If you are thinking, "You had to defend the idea that people have personal likes and dislikes over art? Are you kidding me!?" . . . you and me both, baby, you and me both.
After a lecture of my own I have been accompanied
from Mill Lane to Magdalene by a young man
protesting with real anguish and horror against
my wounding, my vulgar, my irreverent
suggestion that The Miller's Tale was
written to make people laugh.
Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
After a lecture of my own I have been accompanied
from Mill Lane to Magdalene by a young man
protesting with real anguish and horror against
my wounding, my vulgar, my irreverent
suggestion that The Miller's Tale was
written to make people laugh.
Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
The humanities often becomes obsessed with the desire to be relevant. This desire takes two forms: relativistic interpretations based upon personal or sociopolitical demands (and often completely unrelated to the text); and, cultural interpretations in which the text or performance becomes merely a peephole into its surrounding milieu, supplying the scholar with pedantic, often power-oriented, lessons about a time-period or culture. In the first case, context--the author's intent, the work's historicity, its relationship to other works--is lost; the work becomes no more or less deconstructable than a car manual. In the second case, the work becomes little more than evidence for other concerns, of little worth in its own right. In both cases, the work is robbed of its creative essence. It is my hope that votary theory will help the humanities scholar approach artistic works with balance; more importantly, it will enable the scholar to focus on the creative strengths, or weaknesses, of an artistic work and on the creative desire that connects that work to its audience.
The relationship between historic context and creativity must first be addressed. Picture a container, a plastic glass from Wal-Mart or Target, the kind that is sold with summer patio items. It is tall, colored with pastel stripes or dots. This glass can hold lemonade or iced tea, water or soda: a host of liquids. It would not be wise to fill it with especially hot items; the plastic has a tendency to melt.
The container represents context; it is empirical in nature, composed of proof held together by narrative or theory. It morphs--these glasses tend to crack, chip and warp slightly with the passage of time, although they are surprisingly hardy--and its base rests on an ideal: that history can and should be submitted to the strictures of responsible evidence.
The glass's content is much more variable and far less definite. It is personal, emotional, creative, qualities difficult to quantify. But no matter how abstract, the content must fit the glass. It is not wise, or responsible, to pour into the glass a flood of expectations which the glass is not equipped to handle; another container should be found. Likewise, we must accept that our desires about the past must fit their proper contexts. The very real creativity of Shakespeare is not exchangeable with the very real creativity of Arthur Miller. William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot could not have walked in each other's shoes. Steven Spielberg is not Homer with a slightly different schtick (although that may be debatable).
Thus the relationship, in votary theory, between historical context and the creative act. Votary theory focuses ultimately on the artist's and audience's creative desire, an ineffable, indeterminate quality, difficult to categorize; yet that quality must fit its container, its moment of occurrence. In this way, even something as relativistic and theoretical as creativity can be held to a standard of proof. It is customary to assume, for example, that the opinions we hold in the present are opinions we would hold in another time. We are tempted to believe that a tolerant twenty-first century liberal would behave with tolerance and liberalism in the seventeenth century. It is far more likely that the expression of a similar state of mind would occur. From this perspective, the blue-state horror of gun-toting and overly religious red states has a far closer emotional link with the Puritan fear of displeased, displaced and (uniquely) religious Native Americans than with any Quaker-like tendencies from the same time period.
This does not negate the presence of tolerance (or paranoia) in either the blue-state or the Puritan; rather, it points to differing modes of expression. Likewise, votary theory postulates the existence of a creative desire which, like envy, happiness, trust and love, appears over and over in historically unique guises. Further, votary theory, while not proposing an absence of political considerations, suggests that the creative desire may have more influence within history than is usually credited. Through votary theory, an aesthetic appreciation of a work within its historical moment may be achieved. This is accomplished by focusing not on the work's purpose or the reader's use of the work, but on the reader/spectator as he or she exists inside the work.
