial and public services as a discipline is constantly evolving and has much to offer the very ‘product-focused’ arts and entertainment world. Experience ‘design’ (as in ‘by design’) can be a very effective addition to the authorial will of a creator.

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