Multi-Sensory Art

What exactly is the nature of art? It’s a big question, no doubt. One that we struggle with constantly, trying to find the line between the value inherent in what Shakespeare gave us, and any given interpretation. Although much the same battle rages every time a cover song comes out — does the cover surpass the original? Can it, ever? Matter of opinion.
So, here’s the thing. I just finished Marco and the Red Granny, the latest podcast from Mur Lafferty. It’s short (7 episodes), it’s complete (so you can get it all at once), and it’s available in ebook if you prefer to read. Highly recommended. In this story, Mur imagined a world where art is multisensory – you see a painting of a thunderstorm and taste hot chocolate with marshmallows. You put on a fancy new shirt and feel the anger of having a fight with your spouse. It’s science fiction, of course. But it’s a fascinating idea.
It was with that story in mind that I returned to this ongoing idea of page and stage, whether reading Shakespeare has value, or whether he must be performed. I compared acting Shakespeare to grabbing some brushes and canvas and trying to paint your own Mona Lisa….but it’s not the same. There’s one Mona Lisa, we can all see it, it doesn’t change.
But is that a good thing? Shakespeare’s words don’t change, but we’re quick to point out that that’s not the same — how you *say* them (and why and where…) always changes, and that’s part of its nature.
Is that the way it should be, or simply the way it is? What if it was different? We’ll never know why Mona Lisa is smiling. What if we did? What if, in Mur’s world, simply looking at the painting could impart to you exactly what she was thinking? What if the very nature of reading Shakespeare’s works made you experience the same rush of emotions that Hamlet does? Technically, I suppose, it does … but in each case it’s merely your own brain doing it for you, it’s not like the creator could leap through his medium and stick those emotions into your brain.
A related example – the invention of film as a medium did not kill theatre. On the contrary, theatre fans are quick to point out all the places where theatre is still superior. When I saw Macbeth? The power went out. Scared us silly. Oh, yeah? Well I saw King Lear during a thunderstorm, it was amazing! I saw Timon of Athens and the person behind me unwrapped hard candy the whole time, I hated it. Film can’t do that.
I’ll give you an even simpler example. Books, particularly old books, smell. eBooks do not. This is enough, in many people’s minds, to brush aside the rise of ebooks and swear that nothing will ever replace a “real” book. In its own way, that is the exact same argument. Where, exactly, is the value in reading a book? Is it to impart the information contained in the words on the page? Or is it the whole multisensory experience associated with how old you were when you read it, what the book looked and smelled like, how it made you feel, etc….?
I don’t know where I”m going with this, really. Bit of a ramble. Trying to decide whether or not our inability to capture all those things is a good thing, a bad thing, or only a matter of time.

One thought on “Multi-Sensory Art

  1. Interesting post. It's funny. Audio recordings are in no way the same as concerts. Yet we still hold on to different formats, like the scratchiness of old recordings and the sturdiness of cassettes. And then there's the difference between what is transitory, like theater or any performance, and something that can be experienced over and over, like film, recordings, or written works, and what appears to always be there to take in all at once, like paintings or statues. This comment has little point, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

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