Votary theory begins with an acceptance of a work's audience as composed of individuals; an individual engages an artistic work in a particular time and place, crafting a position within that work in order to enjoy its creative reality. Unlike reader response, votary theory does not examine the linear engagement between the reader/spectator and the work: the ways by which the reader processes a text, accepting or rejecting signifiers, information, themes. Neither does votary theory focus on the use that individuals make of artistic works (social, political, personal). Rather, votary theory focuses on the reader/spectator within the artistic work, the creative experience rather than the self-referential one. Readers/spectators willingly enter an author's creation, suspending other desires or impulses for the sake of the experience. How they behave within the work--whether they feel at home there, whether they wish to remain, to return--is the concern of votary theory. The reader as an historical being bears on the experience of engagement but the historical relevance of the work should excite the humanities scholar less than whether, and how, the reader's creative desires were satisfied.
In order to explicate this concept, it is first necessary to defend the individual as a creative agent since positioning within a work cannot be accomplished, or discussed, en masse. Without agreement at this fundamental level, the humanities scholar will not be able to utilize the tools offered by votary theory. If the individual experience of an artistic work doesn't matter, then social/political commentary is the only thing left to us and the humanities may as well relinquish its responsibility towards the arts to the manipulations of sociology. Votary theory, therefore, attempts not only to provide a tool of understanding but to defend the creative experience at an individual level.
The Individual as Agent
The individual as agent, and, specifically, the individual as a creative agent is often dismissed by theorists as naïve and jejeune, an old-time attitude of Western civilization long outgrown. Few contemporary scholars go so far as the Frankfurt School, which perceived mass culture as modern bread and circuses, entertainment designed to distract the lower orders from the ennui and dissatisfaction of the capitalistic system. Yet many scholars, including structuralists and postmodernists, remain surprisingly wedded to the concept that something is going on within mass culture other than personal enjoyment. The "something else" is either resistance or citizenship.
In the first case, resistance, scholars hope to awaken the masses--Brechtian-like-- to read "against the text." Popular culture becomes legitimate the more it is perceived as adversarial, attacking the dominant culture rather than reinforcing it. "[M]ass culture," Dana Polan wrote in 1986, "has become one of culture studies' most recurrent Others--a repository and a stereotypic cause of all the social ills of life under capitalism."(Footnote 1) If scholars can prove instead that popular works undermine the conventions of the dominant culture, freeing audiences from society's capitalistic mantle, such works will gain legitimacy as academic topics. In many ways, such scholarship is similar to the treatment of Harry Potter by occasional Christian fundamentalists; to avoid condemning the popular children's series as tainted by black magic, they interpret the texts as Christian, replete with allegorical significance. In both cases, mass or popular culture performs an acceptably edifying function. That a revelatory and edifying mass culture might also bore people to death hardly matters in the face of enlightenment.
Communal resistance, followed by communal enlightenment, is only possible once the individual--idiosyncratic, sometimes irrational, wholly self-interested--is annihilated from the equation. Once that occurs, all responses become social responses, shared constructions which collectively sway the ship of culture one way or another. Theorists--who are as capable of discussing themselves as they are of discussing others--are not unaware of the flaw in this conception. If responses to art are socially constructed, then our understanding of those responses is also socially constructed. Roland Barthes himself drew a line between popular culture which evades the dominant ideology and popular culture which addresses it, either in acceptance or rejection; but post-post-modernists (if not Barthes himself) would point out that all of Barthes' arguments are drawn from a similar source and background: Western critical thought.(Footnote 2)
In recent years, theories about culture have drifted from the exposure of mass conventions to the shared social aspects of artistic works. In his book Re-Reading Popular Culture, Joke Hermes argues that popular culture provides a powerful form of citizenship which reaches across class, race and gender, including as well as excluding. He is less interested in deconstructing popular culture than in watching it at work in society. Popular culture becomes a resource for shared expression and dialogue. It is also a disciplinary force, with negative and positive effects.(Footnote 3)
Other scholars, noting the interdisciplinary threads of cultural research, have stressed that culture is complex, non-reducible to one theory, structure or set of signs. They examine the multiple interactions between a production and its community, but the interactions under study are almost always external--the organized, resistant or self-conscious reciprocity amongst viewers, fans, groups.(Footnote 4) Votary theory, on the other hand, examines what is, to an extent, entirely theoretical and unknowable: the internal delight which a reader/spectator feels towards a work--the enthrallment, the self-forgetfulness, the merging of the reader with the author's world.
