Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

27 Mar 2024, 12:00 p.m.

A Few Artistic Principles and Practices

A few times in the past week, I've spoken with artists who are working on uncomfortable art -- the kind of art that intentionally challenges the audience with displeasure. In one of them, it's like "here is art that confronts the audience/participant with an uncomfortable topic in current events" and in another, it's "here is art focusing on a feeling of helplessness and apathy". In reaction, I was reminded of a few of my own artistic principles and practices which I thought I'd jot down here.

(For reference, my main artistic work that I share with others is stand-up comedy, and once in a while I also make plays, fanvids, zines, and fanfiction. I also dabble in sketching but that's more like a fidget toy/mindfulness tool that happens to output used pages in a sketchbook.)

Pleasure and hospitality

I seek pleasure for and hospitality to the audience. I liked Harry Josephine Giles's essay "Shock and Care," which argues that confronting the audience with hostility is pretty tired and worn-out territory, and that caring for the audience (e.g., washing their feet) and expressing love and hospitality is the new frontier. That essay has several interesting examples and I encourage you to check it out.

And I absolutely respect that there's art that does not emphasize the audience's pleasure in experiencing the art, and I don't think it's inherently illegitimate to make that artistic choice! But as a creator of art I tend not to go in the direction of shock, discomfort, and similar unpleasantness, and as an audience I tend to decide that I'm not going to spend my time laboring through that kind of experience. I think "I as artist want to displease you" is distinct from "the pleasure of this artwork is an acquired taste" -- for example, I enjoy slow, meditative films such as Rivers and Tides and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles that do challenge the audience to sit with the discomfort of boredom -- but maybe this is me rationalizing the difference between my masochism and that of audiences who enjoy being shocked. I don't know.

Further, thanks in large part to the WisCon-Dreamwidth-Archive Of Our Own sort of axis of 21st century feminist fandom, I've come to richly appreciate audience pleasure as a legitimate artistic goal. This contrasts with approaches that default to calling any art/genre that focuses on pleasure (such as romance novels, pop songs, or violent action movies) a "guilty pleasure." In stand-up comedy, of course, we have a pretty direct way to gauge audience response and assess whether they're experiencing a particular kind of pleasure, and I love that! I feel the loss when I'm working in other mediums that don't offer such immediate feedback.

Genre, medium, and expectation

Relatedly, as I first heard from Geoff Ryman at WisCon in 2009, "Genre is a matter of reader expectation". That is to say, what is a genre? It is the set of expectations the audience brings to a piece that they understand to be in that genre -- length/size, pacing, topics, color palette, diction, focus on character versus story versus setting versus language (the four main pleasures readers seek per Nancy Pearl's approach to reader advisory), endings, musical instruments, emotions, upsetting/offensive elements, prerequisite facts the artist expects the audience to know... There's sort of a "reasonable person" standard here, where it's the artist's responsibility to think, "Given the externally legible metadata about this work, and given how the audience's experience with it starts, what would a reasonable person expect its genre to be? What do they expect? And if I'm breaking those expectations, am I handling that well, so as to give the audience the experience that I intend?" And, as a reader/viewer/listener, if I'm having trouble finding what's interesting or enjoyable about a work, I can ask myself, "what genre signals is the artist sending, and given those clues, do I think they're successfully doing what they intend?"

Without genre savvy, a novice might actually make the wrong assumptions about how the artist, fundamentally, intends her to interact with the art. For example, I used to look at fashion runway shows and think, "that's ridiculous -- those clothes are so unwearable!" And now I understand that artists in haute couture do not intend for me to imagine wearing their creations as functional, ready-to-wear garments. I'm meant to appreciate what they can do with texture and line and color and sculpture and tech, as its own visionary art form. Runway influences retail but they're different genres.

Also, different mediums can do different things. I took a rhetoric class in 1998 and learned the classic Rhetorical Triangle governing any communication. I then misremembered it for more than a decade till I looked it up several years ago. But I like my version better. So! Sumana's Rhetorical Triangle, as applicable to a piece of political software as it is to an essay, says that if you are trying to communicate with someone, it helps to consider:

  1. Audience: What do they already know, or want, or believe? What are they expecting?
  2. Medium: What does this medium make it easy to do? Theater is better than a straightforward lecture at evoking emotion and empathy (a big reason I have been making plays). Text is more legible, searchable, quotable, skimmable, and accessible than a video is, and thus, if I deliver a speech I care about, I publish a transcript. Fanvids or video essays are good at surfacing meaning through juxtaposition, but highly dependent on the audience's visual and listening acuity. Games can entice a player into systems thinking, but often require significant time investment from the participant compared to other mediums. And so on.
  3. Message: What do I want the audience to walk away believing, wanting, understanding, or capable of that they weren't before?

(Notice that "medium" here is not the same as "genre" -- often multiple genres use the same medium in different ways, as retail fashion and haute couture do.)

