Arts  •  February 28, 2010

Why Manipulate Our Own Stories?

All my life, I’ve been told that my problem is not what I communicate, but how I communicate. Only recently, I’ve wised up to the fact that most people would not listen to me unless the idea is communicated in a form that is acceptable for them, like a restaurant accepting only a particular type of credit cards. The problem with this thinking is that it becomes habitual, and we can’t stop manipulating everything we communicate. After all, it feels good to be heard, so we become addicted to manipulating our own stories. How do we figure out when it is appropriate to manipulate and when it is not?

The other day, I found an interview with Ira Glass, the master storyteller of This American Life, where he talks about the art of storytelling. He breaks it down to two components: “sequence of events” and “a moment of reflection”. (Alternatively “anecdote” and “the point”.) His point is that one without the other makes a boring story. He then goes on to teach us how to “manipulate” a story to grab people’s attentions.

Whenever I do not craft my story, the piece is received as poorly written, because nobody can follow it, because it’s too egocentric, and because it makes no effort to understand how others would read it. That is, it fails to take into consideration how other people prefer to communicate. I’m expected to meet somewhere in-between how I communicate and how others do. This is the essential difference between dialogue and monologue. In a dialogue, both parties need to negotiate for their own positions, they need to respect that of each other. If you fail to do so, it turns into a monologue.

I understand this and I have no problem with it if the context is something practical like business or politics. In fact, this is a big part of my business as a graphic designer; I’m constantly thinking from the perspective of the audience in order to produce an appropriate design for my clients. But I question this practice in the context of art. It feels to me like a pointless dilution of what your art could be, which is to say: I believe art is a monologue.

The word monologue may imply that you are talking to nobody. This isn’t true. Many people pay to go see comedians, actors, and storytellers deliver monologues on stage. There is an audience for monologues, which may sound like an oxymoron. I believe the difference lies in who the ultimate audience was in the artist’s mind. We can create something with one person in mind, and end up having many other people who appreciate it. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, when you are appreciating a piece of painting or music, you are listening in on a stranger’s monologue; he is not talking to you specifically. This, I believe is part of the reason why our friends do not necessarily make a good audience because our friends are used to having dialogues with us; so they have a hard time listening to our monologues.

It is commonly said that artists always have a specific audience in mind when they create their work. In many cases, the audience is a specific person (a friend, a lover, a parent, a critic, etc..). But I suspect that these specific people are merely used as a projection screen for the artists’ own egos because it’s easier to process their creative impulses if they can externalize or objectify them. Even when they have a specific person in mind, they are seeing themselves in that person. When James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, who did he have in mind? It had to be someone very specific, and that specific person had to be quite similar to Joyce himself. From this perspective, I wonder why people like Ira Glass feel compelled to “manipulate” their audience. Who is the audience in his mind?

In business, what drives us to manipulate our audience is our desire to succeed. Success can come in many different forms, like money, fame, respect, prestige, status, etc., and this is where the process becomes rather complex and hard to decode. I once worked on a design project for a documentary film about Tibet. The director used the “cause” as a way to get a discount from me, and I agreed to it. But, as we were developing the logo, the director and I started to argue about which logo was more appropriate for the film. I wouldn’t have disagreed so strongly if she hadn’t asked for a deep discount of my fees. My thinking was this: If the “cause” were the ultimate objective of her endeavor, I should have a say in it because she did not own the “cause”. But, she conveniently insisted that she gets her way because she is the director. This, I felt was hypocritical because she was shifting her positions to suit her needs. When it’s about paying me, the “cause” becomes the primary concern of the film, but when it’s about artistic decisions, her vision becomes the primary concern.

In this age of 15-minutes of fame, getting people’s attention is a very difficult challenge. Advertising in general is no longer working because we have become numb to it. In such an environment, if you were to promote your own career as a filmmaker, using a “cause” is a very effective means to achieve that end, because everyone’s guard is down, and they all feel morally obligated to pay attention to you. It’s an easy audience to manipulate. If you were working as a full-time employee for a non-profit organization, the potential for you to exploit the exposure (or fame) you gain from the cause is limited, but as a filmmaker, you are running your own business, so are free to do whatever you want with it. In this scenario, the filmmakers are dealing with two layers of manipulation: manipulation of the story itself and manipulation of the stories of their own careers.

At various film festivals, the subjects of the documentary films about something tragic often make their appearance, but their limelight ends there, and in many cases, their predicaments do not improve thereafter, while the filmmakers’ careers take off. It’s rather ironic. The cause does not win; the filmmakers do. This also reminds me of Truman Capote who could not wait for his subject to be executed so that he can finish his book and publish it. I suspect that eventually the public will catch on to these clever self-promoters and start ignoring their plea for attention no matter what their “cause” may be.

This has become a fundamental problem of the medium itself. It is hard for us as an audience to ignore this factor as we watch their films. We must question their motives if we truly care about the “cause”. One possible way to achieve this is to produce the films anonymously where the directors are not allowed to use their own names anywhere in association with the films. But this would still fail in practice as Larry David aptly points out in one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where an “anonymous” donor of a museum ultimately gets more credit and respect behind the scenes.

We live in a world where nothing is authentic, or nothing can be determined as such. Perhaps it is this sense of futility that led us to “manipulate” stories with pride. When we compose our own resumes, we always spice it up a bit because everyone expects it. There is a degree of manipulation that is assumed and expected with the medium of resume. Nobody just spells out everything factually. This is true with every form of communication; the degree of manipulation we expect is steadily increasing over time. Studying so-called “Reality TV” in its short history would also reveal the escalation of manipulation.

This further complicates the issue for artists who strive to learn something authentic about themselves in the process of creating art. In today’s art world, this is nearly impossible. The audience of fine arts is more sophisticated, which simply means that your ability to manipulate must be more sophisticated. Authenticity, in this sense, is what you perceive when you are not sophisticated enough to detect the manipulation. We are all so used to getting fed everything in a manipulated form that we have become completely blind to unmanipulated communication. It’s analogous to how highly processed food grabs our attention more than unprocessed food does. Those who work in the media industry, for instance, no longer look for stories because they have become so used to others feeding them stories. Even if a story was right in front of them in its raw authentic form, they would not notice it without someone manipulating it to get their attention.

With artists, the challenge is to see through their own manipulations of self. This is no easy task especially when the world is pressuring them to manipulate everything. Authenticity today is hidden in plain sight, and every attempt to express it is met with a barrage of unconscious and habitual acts of manipulation. Just completing a sentence in this manner can be a daunting task.

But I also have to question whether there is such a thing as authenticity. Perhaps the layers of manipulation is like the layers of an onion with nothing at the core. Perhaps authenticity is a state of being, not an entity, an object, nor an experience. Perhaps, to others, there is no perceptible difference in what you produce in that state and the products of manipulation. The point is not the products but the process. The objects of art, in this sense, are artifacts of the process, things to be discarded once achieved.

As long as I have been writing, I’ve felt pressured to improve my ability to manipulate my audience. I now suddenly feel I need to stop and reverse. After all, I’m not a professional writer. I don’t need to earn a living from this. And, I ultimately write for myself as an audience. I enjoy sharing my writing with others who think and see things as I do. And, I’m very happy to have the Web as my medium because it is perfect for delivering monologues. Nothing is pushed on anyone, and the audience pulls the content only if they want to. With this as my objective, what I need to achieve is not how to further manipulate my own stories, but to peel away the layers of manipulation one at a time.