Outside of reader response criticism, which seems to trundle along entirely apart from cultural and historical considerations, theorists remain wary of promoting the individual in culture--mass, popular or otherwise. Roland Barthes, a seminal figure in the field of critical theory, considered jouissance (delight in the bodily elements of popular culture) an individualistic experience, yet ultimately saw it too as political, an "evasion of ideology," a form of resistance.(Footnote 5) Susan Bennett's attitude in her book Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (1990) is typical of many contemporary theorists. While defending the individual's response to the theater, she is vaguely apologetic, assuring her readers that she is concerned with experimental theater which will change people socially and politically.(Footnote 6)
Theorists seem consumed by political and sociological perspectives. "I readily grant the argument that, as consumers, readers have little control over popular culture," Hermes writes, while Janet Staigner states, "[C]ritical approaches to autonomous literary or cinematic texts" are in fact arguments over "social arrangements."(Footnote 7) Richard Butsch in his book The Making of American Audiences argues that resistance must be collective in order to matter, stating, "Indeed, all actions (and inaction) are inescapably political, in the sense that every act inevitably contributes to recreating existing conditions or to changing them."(Footnote 8) Even reader response theorists, who have drifted closest to the scorned concept of the individual, were rescued from embarrassment by Stanley Fish's philosophy of interpretative communities, which posits that people--for all their personal experiences, thoughts, reactions--emerge from a culture which imbibes them with knowledge regarding culture-specific signs, constructions, and assumptions.
Fish is not necessarily wrong. The individual as separate from society (and hence history) is a rather palpable impossibility. Nevertheless, the reluctance--the fear--of scholars towards the individual in history strikes an odd note in the study of artistic works. Absent a truly relativistic mentality, most people would agree that we are biological beings who come into this world as individual brains encased in individual skins. For theorists concerned with categorizing mental behaviors or promoting social activism, the individual experience of life may not matter. For those of us more interested in comprehending the feel, aura, ambiance and sense of an event, the individual's existence, choices and creative desires carry enormous weight. Nothing can be understood without it.
Imagine such an event: war, flood, murder. The event is comprised of many individuals--from twenties to thousands--interacting, withdrawing, complaining, dying. As they make choices, deliver decisions, state motivations--however socially crafted--they influence other choices, decisions, motivations. The event becomes a veritable swarm of interactions: letters sent, received, read. Conversations overheard, ignored. Actions avoided, taken, apologized for. As each individual moves, acts, thinks, talks, connections form. Standing above the action, we can barely decipher where connections begin or end. So we form theories. We tease out elements here, now here, now here, and draw thick lines of connection: dot-to-dot formulations. Add a few labels, words like "ideological" and "construction"--you can throw in "imperialism" just for fun--and you have a seemingly perceptive theory that will, at a superficial level, explain just about anything you want it to. Now remove the black line; look again at the intertwining, and downright messy paths of individuals at work. The dot-to-dot formulations may explain some general principles; they may address some wide-ranging ideas, allow for basic understanding, but they will never gratify the true historian's hunger for the reality of an event. How did it feel? What was it like? How did people behave, react, think?
What creative experiences did they engage in?
Sociologists have argued, cogently, that our current cultural assumptions make it impossible for us to ever fully adopt or live inside the reality of the past. When PBS valiantly attempted to produce "real" history by placing contemporary individuals in historical settings--1900 House, Colonial House--the result was inevitably problematic. Setting alone does not determine historical behavior. The entire mindset is missing. Nevertheless, we continue to seek for that quality of understanding; in doing so, we should remember that the individuals around us, and those of the past, are not so many constructs for us to borrow at will, rearrange at our pleasure. They are people who lived, died, loved, hated, endured, and we are passionately, consumably, aware of their materiality. We want to come to terms with that materiality, to grasp objectively, emotionally in what ways the people of the past are as real as us. This is true for the humanities scholar as much as for the historian, for it is only when we allow for the reality of others (past and present) that we will realize the creative substance of artistic works. As we learn to respect the audience as individuals, we will learn to respect the works those audiences imbibed.