The more I mature as an artist and as an audience, the more I appreciate the affordances of specific mediums, and the more I appreciate when an artist is exploring and celebrating what a particular medium can do. For example, I took the COVID risk of donning my P100 respirator and seeing Into The Spiderverse, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Barbie in cinemas, because those spectacles used the film form to provide a film-specific experience that benefited from big screen and sound.

Productive and unproductive discomfort

One distinction that helps me decide which audience expectations to honor, and which ones to subvert, is to distinguish between productive and unproductive discomfort (thanks to Lea Albaugh for reminding me of this term). When I first participated in Recurse Center in 2013, faculty explained to us: in order to learn, you need to be and feel safe, but also learning generally feels uncomfortable. So they aim for RC to be a place where everyone is and feels safe, so we can -- as often as possible -- go into discomfort, learn stuff there, retreat to comfort, process the learning, rest and heal up, go back into discomfort, and repeat. Related to this: "you must try, and then you must ask" and similar practices to help learners figure out whether we're "productively stuck."

The "productive/unproductive discomfort" wording is probably easier for a lot of people to handle than is a distinction I used to talk about frequently: "essential and inessential weirdnesses." I borrowed this distinction from a 2006 essay by Betsy Leondar-Wright that I discussed at further length in a 2016 OSCON talk (written version available). The fundamental idea is: if you're trying to reach people who live in a different context, then you ought to recognize that some of your customs will discourage or confuse them. Some of them are vital to your values, to what you're trying to do -- those are "essential weirdnesses." But others aren't; maybe they're in-jokes, symbolic traditions, bits of jargon, elitist attitudes, or other things that are absolutely fine within your in-crowd, but get in the way of other people understanding you. And those are "inessential weirdnesses".

Here's how I use that in practice. When I rehearse a stand-up comedy performance, I try out my work in progress in front of several test audiences (via videocall); I recruit diverse groups of people who would fit within my larger target audience. For instance, if my performance will be at !!Con, a general interest programming convention, I recruit audiences who are at least a little bit interested in programming, ranging from novice to very experienced, and I aim to cover a wide range of domains of expertise, geographies, genders, abilities and neurotypes, etc. After I rehearse, I ask them a few questions in a structured feedback conversation:

  1. What did you especially like?
  2. Was there anything you simply didn't understand? (For example, maybe I flubbed a phrase, or used a US-specific word that makes no sense to an international audience.)
  3. Was there anything that rubbed you the wrong way? (Maybe I said something offensive, or maybe a topic hit a sore spot that someone doesn't want to think about while trying to be lighthearted.)

Questions 2 and 3 help me identify experiences of unproductive discomfort among my audience so I can revise or remove material that caused it.

I've run into trouble using Leondar-Wright's terminology, because the word "inessential", to some people, implies that something has no value, or that it's harmful and we should get rid of it. No. It's more like a heads-up, that here's a place where you could build out some new onramps, translate your work into more languages, have more interfaces, so more people can interoperate with you. But the phrasing is provocative in ways I've found unproductive, so I'm using it less with people who don't share my context!

In my comedy and my plays, I have sometimes deliberately provoked productive discomfort. For instance, Jacob and I wrote "Argument Clinic: What Healthy Professional Conflict Looks Like" to demonstrate that colleagues can turn a bad argument into a good one.

In “Argument Clinic,” Jacob and Sumana play two engineering managers who get into an argument. At first, they aren’t on our best behavior and both of them act pretty counterproductively. They recover from that to have a more useful conversation, and emerge from it with not only a resolution to the immediate problem but also a stronger working relationship. As our characters show this on stage, an onscreen scorecard tells you when they’ve succeeded or failed at each of seven key skills.

Audiences reported feeling discomfort while watching the first scene. That's good! That sets them up to not only root for the characters to shape up, but also to reflect on how their own real-world behavior influences their colleagues. "Goofus and Gallant" is a common tactic in edutainment, and for good reason, but it can be offputting if audiences find it cheesy (and that discomfort is unproductive), so executing it well matters a lot.

Selecting audience and coping with bad faith readers

Lots of creators these days are reporting that it's harder to make work than it used to be because they're worried about getting publicly dogpiled. It's easier than it was twenty years ago for a mistake or misunderstanding to blow up on the Internet, or even for someone with a grudge to intentionally ruin someone's reputation. And intrusive worries about that can make it harder to get into an uninhibited creative mode.

I appreciated reading "Writing for the Bad Faith Reader" by Susie Dumond (Mar 30, 2023), which discusses how easy is is for writers today to get discouraged or preoccupied by the potential reactions of "the person who is looking to invalidate the art that you’re making" (quoting Melissa Febos). Dumond shared "some of the ways I avoid writing for the bad faith reader these days." Her advice to write the first draft for yourself as a way to channel the "best faith" reader, and to accept that your work is not for every reader, reminds me of two of the five laws of library science: "to every book their reader" and "to every reader their book".

