A Conversation With Reality Hunger 1: Art as Conversation

“Art is a conversation, not a patent office.” –Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

Sounds good: I’m ready to converse.

Take that first quote. A conversation, not a patent office. I’ve been thinking something like this for a while, though I never really managed to put it into words—perhaps it started when I started poking around webcomics and reading weblogs, where one actually could make a conversation out of the art. As long as the artist will listen, and as long as the people experiencing the art will talk, there’s room.

I’ll admit, though, that there are a lot of barriers. For some people, it’s the risk that comes from letting someone’s vision touch theirs. I’m not just talking about those writers and artists who are convinced that nobody but they can write their brainchildren (though I can understand that to a certain degree). There are also the ones who operate under the expectation that if someone else independently came up with the same idea they did, or if someone else’s idea lodges in their head, and they act on it, next thing they know they’re going to be jumped on with a lawsuit.

I’ve had my own encounter with character-swiping. There was one time I got into an argument with one of my players on the subject, when he took the character he was playing for a brief and noncanonical spin with a friend of his online. It wasn’t that he was using the character elsewhere that got me upset, mind you; a good number of the NPCs in his game were borrowed from mine, I’ve got one of his lurking offstage, and—admittedly later—I reprised the character I’d played in his game, literally as if she’d just stepped out of that timeline into the setting I was playing in. What got me was that he had radically changed one of the very few parts of the characterization that was a result of the character having been in my world for so long. As if none of what we’d played mattered at all. (Is that, I wonder, part of what’s motivating the writers who aren’t dodging lawsuits? That they keep running into fanfiction that seems to them to revel in the metaphorical death of the author?)

In that respect, I think that between them, the blog, the serial and the RPG really are the best places to test this idea of art as conversation. The creator asks for suggestions; the audience obligingly provides. The audience critiques; the creator deals with the critique in whatever manner she considers appropriate. One of the games I was in had the entire group say “no” at the outset of a major theme change, has involved several cases of players either suggesting ways to not throw off other players’ arcs so much or carefully twisting their own actions to fit with things the GM wanted to run, and later had a plot twist crop up inspired by an offhand OOC comment I’d made at the time. My game’s plot was completely rewritten after a step off the path in the second session, has been influenced by one hiatus game, and has a number of NPCs that were results of conversations with people both in and out of the game.

I don’t mean to ignore pictures, either. My own art is, in itself, a conversation. First, in that it’s usually a response to what someone wants, what I expect someone to want, or what’s going on in game. “This scene is awesome,” the drawing might say. Or “I have a very strong image for this, and I want you to see it as I do.” Sometimes the art ends up entailing a conversation, when I’m drawing someone else’s character: “Okay, what does this archway look like?” “Can you tell me which of these colors you think is closest?” “He’s going where wearing pink flowers? Cool!” Sometimes it’s in response to something I know the group is going to do; I have one recently finished secret picture that was touched off by a question that one of my players is going to put to the group’s scrying stone when my hiatus ends.

Come to think of it, looking at all this, I’m not sure I remember how to do art that isn’t a conversation.

What do you think? Talk to me here!


  1. Michael says:

    Very interesting. I have to say that — while I don’t know the context, which perhaps would make the interpretation of the quotation clearer — reading it on its own, what came to my mind was “all art is a conversation with previous artists; therefore it doesn’t make sense to try to obstruct the making of derivative works”. Naturally, as a fanfic writer myself I would agree with that! We can’t help being influenced by the works of art we see and absorb; and sometimes they give us really neat ideas that can be the basis for new works that may be derivative but are still great in their own right. (Just look at Shakespeare….)

    The other angle — art as a conversation with its own audience — I hadn’t previously thought much about, but now that I’ve started getting some responses to my own art, I have to agree. Art aims to produce an emotional response in its audience; so it’s only natural that, once you find out more about what emotional response you are actually producing, the art can change a little in return. This doesn’t have to take the form of incorporating suggestions; perhaps a character you intended to be minor is sufficiently ambiguous that the readers have started to suspect her, so you give her more of a role so there’s more for their suspicions to work on. Or someone goes off on a flight of fancy that gives you a rather nice image and you can’t resist incorporating it in the next chapter. It can be fun in ways you just don’t get when you write the whole book and then get responses to it, though of course that’s rewarding in its own way as well. And, of course, it’s also a nice way to say thank you to the people who’ve gone to the effort of reviewing.

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