For me, the issue of the individual comes down to one of love. As a Mormon, I believe in the salvation of the dead; that is, I believe I can be linked to my dead ancestors through religious ceremonies and that this link will preserve both them and me in the hereafter. This link does not wipe out historical relevance. I do not picture my pioneering ancestors or--to go further back--my blacksmithing and stewarding ancestors as belonging to the same political or social milieus in which I function. The nineteenth century Kellys who left the Isle of Man for the United States and, subsequently, Utah, lived in a different world from me. At the same time, I would be disrespectful if I imagined my ancestors as less engaged by religious principles, less capable of analysis and self-perception, less interested in artistic works and the joy those works bring. If I say, "My great-grandmother was a product of her time and location; she was obviously influenced in her decisions by the ideology of American westward expansion which further promoted her self-expression as a white woman in a patriarchal society," I am not really saying anything about her at all. I haven't captured her heart, thoughts, personality, day-to-day conditions. I have set her at one remove, pigeonholed by a thick line.
Context matters; I can learn a great deal about my great-grandmother by placing her within her time--what happened to her, what was being written and performed and preached during her time period, what we know (evidentially) about the nineteenth century--but accessing the quality of my great-grandmother's experience, and the pioneer movement, calls for something more insightful than ideological labels. Focusing on results, in other words, is not the best window into the human spirit and will not, in the end, give us a true or valid image of the past or the artistic works of the past.
More effective is an approach which positions us within the historical moment (see Fig. 4); from that position, we can follow connections as they branch, multiply, end, dive into odd corners. This is not relativism; one's perception changes with one's position, but the connections--decisions made, actions taken, thoughts transcribed--however confusing, continue to exist no matter where we stand. As we follow strands of connection, we may, in strange, unexpected moments, gain a glimpse of another world. Most importantly, for the purposes of votary theory, we can follow an individual's encounter with an artistic work, and in that way, hopefully come to appreciate the energy, creativity, triumph or failure of that work within its context.
Artistic works and their audiences deserve an approach that emphasizes a work's context without bypassing the individual and the individual's creative desires. An artistic work cannot be understood without its creator or its readers/spectators. The humanities scholar should know not only the who, where, when and why of a work's history, she should seek to comprehend the creativity/spirit/reality of the work and its performance. This will not occur until the creativity/spirit/reality of the individual in relationship to that work is accepted as a given. Broad social constructs do not convey this kind of information.
Through votary theory, I postulate that the individual's relationship to the work comes down to how that individual positions him/herself inside the work. The individual is motivated to do this by a creative desire. The first tenet of votary theory is that artistic works are enjoyed by individuals within their historical contexts. The second tenet is that individuals value and desire an interior, creative experience.
The Individual's Desires
Critical theorists, while allowing for "reflexive" attitudes on the part of audiences, consistently fail to allow for the creative desire within audiences (and sometimes even within artists). Discussions of individual desires inevitably take on social or political ramifications. The creative, imaginative impulse is lost in a storm of relevance. The result is a bizarre kind of literal aesthetic whereby any argument I make for a work's creative excellence is the result of my social/cultural status while, at the same time, I am being influenced, even indoctrinated, by the work's symbols and icons. I am too literal-minded to be swept away by the aesthetics of the work (my motivations are entirely reality and power-oriented) but too artistic to be impervious to the work's aesthetic operations. And if I read the thing backwards, presumably, I'll go join the Monkeys.
Creativity, first of all, is not a specialized right-brained activity, reserved for artists, poets and performers. People want to create all kinds of things: loving families, good filing systems, decent web sites, tasty treats, well-groomed animals, a trusty lesson plan. How that desire plays out may very well be influenced by cultural environments and institutions but votary theory postulates its existence regardless of external frameworks. The creative desire like any human desire (envy, hate, love) exists throughout time and history. The modes of its expression are influenced by context but context does not determine the desire. A contemporary Shakespeare would not, perhaps, write plays (unless he teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber); that a contemporary Shakespeare would have creative impulses I have no doubt.(Footnote 9)
The creative desire can antedate context because it does not have to be purposeful or political in order to exist. This is not to say that writers, actors, directors do not express political, purposeful ideas in their works. But the human desire to make something is not in itself political or power-centered--useful--however contextualized. Nor, when audiences revel in a made thing, are they acting merely out of contextually relevant considerations. Yet we in the humanities seem sometimes to function (and expect the past to function) in a pale world where delight for the sake of itself has been carefully sidelined ("Well, yes, I suppose it happens."). The humanities has taken the passion out of art, reduced it to a series of political constructs and then exhibited surprise and alarm at the result: Why is everything so political and class-oriented? In an attempt to recover passion, artistic works are sometimes further reduced to a series of activist demands; context, authorial intent, is abandoned for politicized relativism. What does it matter what Milton thought--all that matters is how we feel about him, especially if what we feel will get us what we want.
