Those of us who fetishize the expressive capacities —we self-identified “creatives” and “artists” and associated communities— we have a lot of unresolved questions floating over our heads. Among these questions: who is your target audience? Do you have one, and if not, should you? What’s your obligation to the people who consume your creations? What, for that matter, are their obligations to you? Do you experience your own art in the same way you experience others’?
I won’t pretend to have answers to all these questions. Personally, I’m more preoccupied with a simpler, more immediate one: given that you have no significant audience and your art has no professional prospects, why do you even keep doing it?
And yet, here I am, tangled up in this vanity like seaweed in a prop. Making art, writing analysis and reflection and critique, and consuming books and movies and video games… I identify with every role, and all the questions hound me. So I do what I’ve always done, and struggle to make sense of the whole thing.
The result is the Aspect Aesthetic, my own little self-contained theoretic-poetic argument-as-visual-aid. I first used it in a Medium piece called Criticism Contra Fandom. It’s structured as a triad:
The AA is not the answer to any of our nagging questions. At best, it’s an answer among multitudes, one single addition to an infinite proliferation of perspectives on art and the creative process. At worst best, it will clarify some of these complexities for me, the struggling auteurist amateur, in working out my own relationships to my heroes and peers and myself. My expectations for my own work have long been tenderized, so at this point, that’s all I really ask of it.
Notice, in the diagram above, the essential glosses: displacement, exteriority, and interiority. Those are my poor and simple attempts to pin down the essence of each of those three poles/roles.
My goal was to be just general enough that I could capture the whole range of functions thereby entailed (there are many different forms of criticism!), but also to be specific enough that the three poles are mutually exclusive, so that at any moment, with regard to any particular creation, you can only be playing one of the three parts.
The world is changing, though. It won’t be long before the Consumer and Critic poles will be entirely collapsed, and the Creator role will be so democratized it can’t really be understood in this abstract way. Maybe that time has already come. Maybe this whole project is already nostalgic.
Better to see it clearly, I guess, even if it’s only when you’re saying goodbye.
I: The Consumer
The role of the Consumer is interiority… like, the interior of the theater where you first saw The Matrix, or the interior of the train car where you first read “Since feeling is first,”
More pertinently, it’s also the interior of the work. When you’re being a consumer, you’re taking up the sacred duty of entering this world, suspending your disbelief, and really being absorbed by this work of art.
Every piece of art has an interior — didn’t you know? — a stage, or a setting, or background, or a domain where it distorts the space. Other theorists have come up with fancy names for it… Tolkien called it a “secondary world,” and Heidegger just called it World. Sarah Perry’s excellent commentary in Ribbonfarm explores the idea of interiority by talking about the mess, which is what happens when it overheats into incoherence. She calls it an “imaginary order.”
An especially interesting treatment: M. John Harrison’s 2007 piece, Very Afraid, which seems oddly hostile to interior spaces, though he acknowledges their indispensable role in narrative ideation.
Being a consumer means entering the world of the artifact, or at least making the attempt: trespassing on the creator’s territory, putting down a flag, and insisting on recognition.
The Consumer splits further into a binary pair: fandom at one side, and anti-fandom at the other. The fan is the Consumer who identifies with the work, and the anti-fan is the Consumer who rejects or resents or resists it. We all know our share of fans, and most of us also know anti-fans in equal measure. They’re the people who say, in an earnest, uncritical manner, “Who enjoys stuff like this?” and “It’s just not my thing.”
Consumers are creatures of sentiment. When they start leveraging principle and reaching for objectivity and criteria, they become Critics. We’ll talk about those creatures in a different post.
In fact, one of the great pleasures of being a Consumer is being free of the constraints of rationale. As a Consumer, you shouldn’t be doing the Critic’s work… your reaction doesn’t require a reason. When you run across an essay like Harrison’s piece, or John Gardner’s Moral Fictions, you can spit on their pretensions. I’m supposed to see worldbuilding, or immoral fiction, or straightforward imitation of a standard formula, as a creative failure? Fuck you, you say. Who are you to impose criteria on me?
That’s why I’ve tucked the word “untethered” into a gloss on my diagram. Consumers are not tied to standards or consistency. They don’t need to persuade. What a wonderful feeling that is, when it’s honest and complete.
Consumers are also the key to the work of art, because artwork is defined, to some degree, by interiority. Contra Harrison: there is no work of art that is not also an exercise in worldbuilding.
I find Harrison’s vehemence interesting, but I disagree with his claim. Worldbuilding (even in its obsessive, detailed form) is not an impediment to the creative process, but a necessary part of it. You might even cast the Consumer as, essentially, the official who ratifies this world, by choosing to inhabit it.
Choosing to inhabit it. Agency, and the self-awareness that enables it, is a crucial component here.
Think about how a Roman imagined her world… the world she presumed to live in, the mundane order. Beyond the streets and the channels and the city and the sky, she imagined a whole pantheon of gods. This imaginary world was coextensive with the real world, as she experienced it… characterizing the gods was an act, not of literature, but of basic cosmology. She was relating to an imaginary order, certainly, but it wasn’t a work of art. It had a different sort of interiority, disrupted and obscured by her lack of perspective.
A Consumer, in the contemporary sense, is not simply mistaken about the nature of reality. They recognize the difference between fact and fiction, and they choose to inhabit a particular aesthetic space. This space might be Whistler’s room where his mother is seated, or it might be the emotive landscape of a Nobuo Uematsu composition.
Or it might be Middle Earth.
And who the fuck is Harrison to say it shouldn’t be Middle Earth?
The Consumer’s duty is to step across that threshold, to enter into an artifact. In doing so, the Consumer can make it vast and real, and about something more than the impulses of its Creator. Their curse: that this experience will remain profoundly private and irrational. You can gush your appreciation all you want, but in the end, it will never mean to anybody else what it means to you, the quintessential fan.
More on The Creator and The Critic in later posts.