marcus westbury

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Resonance (the best term i can come up with for what Art should be on about)

September 27th, 2009 by marcus


WHAT’S the difference between good art and bad art? Should we judge art and artists by form or intent or technical proficiency? How should we measure whether or not art is a success when taste will always be a subjective thing? After many passionate arguments over a wide variety of beverages over many years, the best term I can come up with is resonance.

Resonance has no regard for formal frameworks. It’s created in ways that no one person, authority or gatekeeper can control. It has little regard for hierarchy or authority or classification systems. It can be immediate or it can take place over hundreds or thousands of years. Resonance is what ripples and radiates when something is created. It is how it ripples through you when you receive it. Resonance is the depth with which it is received and the extent to which the receiver feels compelled to scream it back out into the universe.

It is almost always very personal. Hundreds of people can experience the same work and yet be affected or unaffected by it in hundreds of ways. It is a personal relationship between an artist and a receptive audience but it is something you are compelled to share. A shared resonance can forge the strongest bonds between people.

Resonance explains the musicians’ musician, the filmmakers’ filmmaker, the artists’ artist. Resonance is when almost no one buys your records, but those who do all start a band. It is the force that makes you want to travel to the other end of the world to see where something was set or made. It makes you want to start a revolution or resist one. It makes you want to burst into tears of pain, joy or laughter. It is the soundtrack to falling in love or perhaps just makes you want to sleep with the person who sang it. Resonance is when something makes you a different person, if only by the smallest increment.

It’s not always a function of popularity, originality or intellect, and nor is it an academic exercise. Resonance isn’t hype. It is what is left after the marketing has subsided and the tie-in toys are lost and forgotten under the bed. It is not defined by volume or sales or units shifted. It is not defined by its mass appeal or even by immediate reaction. It can lie dormant for hundreds of years waiting for the conditions that renew it. A hundred million people can see a single film and ultimately forget it. It may inspire nothing. Yet a single person may walk through an art gallery and take away an idea or an inspiration from an otherwise forgotten work that profoundly changes their lives.

Resonance can be found in popular forms, but it isn’t popularity. Today’s household names are destined to be forgotten and barely known artists will be icons and influences for generations to come. It can be found in an age-old symphony or in a pub gig that your friends should never have missed. It appears in the most commercial or obscure of forms but can’t be created through marketing alone.

No doubt that marketing analysts and media companies have analysed it, courted it, and attempted to derive formulas for it. Resonance is the reason that art is not science. It is the reason that culture cannot be predicted or focus group tested or made by machines.

Yet unlike beauty or quality or worthiness, resonance is almost measurable. There are hints to it everywhere. You can track where culture ends up, you can trace lineages of influence. You can measure citations, or how many times a song is covered, or the breadth and depth of fan clubs, chatter and discussion on the internet. It is a holy grail of the designers of Google algorithms, but no technology will ever predict it.

However, resonance is not the intent of all artists. It shouldn’t be. The most resonant artists often have the least regard for it. Some artists create extraordinary resonance by looking only inward, unaware of the way their work changes others. Indeed, awareness has doomed many artists to cynicism, self-indulgence and complacency. So how do you create it? I have no idea. But any painter, writer, filmmaker, actor or musician who can make their audience feel it rather than enjoy it, share it rather than consume it and advocate it rather than observe it, is possibly on the right track.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adeline Teoh Sep 27, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I like your example: “Resonance is when almost no one buys your records, but those who do all start a band.”

    And also your description of it being something felt rather than enjoyed. Earlier this year I went to see ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ as part of the Sydney Festival (I believe it was originally a Malthouse Theatre production with Barry Kosky on piano) and I didn’t enjoy it at all because it was so damn good. And I think I will remember that production for the rest of my life due to its resonance.

  • 2 Dan Monceaux Sep 27, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Well said, Marcus. Your brand of arts-journalism is about the only kind I can stomach. Great observations, thoughts and expression.