Although individuals will often enter artistic productions for the express purpose of finding relevant applications, what they experience there, what they enjoy, how they enjoy it, determines whether they will return much more than a politicized argument or even a useful emotional platitude. After all, why read, go to movies, watch television at all if only the application carries weight? For C.S. Lewis and many others, the reason is transcendence. In his polemic An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.(Footnote 10)The value of a literary work lies in the introduction to a mindset unlike one's own. Wayne Booth echoes this idea in The Company We Keep, where he stresses the dialogic nature of reading. As the reader encounters the text, he develops a relationship with the author. It is the reader's duty to extend magnanimity to the text, to take as much as the text is able to impart, but also to consider what the text has to say. According to Booth, the issue at hand is not whether Huckleberry Finn, for instance, utilizes hegemonic ideologies or draws on particular interpretative structures, but whether we agree with the ideas, themes, possibilities offered us by the author.(Footnote 11)
Arnold Weinstein also emphasizes the "other" quality of artistic works: our desire, through art, to reach beyond ourselves.(Footnote 12) In his book A Scream Goes Through the House, Weinstein argues that the feelings of pain, loss, love within art connect us as human beings. Weinstein is principally interested in the effects of art. Like Joke Hermes and Booth, he envisions a citizenship surrounding artistic productions, social connectivity across space and time.(Footnote 13)
Votary theory too postulates a desire to reach beyond the self, especially a desire to create beyond the self. Readers/spectators engage in fan fiction, on-line debates, conventions, role playing and other such performances. They exchange insights over a work, extrapolate possible outcomes, reject elements of a canon story, and analyze the characters. Although these behaviors are more obvious amongst popular culture fans, such excitement is not confined to a particular "brow"--high, middle, low, academic or popular. Fascination with Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's Hamlet or Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables is rarely reducible to "good form" and splendid prose. We are entranced, "entangled," as Wolfgang Iser would say.(Footnote 14) We are entranced because we find ourselves wanderers in another's universe. Our entanglement there involves not only self-forgetfulness but a desire to make, complete or satisfy the requirements of that universe.(Footnote 15)
This latter claim separates votary theory from reader response. Wolfgang Iser, for instance, postulates readers who encounter blanks or gaps in an unfolding text. The blanks draw the readers in, forcing the readers to make choices. As they comply, their opinions regarding prior portions of the text are reevaluated while their decisions about future portions of the text are shaped. Reading is a linear engagement. Readers bring their personalities, opinions, plus social relations to the experience, but every response is the consequence of contact with the text.(Footnote 16) The result is a new "text" created by the reader's interaction with the author's intent (as located in the work). This "text," however intangible, is an external object, colored by "what this work means to me" and "what I got out of this experience." It is, in other words, entirely critical.(Footnote 17)
Votary theory also relies on the author's intent as found in a script, performance, book, story, poem. Unlike Iser, votary theory tackles an artistic work not as it is being processed (perhaps for the first time) or as a product of the reading/spectating experience but as it exists, within the individual's perception or memory, in its entirety. Votary theory attempts to address that moment of creative involvement in which process, and result, become supererogatory. The world of the author--whether a physical world like Middle Earth or an emotional world such as found within Kafka's cockroach--is accepted, if not fully grasped, as a whole by the reader/spectator. Within that work as a whole, readers/spectators establish a place for themselves. They become part of the author's world, consequently satisfying their creative desires.
Votary theory builds on a theory presented by C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis, like Iser, examines reading as a process. He postulates two classes, or types, of readers: those who use and those who receive. Users are those who look only for "the Event" in the book, the vicarious fulfillment of pleasure. They prefer texts that are easily personalized. Unlike users, receivers actively engage the text, reading and rereading it, giving it their whole heart and being altered because of it. "The 'recipient,'" Lewis writes, "wants to rest in [the book's content]. It is for him, at least temporarily, an end."
