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But Is It Art?

I took part in a discussion of audiobooks recently that has been preying on my mind ever since. At first, I judged the topic of middling interest, but the others involved threw themselves into it so passionately that I now suspect that we'd struck upon an abiding concern for many afficianados and pros.

A bunch of just such persons were whooping it up one day when my friend Pegeen launched a paean to an audiobook she had just "read." I bristled. This was not the first time I'd head someone speak of "reading" tapes and CDs. The usage always troubles me.

"Excuse me," I interrupted. "Why do you say 'read?' Surely you don't equate reading with listening. They're very different experiences."

"I say 'read,'" she replied feelingly, "because I esteem audiobooks as an art form and I want them to get more respect."

Ignoring the questionable strategy of misusing verbs to elicit respect, I asked, "What do you mean by an ‘art form?’ What do you think elevates audiobooks to the level of art?"

These questions immediately ignited an unexpectedly spirited exchange among the entire group. It went something like this:

A retired engineer offered what he described as "a strictly practical point of view. "It boils down to intent. If you intend to give aesthetic pleasure, even while meeting some utilitarian need—i.e. transforming written words into spoken words--then you're involved in an 'art form.'"

"Even if the performer fails to deliver on the intent?"

"Sure. Bad art or good art, it's still art."

"I disagree," asserted a librarian. "Art is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever it is, if it somehow helps you transcend your measly existence, it's art whatever the intent."

"My existence is not measly!"

"I mean, existence itself is measly."

"We were talking about art and audiobooks, not existential malaise. What do you narrators think? Do you make art in the sound studio? Is it just a quick buck?

"We narrators are interpretive artists," said a very successful actor among us. "What we do involves a uniquely personal blend of craftsmanship, instinct, experience of the world, spontaneity, and emotional daring that make it possible for us to rise above syntax and grammar and vocabulary and punctuation into a lofty realm of acute inner awareness of the great truths of the human condition."

"That’s not to say that we actually "commit" art," protested another performer."

"Oh by no means!" said the first.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Showing off how good you are rather than serving the text."

"You guys talk like Druid priests engaged in holy rites," an avid listener commented. "Calling art transcendent or profoundly moving gets us nowhere. What about the guy who slobbers over, say, pet food commercials and is totally unmoved by La Traviata? Maybe he's a tasteless idiot, but you can't deny that he can respond deeply to SOMETHING. Does that make food commercials art?"

Someone pulled out a dictionary, noting for the group that there were several definitions: "One is 'a skill that is learned or cultivated, as in an art or artisan'. And a fancier one, 'something providing aesthetic pleasure.' It's easy to blur the two, I think."

"Neither are adequate in philosophy," a professor put in. "When academics talk about art, it’s in terms of specific disciplines, art forms, the sole or primary function of which is aesthetic – the plastic arts, literature, music, dance, drama, architecture…"

"What Pegeen said about art forms had nothing to do with any of these things, except maybe literature. Does that mean that an audiobook is art only when it’s a reading of Moby Dick?"

On we went for an obscene length of time. Why? What’s so important? Well, when you parse out Pegeen's opening gambit, you realize that her verb "read" describes, not what the audiobook does, but how she regards what she does. In our culture, reading is a high status activity. Listening to audiobooks is much lower on the totem pole, at least to those literati whose opinion seems to matter. Who has not heard audiobooks dismissed as a mere substitute for the printed page, suitable only for long car trips, or for people too blind or stupid to read?

So, when Pegeen talks about respect for audiobooks, she's really seeking it for herself as an audiobook lover. We professionals, too, want that same gratification. We crave reassurance that we excel at what we do, and that what we do is worthy. Partly this desire to be deemed "artists" is ego driven, but it's also practical. Status impacts our earning power.

One of our number tried to put an end to the debate by remarking, "There's no consensus about what constitutes art or an art form." But I think he's wrong. Through all the talk, I discerned many common threads that, when spun together, form a definite pattern--a simple, useful definition for informal discourse:

"Art" and "art form" are not interchangeable terms. An art form is a forum or discipline in which art occurs. At least some of the time. "Art" itself is any human activity or creation designed wholly or partially to elicit a pleasurable response from an audience, and accomplished with skill and finesse. It can be any deed or man-made object that we can admire as well as enjoy.

And, most definitely, "artistry" in that sense is what Pegeen and I (and you?) want in an audiobook, whether it's low humor, high drama, self-help or buying tips -- good writing delivered with mastery and flare.


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