All the world’s a stage

Making Sense of the Sublime

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The social isolation of the current shelter-in-place order has been driving me crazy. I don’t consider myself a particularly extroverted person as I immensely enjoy my alone time: watching Netflix, listening to music and generally recharging from the day’s exertions. But without face-to-face interaction, I find myself wishing for the mental stimulation of socialization and craving the subsequent, ineffable experience of being “seen.” 

I spend most of my days in sweatpants or comfy leggings, ignoring my more fashionable Levi’s jeans and minidresses. My jewelry collection is gathering dust, while my slightly exuberant makeup collection is starting to look ridiculously unnecessary. All of this has made me realize that the joy I experience from expressing myself necessitates an audience. And as art is one of the primary methods society has developed to communicate the variation of emotions and perspectives, that means that art also depends upon its audience.

To conceptualize my musings, let me first describe Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy: Goffman states that people are constantly performing for an audience and that both the actor and the audience are essential to this performance. An actor must communicate with others through a series of social conventions, such as their clothing, mannerisms, speech, interests and so on; the audience, meanwhile, is expected to respond appropriately to the actor. Together, this relationship allows society to maintain a sense of collective order. 

So perhaps, I thought, the craving I feel for social interaction is more than just boredom or loneliness. It is the need for an audience, the need to be “seen.” 

Initially, this was a deeply depressing revelation for me. How self-centered must I be for this to be true? But I had forgotten about an equally important piece of the puzzle — I also feel the need to be a part of the audience. With every conversation, for there to be a speaker, there must be a listener. And although I am certainly guilty of talking to myself — scripting arguments in the shower, rationalizing bad decisions, hyping myself up before going out — I gain nothing new from the conversation. No new perspectives, experiences or information. 

So maybe what I’m really yearning for is not only the experience of being seen, but also of seeing others.

Now, there are some performances — conversations, if one is less pessimistic — that don’t necessitate face-to-face interaction. When I listen to the Weeknd’s glamorous and dark lyrics, I can understand his self-destructive isolation. When I look at the dramatic brushstrokes and bold colors of Vincent van Gogh, I understand his intense emotions and how they warped his perspective. And when I read Walt Whitman’s earthly analogies and free flowing verse, I understand his desire to abandon the artificial constructions of society and return to the natural realities of our organic nature. All this and more I understand of the artists and their art. I’ve never met any of these people, and yet I “see” them, as their art speaks for them. 

But with this relationship in mind, what happens to art when an audience is bad at listening? 

I can’t count the number of times I’ve picked up a novel, visited an art gallery or explored new music on Spotify and been completely turned off. The language makes no sense, the construction is messy, the melody sporadic — whatever my qualms may be, they obstruct my ability to understand the artist’s message. And it’s far easier to put the book down, leave the gallery or switch to more familiar music than it is to push oneself to see things differently. 

I often struggle to remain a part of the audience when I can’t understand what’s being said. But art is a different kind of conversation than the give-and-take of everyday language, where one person bemoans their busy schedule and the other validates them with a reflexive, “Same.” Art is a meditation of meaning, intended for an audience, but not necessarily swayed by it. As a part of the audience, I have found that the best thing I can do when art befuddles me is to dive into that confusion, soak in it and allow it to affect me. Sometimes, the conclusion I come to is that I can’t understand. And that’s OK. 

If Goffman’s theory of actor and audience can be applied literally, then as an audience member, the best thing I can do when experiencing art is to help the artist feel seen. They’re not asking me to understand, because maybe I can’t. Maybe that’s not my role. But what I can do is appreciate the intention, the perspective, the artistry, the beauty, the honesty, the intimacy and so on.

So now, as I sit in isolation, I’m putting new energy into seeing others and creating new intentions around seeing art. It’s what I must do, if I ever expect to be seen in return. 

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].