Lewis argues that rather than criticizing a book by its appellation--popular, highbrow, middlebrow--it should be criticized by the kind of reading or readership it engenders: receivers who enter into the work and allow that work to carry them on the journey as determined by the artist; or, users who treat the work as simply "assistance for [their] own activities," whether those activities be educational, political, social or economic. For users, texts/performances are mere manuals of self-instruction or activism; receivers, on the other hand, give themselves over to the language and world of the author. By Lewis' definition, academics can be as guilty of "using" as any romance reader while a science-fiction reader may behave as a receiver towards her genre of choice. Lewis furthermore protests against earnest readers who, in their attempt to wrest profundity from a text, fail to appreciate its humor or language.(Footnote 18)
The attractiveness of Lewis' argument is his focus on the artistic work as its own reward. Lewis resented educational approaches that reduced or "exposed" the "real" meaning behind the language of a work, thereby bypassing the work's creative offerings. In his literary analysis of Lewis, Alan Jacobs writes, "Lewis rails against [teaching skepticism rather than teaching a desire for truth], because he believes that in the long run this abdication of responsibility--the responsibility to seek knowledge--will lead to the 'abolition of man,' our transformation into a species unable ever to hear the music that Creation really does make." Here Jacobs reveals Lewis as a true formalist, with the typical Lewis' twist.(Footnote 19)
The reader/spectator of votary theory is a combination of Lewis' receiver and user. In behavior, the individual of votary theory appears like the receiver, swept along by the narrative--fearless, consenting, and generously willing to adopt the author's vision. Like the user, however, the individual rates satisfaction/fulfillment as a primary goal; he or she is not above manipulating a text (as much as it can be manipulated) or discarding texts until a good fit is found. The reader/spectator of votary theory is searching for a home, a place wherein to work out the creative desire. The importance of the work as a whole in this search cannot be underestimated. Creativity does not, as so many college freshmen seem to think, entail a lack of discipline. Once I am inside a work, I am held to its structure. I make a place for myself, but I cannot simply transform the work into a pliable piece of self-involvement. Whether or not I know the original author's intent, I am constrained by the work's shape as I am constrained by the shape of my living quarters. I may decorate my studio apartment according to my personal whims; I cannot alter the age or structure of the house in which my apartment resides--not without changing it, irrevocably, into something else. This forced organization is, to a great extent, the appeal of artistic works: I exercise my creativity within the confines of another mind.(Footnote 20)
Without understanding this desire, and the homes in which it roosts, much of our culture is practically (in the practical sense) incomprehensible. To a greater or lesser extent, we all--readers, spectators and artists--search beyond ourselves, partly for self-definition but also for self-production. Our participation in a book, movie, poem, television show enables us to make some thing. Our participation is personal, hands-on, engaged; yet, it is also objective and inventive.
Votary Theory as Tool
Votary theory begins with the reality of the individual; it postulates a creative desire on the part of that individual. Votary theory then suggests that a fundamental element of audience enjoyment is the ability of individuals to create inside an artistic work. We are not simply all voyeuristically bent on satisfying social needs: power, status, change. We desire to create; we exercise our desire through our own creations and within the works of others. Votary theory further suggests that this desire is fundamental to the human experience; without it, no artistic work can truly be understood.
Votary theory is a tool which brings together factors which, in the humanities, are too often held apart. The job of the humanities scholar is to understand artistic works, both their contexts (container) and their content (creative essence). A good scholar should never abandon context entirely for content; on the other hand, humanities scholars are often so busy dismantling texts in the search for context (or, rather, culture), they fail to be readers/spectators and enjoy the content. They forget, and sometimes even belittle, the staggering grandeur of artistic works: the poetic language, the well-crafted scene, the thoughtful characterization. Votary theory submits an approach that applies context without reducing works to mere contextual productions. As in religion, as in love, as in any transcendent moment, something else is going on.
To that end, votary theory presents three questions which will enable the humanities scholar to reach a complete understanding of an artistic work:
1. What is the historical context? What do we know about the time and place in which this work was generated? What do we know about the author and the author's intent?
2. What would readers/spectators have encountered when they engaged the work? What ambiance surrounded it? How was it treated by critics, other reviewers? How was it produced? Advertised?
