What are artistic sensibilities?
In the article Being an Artist – An Attempt at a Definition, I arrived at my current definition of an artist as: “Being an artist requires nothing more than identifying yourself as one and pursuing a craft. Existing as an artist means to consciously use our artistic sensibilities to interact with the world and people around us.” This article focuses on the second part of this definition to examine some of the sensibilities that artists develop and where they can be found in professional contexts. Being sensible is often associated with being rational and showing good judgement. The word itself derives from ‘sense’ which means to perceive or feel something. Therefore, the more intuitive act of connecting and relating to something, someone, or oneself is crucial in being sensible. Following that, having certain sensibilities means to be able to respond to emotional influences. In the context of the arts, specific sensibilities allow trained artists and craftspeople to appreciate other’s work or act upon concerns relating to the production of specific pieces. Much of an education in the arts is focused on connecting to one’s emotions or analyzing a piece - whether it be visual or performance - from a formal more rational and an emotional lens. For example, a singer is trained to analyze a musical piece both on a theoretical level, as well as an emotional one. While reading the music and understanding the chord progressions of a piece can offer insight into the direction of the composer, hearing everything played together and adding one’s voice offers another dimension to understanding the impact of the composition. In professional and corporate contexts, we often stray away from using the type of esoteric language that those working in the arts are used to. Clarity, brevity, and analytical language are valued in pursuit of efficiency above trying to articulate a feeling or inkling that might be hard to put into words. Being open to, encouraging of, and developing artistic sensibilities in the professional context can lead to more authentic and effective programs, initiatives, and spaces for all stakeholders.
How do these sensibilities show up?
From active listening to building programs
In directing and acting training, I was taught that active listening and observation are crucial in responding authentically to a scene partner or understanding and enhancing the significance of a specific moment in a play. Through continuous practice and repetition, I learned to sharpen those skills and recognize their power. The German playwright and theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht emphasized the importance to simply observe every-day life as a means to develop characters, physicality, and entire scenes. Observation allows us to see small gestures or items that can reveal an entire new dimension to a character or circumstance. Active listening requires a presence to the person or group in front of us and a certain temporary abandonment of the silent dialogue many of us find ourselves having in our head when listening to others. In acting, this type of listening is crucial to be able to respond authentically to a scene partner and create the impression that the actor’s response is spontaneous. These two sensibilities proved crucial in building effective programs and marketing campaigns at The NYUAD Art Gallery. In my past position, I was fortunate to interact with incredible leaders and professionals in the arts in the UAE. Through actively listening, I found that one of the many central concerns and intentions was engaging young adults or teenagers meaningfully in the arts. Jameel Arts Center had started their Youth Assembly as a great model to engage young adults in thinking about exhibition and art production and through the help of my colleagues at The NYUAD Art Gallery, I developed the Teen Council which worked on the conceptualization and implementation of a public program for teenagers by teenagers. The program was met with great enthusiasm, and we received over 100 nominations for six council seats in the span of a week. Identifying this need and building the capacity to serve it did not happen overnight and through active listening and observation, we were able to create an impactful program. Harnessing the power of the voice to communicate clearly and effectively
From the archives: Performing my senior recital in 2018 after countless hours of practicing and rehearsals
Acting and singing has taught me about the power of the voice and how crucial it is in communicating with others. Playing a character or performing a song can be seen as a stylized version of speaking. As audience members or listeners, we sometimes connect to the voice of a singer and are profoundly touched, or we might recognize the technical skill and beauty of a voice but feel nothing at all. This difference could be based on the listener’s mood or an under rehearsed singer. My first voice teacher always used to say that singing is 10% talent and 90% technique. And it is true that the discipline to continue rehearsing, working on breathing, and developing one’s technique is what makes or breaks a singer. Singers and actors learn where to place emphasis to engage an audience’s imagination or where to be softer to encourage a leaning in to create intimacy. Communication and public speaking have long entered professional discourse and entrepreneurs such as Vinh Giang have made it their mission to transform people and organizations through the power of effective communication. I have had the pleasure of witnessing the transformation of a dear friend of mine who had struggled with projecting their voice and through a simple short breathing class and continuous practice they now effortlessly speak to groups of 20+ people. Their confidence increased as well. Rather than organizing a public speaking seminar, I would encourage any company to host an acting or singing class for their teams. With the right instructors, employees will quickly discover new talents and pick up a heightened sensibility for their clients and colleagues.
Thinking about audience and their experience
Keeping your audience and intention in mind was a central tenant of directing training that quickly showed up again in my work with public programs at The NYUAD Art Gallery. In directing, I was taught to think about how the audience encounters the space, actors, materials, and potentially each other to ensure that my directorial intention comes through as clearly as possible. Akin to Richard Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, I was encouraged to not only consider the traditional theatrical elements of actors, spatial composition, sound and stage design, but also how the audience enters and leaves the space. I was fortunate to work with Maya Allison, an amazing curator, and the founding director of The NYUAD Art Gallery who has furthered my understanding of how to think about audience in the context of the visual arts. Curators deeply consider not only what pieces to choose for an exhibition but also where to place them, and how the audience encounters them, among many other aspects. From the composition in the artwork to that of the space, the texture of the accompanying educational publications, all the way to the engagement with the visitors, everything was considered and planned for. Priya Parker writes about a similar impulse in her book The Art of Gathering in which she encourages her readers to rethink how we gather and ensure that every detail is considered under an overall intention, from the invitation through to the goodbyes. Thinking through an audience’s experiences requires empathy, which Michael Ventura writes so beautifully about in his book Applied Empathy where he thinks through applying empathy in corporate contexts. An audience focus, or in other words thinking customer-centric, is not only important in product- and user-design but also in communications and marketing. Through my work with The NYUAD Art Gallery, I have started to apply a more wholistic thinking to marketing to consider the audience’s experience with the brand both online and in person. Rather than solely driving sales and generating demand, I encourage brands and companies to think about creating a wholistic experience for their customers that is consistent from digital communication to encounters in the physical world. In the creation of these experiences, it can be of great benefit to consult with artists to create unique touch points that engage a customer’s senses, emotions, and mind.
Failing is a common thread
One of the central pillars any artist will learn about is clarifying their intention. In that process, they will fail time and time again. In that sense being an artist, or existing as one, is not so different to being an entrepreneur. In fact, an entrepreneur’s success should not only be measured by how quickly they can grow a company or how much capital they raised, but rather by how (many times) they were able to rally themselves and others after failure. Learning from an audience’s engagement with a piece can help directors clarify certain moments or designers tweak the materials or composition of an element. Through testing, listening, observing, and testing again, the intention of an art piece can be clarified similar to how any entrepreneur will need to distill their mission and a company’s intention to lead employees and inspire customers. You can read more about the importance of a mission in The Path to my Personal Mission . While many of the artistic sensibilities in this article have been articulated by a number of thinkers with different vocabulary, it is important to acknowledge the nuance that comes with different language. What new insights have you gained by looking at your activities through the lens of artistic sensibilities? What are other artistic sensibilities that you use in your work and how have you acquired them?