On the Other End of Art

Last night I went to a concert at a bar in downtown Chicago. It was a small venue with three groups playing. I arrived for the end of the second and for the full set of the last, which was a rock band whose leader just graduated from Northwestern (if you like rock, they are Young Jesus). Since the last concert I went to was when I was thirteen, I spent a lot more of the night observing the crowd rather than being a real concert-goer.

The dancing at this concert really got me thinking about the relationship of listener to music to artist. Since it was my first concert as an adult, it was really my first exposure to rock dancing. Basically what happens is that people were jumping up and down, bobbing their heads, and, toward the front of the stage, shoving each other around in what seemed to be a human version of air hockey. It’s pretty ugly and didn’t look all that comfortable, so I couldn’t help but wonder why everyone was doing it.

My final theory is that it has to do with possessiveness. A lot of the people at the Young Jesus act were friends or fans who knew the music well enough to sing along with the lyrics. Even as someone who hadn’t heard the songs before, I found it contagious: there were strong beats, interesting chords, and that bass that pumps through you so that even your heart seems to be beating along with the music. But it’s more than the music compelling the dancing; there is something about loving a song so much that you listen to it over and over again, that you move in an extra twenty feet to be closer to the band, that you flail your body around in an attempt to catch it. When we like something, we want it to be ours. I know this feeling well. When I love a book, I of course thrust it upon everyone I know, but there’s also a part of me that wants to keep it for myself. I always think secretly that the book can’t possibly mean to the other person what it means to me, or that they can’t possibly understand it as well as I do. I want to protect it; I want to keep it as my book.

This, I think, is one of the reasons art is so important to people. It inspires us; it becomes a part of us. We buy prints of paintings so we can own it and relive it. We memorize lines from movies and television shows so that we can be a part of the joke. We buy copies of the books we love after having read them at the library, or (if you’re like me) after reading the e-book version. The artist may have created it, but the receiver obsesses, too, and recaptures it, and makes it theirs if it’s the last thing they do.

But the other important thing about why people were dancing is that everyone was dancing. Part of the fun of shoving someone around (I imagine) is knowing that they’re going to shove you back. There was that always nebulous energy running through the audience; if it had been just one or two people jumping around, it would not have been fun. And so even though I want to guard my favorite novels as my own, I tell everyone I know to go read them. I want other people to feel the thrill I get when reading them, and then I want to talk about it, and I want to know just how fast they read it and how they haven’t stopped thinking about it. Art is more fun to experience when you can share it with other people, which must be why crowding around a stage and head-bopping is fun.

We spend a lot of time as writers worrying about the craft and the experience of the busy, solitary writer, but I think it’s always important to keep in mind who is going to be receiving it and what you want them to do with it. Books that buzz are books that are shared by readers. The artist has created it; the reader has internalized it, owned it, and shared it. You don’t want to pander to readers, but you want to write something honest, authentic, and entertaining so there is room between all those words for the reader to insert their own, to grow the story, and to make it their own.

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