3. Within a historical context (Question 1), faced with a particular form of engagement (Question 2), how might readers/spectators have exercised their creative desires? How might they have made a place for themselves within a work?
In answering the last question, humanities scholars will hopefully learn to appreciate artistic works at the creative level. Once individuals enter a work, we must rely on our glimpse--our sense--of their experience there. In its final stages, votary theory is entirely theoretical. In many cases, it is simply not possible to interview long-dead spectators, peppering them with surveys about their imaginative desires. Nor would such an approach be entirely appropriate (although it could certainly be done with a contemporary audience). Votary theory attempts to combine a moment in time (scene of a play, page of a book) with that moment's aura or quality (the creative desire flowing between the participant and the work). Many reader/spectator response surveys focus on the meaning or impact of a work to an individual after the event; the issue of creative excitement is rarely addressed; it is uncertain that it could be. As a teacher of English Composition, I have learned that artistic enjoyment is not always communicable. "I liked the characters," students tell me as we wrestle over literary analysis essays. "Why?" I ask, fully armed with my humanist analytical training. They don't know. They're not sure. They tell me how they feel, and I translate their language into a passable thesis. But I am aware, as they are, that my language may not be entirely accurate. Creative involvement is an elusive experience.
Consequently, the efficacy of votary theory is best proved through application. I have selected two works: The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and the film, Late for Dinner. Both works are relevant to the American landscape and will be examined within that context. The Duchess of Malfi, although written circa 1612 by Englishman John Webster, did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century. It was performed sporadically on and off Broadway for the next 100 years. I will examine it specifically within the context of its 1946 production in New York City and will introduce an imagined 1946 spectator as part of votary theory application.
Late for Dinner is a more recent Hollywood film (1991) which uses cryonics as its central plot device. Although cryonics is a world-wide cause, the United States contains the largest number of cryonics organizations and the only cryonics organizations that freeze people. I will be examining the film as it might be examined by a future humanities scholar. The creative experience of a Late for Dinner spectator at the moment of engagement will be presented.
The fourth chapter of my thesis will also concern an artistic work, The Last Promise by Richard Paul Evans. In this chapter, I will examine the relationship between language and votary theory. One of the overwhelming worries of critical theory, especially those theories which excise creativity from the artistic equation, is the power of language and aesthetic enjoyment. These worries are not only held by members of the academic elite. The Last Promise was removed from LDS-run bookstores for its possible negative influence on Mormon readers. I will address the issue within the context of Mormonism and as an active Mormon but will present votary theory as a tool that renders these fears irrelevant for the humanities scholar. In this chapter, the possibility of individual audience interviews will be tackled in more detail.
Votary theory does not answer all the problems encountered by the humanities scholar, who seeks to understand a work's context as well as its creative essence. Rather, votary theory functions as one possible approach, a position within the strands of human connection. It is an enlightenment tool, but it works precisely because it does not insist that enlightened messages must be embedded in artistic works or that artistic works must be linked to enlightened theories. Individuals of the past or present do not need to see what we see (or want to see) in order for us to credit their experiences. Their motives do not need to be ideological, powerful or historically significant in order to have merit. Creativity is a good enough reason to study a work. More than anything, votary theory is an attempt to restore balance to the study of artistic works. We need to drag our appreciation of such works away from their enslavement to hegemonies and hidden messages to a more holistic, and wholesome, position. The study of power has some merit, but in its demand for attention, the individual's creative desire is often bypassed, shoveled off to the side. Votary theory wishes to restore that desire to a position of respect.
1. Dana Polan, "Brief Encounters: Mass Culture and the Evacuation of Sense" in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 167.
