One of the most powerful tools available to the artist is the faith placed in them by those wishing to experience their art. The artist not only has the ability to direct the gaze, guide the eye and foreground wherever they wish, however they are trusted to do so. Rarely do we hear, save in revisionist criticism, about accidental exposition, the unintentional genesis of theme and discussion; the faithful reader adopts a highly attributive view.
This invites a much wider discussion of authorial intention, which must arguably be undertaken by all who wish to engage in any form of criticism. But more importantly, it empowers the artist to construct a complex of layers and semantics, over which only they appear to have control. The willing follower will happily walk on whatever path they are directed, a motion eerily reminiscent of the continuous turning of pages, or the unfaltering, steady progress one makes through an art gallery.
This participative view of engagement with art highlights the potential for illusion on the part of an artist, affording a false autonomy or conception of a piece, only to undermine it swiftly after. When discussing the deliberate use of illusion by creatives then, it is perhaps here where we should start; the illusion of choice under which we operate. Netflix special Bandersnatch, discussed in a flurry of recent articles across various platforms, highlighted how rare it is for us to be forced to take an active in our consumption of media by taking the ‘choose your own ending’ format to television for the first time. Bandersnatch’s exceptionality is a useful reminder that we do not often consider the role of the reader in the formation of a text, or the equivalent process in visual and auditory arts. It is very easy to be lulled into a false empowerment by the critical process, believing that the role can be as creative as can be observational.
One reads into a text, we bring what we wish to and see it as almost a mathematical function; processing input in a certain manner so as to render a creative product, comprised of both authorial and reader contribution. However, this common conception of the process, whilst not necessarily flawed in a theoretical sense can be of almost redemptive power for a creator. They may become separated from their work, or at least, have their original agenda concealed by the hubris of a critic. As the Union discussed on Thursday, this separation can have a variety of effects, but the most worrying is the distraction from original intention and bias. The very process of critical engagement is often regarded as so empowering, that it may act as a political smoke screen behind which genuine partisanship may hide. A natural example would be the ‘discovery’ of misogyny and racism in old texts. The new interpretations are often attributed to ‘Feminist critics’ or unnamed ‘professors’, rather than the original author themselves. Terming any form of reader response an ‘illusion’ is a little dismissive, but thankfully this discussion relates more to presentation of the process in the media. The delusional aspect is the idea that we may lay the blame for products of the hermeneutic process at the door of the interpreter, not the author themselves. In a similar vein, a common resort of the artist with obscurative designs is the adoption of a nom de plume. J.K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith, Eric Arthur Blair’s George Orwell and Mary Anne Evans’ George Eliot are amongst the most famous of this recurrent feature in modern publication, the existence of each being accredited do a separate motivation.
Rowling wished to overcome her fame and association with Harry Potter, as the novels she wrote as Galbraith departed entirely from her previous successes, Orwell wished to avoid social scandal and defend the family name, whilst Eliot faced the still present task of avoiding classification on the basis of her sex. Despite these fairly admirable and entirely understandable motivations, the adoption of a pseudonym is still an illusion, the fabrication of a false persona in order to distract from a reality which may discredit the author, or have negative repercussions. We may compare this process to the use of the dramatic monologue, especially in Modernist poetry. Despite their inclusion of their own names, poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound wrote some of their best known works through personas, as J. Alfred Prufrock and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley respetively. The construction of character and the deployment of a then distinctive voice is effectively synonymous with the use of a pen name, as well as the impact and notability that the work may gain. Another layer of detachment is placed between author and text, the illusion of proximity to the progenitor is augmented.
In comparison to the more obvious uses of illusion in art, such as the optical and auditory disturbances of Natalie Fletcher and Gesine Marwedel (a German bodypainter who uses the human form like a canvasm to striking effect), these two forms of illusion that surround the compositional process are perhaps more potent and worthy of our attention. We must consider the separation of a piece and its creator, whilst considering the spectral illusions of complete knowledge and understanding that so often haunt artistic engagement.