Observation vs. Engagement

After discussing Suzan-Lori Parks’ Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, it was interesting to think about how art is performed and what people (those acting in the audience role) consent to when observing the art. At least from class there appeared to be a simultaneous scopophilic and scopophobic response to theater: people want to view the actors yet don’t want to be viewed themselves during a play.  This makes sense considering having actors stare at the audience might lead to some discomfort but, whether they like it or not, the audience is a part of the performance.

This ambivalent feeling toward observation actually reminded me of what art historians refer to as “anchors” in paintings. An anchor is usually a figure in a given painting that makes eye contact with the audience with the purpose to draw the audience in. The anchor then forces whoever is looking at the painting to not only observe but engage with it. A good example is Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment with a Bird in the Air PumpIn the painting, there is a man who looks directly at the audience with a look of disbelief. This man, the anchor, captures the audience’s attention, draws them in to the painting, engages with them, and makes them think about the subject matter (the excitement of an Enlightenment discovery). But what does this have to do with theatrical productions and people’s fear of being observed during plays?

Well, breaking the fourth wall in any dramatic setting reminds the audience that they are a part of the equation—a dramatic production is not static and shouldn’t be solely observed, rather, it is meant to engage the audience. Engagement makes the audience think about their involvement in the art and makes them consider the art’s possible implications. The same goes for paintings as the concept of the anchor suggests; this can extend to any art, really. While it’s weird for an audience member to be singled out and stared at during a play, or to be stared at by a man from the 19th century in a painting, the intended effect is to be noticed, to feel uncomfortable. This discomfort brings the audience’s involvement from observation to engagement and therefore brings the art’s meaning from strictly aesthetic to didactic/thought-provoking.

I suppose this also gives insight into the scopophobic response to plays we saw in class: people don’t want to think when they are forced to do it. It’s one thing to consensually ponder a play or painting on your own time (to act as an active audience member), but it’s a whole other to be forced into thinking when you simply consent to observe (to act as a passive audience member). But in the context of art that has ignited revolutions (like David’s Oath of the Horatii), how should the audience know if the art is meant as entertainment or something more? To be observed or to be engaged with? Is art ever meant to solely be observed? Does this uncertainty begin the recursive process of discomfort? Bringing this back to Parks once again, I think these questions are important as people repeat and revise how they interact with art.

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