2. Barthes' approach is summed up in John Fiske's Understanding Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 54-55. Comments about the Catch-22 exhibited by theorists, who attack Western culture while relying on it, arise in several contexts. Dana Polan in "Brief Encounters" states, "[B]oth Kaminsky and Eizykman share in the ideological binary opposition of mass culture and avant-garde culture," pointing out that despite their differing analysis, the two critics depend on the same assumption that "mass culture is essentially the regime of content, theme, the formulaic regularity of simple explanatory myths, an art tied to the givens of an everyday world," 168. In an essay from the same book, Tania Modleski warns against feminist scholars who attack the dominant ideology; she points out that women, in many artistic contexts, are connected with the dominant ideology: to attack the dominant ideology in art will be to attack women. "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory," 163-164. Although these criticisms of postmodernism are recent, the Catch-22 of postmodernism was acknowledged early on. In a 1930s English murder mystery by Dorothy Sayers, her detective, Peter Wimsey encounters a group of Marxist musicians who promote a "soul of rebellion" in their music. Another spectator scoffs; their "Bourgeois music [has] "resolution at the back of all [its] discords . . . Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention." Ever obliging, Wimsey agrees: "That's the spirit. I would dispense with all definite notes . . . It is only man, trammeled by a stultifying convention--" at which point Wimsey has to go solve the murder. It is just as well. As Wimsey fully knows, if his suggestion were taken, it would do away with the discussion, not to mention the music. Critical attacks on conventions must beware, else in banishing all forms of convention, they banish themselves as well. Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995), 84.
3. Joke Hermes, Re-reading Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 8.
4. Butsch, for example, argues against the idea that audiences are passive, unable to "manage mass media." Richard Bustch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 280. Mukerji and Schudson point out that Marxist-influenced theories tend to "obscure the complex ways people make sense of and use their tastes" in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspective in Cultural Studies, Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 34. Janet Staigner argues that "scholars may get further in analyses once they stop assuming that individuals have one, logical relation to the movies." Jane Staigner, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 12. However, Staigner also argues that individual agency is a nineteenth/twentieth century concept and relies on Stanley Fish's theory of interpretive frames.
5. Fiske, 50.
6. Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (New York: Routledge, 1990), 177-182.
7. Hermes, vii; Staigner, 210-211.
8. Butsch, 292.
9. It is likely, for instance, that Beatrix Potter never would have written a word if she had not wanted a life independent from her parents. The creative desire, which emerged in her watercolors and stories, may simply have found a different outlet--as it did later in her life when she focused all her energies on her farm.
10. C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 140-141.
11. Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 135.
12. In fact, an encounter with the "Other" (another world, mindset, set of experiences) is a recurring refrain in writers as diverse as C.S. Lewis, Kathleen Rooney, Wayne Booth, Camille Paglia, Dorothy Sayers, Umberto Eco, Alberto Manguel. Votary theory postulates that (1) this experience, encounter, is not limited to authors and critics--they just happen to be more articulate when it comes to explaining it; (2) the experience is often perceived as a result rather a moment of creative engagement; votary theory examines the moment.
13. Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House (New York: Random House, 1988), xxi.
14. Wolfgang Iser, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), 65.
15. A great deal of fan fiction takes place "off-screen," that is, during periods of time not covered by the original text (book or television series), either during the summer (when television series go into re-runs) or after a series (book or television) has ended. Although the fan fiction contains "off-screen" material, it is often measured (by fellow fans) by how well the writer has captured the characters as determined by the original text. Has the fan writer remained true to the author's universe, vision?
16. Iser, 54.
17. Similarly, certain types of criticism produce creations, new texts, themselves. The object of votary theory, however, is to examine the creative desire not in its parasitic use of works but in its symbolic conjunction with works.
18. Lewis, 88-89.
19. Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 174, emphasis in text. Lewis' art for art's sake stance never descended into an attack on popular culture. He did detest modern poetry, for almost unfathomable reasons, but in general he could be surprisingly non-elitist.
20. The image of reader/spectator inside the artist's world is not a new concept. The issues of distance and connection bridge both literary and performance theory; film and theater scholars often refer back to critical and reader response theories, applying similar concepts and rules to various types of production. Daphna Ben Chaim goes so far as to compare novels, film and theatre. In the film and the novel, the narrative is controlled by a point of view. The reader/spectator of a novel/film has to make a more concerted effort to climb inside the story, to see it from another perspective, than the spectator of a play. Yet Ben Chaim argues that the experience of the theater compared to film is "really one of differing degrees, not of opposition." We can apply the same generous attitude to texts. After all, like the play and film, a novel cannot be enjoyed until it is engaged. All artistic works, to an extent, rely on an appreciative (or angry) participant. Daphna Ben Chaim, Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), 56.