We talked about Dumond's essay in a MetaFilter thread that I found thought-provoking, too. It reminded me that: Genuinely, completely seriously, one can't please everyone. The phrase "you can't please everyone" has often been misused to support the speaker's desire to avoid having to do whatever work is necessary to fulfill someone's reasonable request. But, regardless, it is still actually true! (I wrote about this more a few years ago, on accepting nonzero criticism, even hate. I am kind of okay with the fact that, even on a day when I've lived my values, someone may hate me, and may lob an unfair criticism at me. Not all the way okay. But kind of okay with it, and aiming to be more okay with it.)

In general, I publish my work on the Internet, and it's going to be accessible to billions of people, not just the audiences I had in mind when I made it. So, in a sense, I have two audiences I need to cater to: my intended audience, whom I positively want to understand and enjoy my work, and the shadow audience, which is everyone who might stumble upon it, and whom I do not wish to hurt. I imagine the shadow audience when I edit my work, to help me filter out the bits that will land badly out of context.

As such, there is some paralipsis in my public work -- topics I don't address at all, or jokes that I only make privately because they don't clearly "punch up," or because they brush against probable sore spots and, as John Scalzi has put it, "the failure mode of 'clever' is 'asshole'." But that filtration is a second step, coming after I come up with ideas that would delight my intended audience.

I edit for the shadow audience, but I write for my intended audience.

This is what I do and I am not giving you advice. I don't know you! But I have asked myself: why does this process work for me when it doesn't work for a lot of other artists? A few reasons:

  • My open source software experience has shown me how many (seemingly articulate) complaints are misdirected, and caused me to reflect a lot on how to keep my equanimity regardless. (Also, through my open source participation, I've dealt with abusive criticism from members of the public, and witnessed how others do so. But my conscientiousness means I'm often more concerned with reasonable-seeming complaints than with the possibility of verbal abuse.)
  • I have a strong sense of my intended audiences. I know who I'm making art for, and perhaps more usefully, I know who I'm not. If I'm writing and acting in a play for a tech conference, I'm fine with making the assumption that my audience has some interest in the lives of technologists. I don't particularly care whether someone outside of my intended audience would get bored or confused (as distinct from "hurt").
  • I frequently get empirical evidence that strangers find my work satisfying! Stand-up comedy gives me immediate feedback in the form of audience laughter. So this offsets worries about who isn't getting it, and inspires me, and (per the self-efficacy model) gives me mastery experiences that remind me I'm capable of doing it again.
  • I use a preliminary feedback process to reduce the risk that the shadow audience will have a critique I haven't yet considered. For my stand-up comedy rehearsals and plays, I've systematized this process as discussed above. For my most ambitious fanvid, I used the "beta" process as normalized in transformative works fandom.
  • My temperament seems on the sturdier side when it comes to rejection by strangers. In much of my in-person life, I've been oblivious to subtly hostile social cues from strangers (this is variably true online), and can also sometimes shrug off extreme hostility. Mostly I don't get anxious about the possibility that strangers will find my work unsatisfying. To illustrate: As a stand-up comedian, twenty-plus years ago, I made it to an Apollo Theater Amateur Night in Berkeley. After about 30 seconds of my act, enough of the audience was booing that the rest couldn't hear me. I insulted them and walked offstage, and performed at another open mic later that month.

Existing regret and "the box"

I've already made the kind of mistake that a lot of comedians worry about making. At AlterConf Portland 2015, I delivered a set called "Stand-Up Comedy That Doesn't Hurt". I practiced in front of several folks, and one person did express reservations about a particular joke about attempts to be perceived as a cis ally to trans people. I tweaked it and delivered it, and then a member of the audience shared a criticism with organizers. I gave an apology while at the conference, and on my blog, and worked with the conference organizers to slice that joke out of the recorded video.

And things have worked out okay. I continue to get invitations to speak at conferences, I have not lost my trans friends, and when I search for my own name on the net every once in a while, I do not find people ostracizing me over this incident. I did not get "cancelled." And I learned to get better at inviting and using feedback on work in progress, and I haven't had a similar problem since.

Some time after that AlterConf, I talked with another comedian. He'd had a similar situation; he'd honed a joke, but some audience members told him it perpetuated biases. He tried to tweak it, adding a crucial phrase but staying concise to keep the joke's punch. He still got complaints. And a joke can be a delicate thing; sometimes you try to replace a word and it turns out that was a load-bearing wall.

So, he said, he's not doing that joke in his sets these days; he said it's like he's put it aside in a box. And every once in a while he goes and opens the box, and asks, "Am I a good enough craftsman to fix this?" And so far, the answer's always been no. But maybe someday it'll be yes.

I like that. I don't find it hard to come up with ideas for more material. So, if a chunk of work in progress is causing unproductive discomfort in my intended audience, or I think it'll land badly with the shadow audience, but I think there's still some juice there that I'd like to squeeze someday, I put it aside in that box. Maybe I can find a way to fix and reuse it someday.

That's where I'm at as of early 2024. I'm curious to read comments from other artists who have thought a lot about this sort of thing!