The Trinity of Art
As far as I’m aware, William S. Burroughs is the first contemporary writer to openly acknowledge the bond between a writer and his readers as the process of imaginative collaboration is about to begin.**
His story, “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” was supposedly written in 1938, when he was twenty-four, then re-drafted in 1949. Regardless of the genesis, the story presents a remarkable about-face from the standard notion of the story as a “delivered object” which the reader “receives” as a kind of second-class citizen in our hyper-narrative culture. Burroughs runs the traditional equation backwards. First, the reader’s imagination—not the author’s—is required to bring the story alive.
Burroughs provides the same sort of jolt to readers that René Magritte offered to viewers of his painting “This is not a pipe.” Burroughs and Magritte are having a bit of a joke, of course, but they both force their audiences to pause and consider three interdependent elements: the work of art, its creator, and those who experience the work—be it fiction, painting, music, or whatever form is on offer.
Ultimately all three keys are required to unlock the experience. Furthermore, two elements of this trinity—the audience and object—can be separated by any span of time, a fact demonstrated by the awe-inspiring re-discovery of the 17,000-year-old cave art in Lascaux, France. I imagine we in the 21st century would enjoy similar delights if an unknown play by Sophocles was screened on YouTube or a lost score by Mozart went viral in MP3 format.
The point is that art connects us to one another, one by one, in an instant (or across the millennia) as soon as the third link—the audience—attends to the work of art. No matter how long the work has been lost or found, no matter if the artist is renowned or obscured in the dust of time, the audience ensures the work can live and breathe.
The unique trinity of art is as durable—and as fragile—as humanity itself, and accessible to anyone who seeks to know the inner life it reveals. Art is a gift we offer to one another with generosity and affection. Embrace it and take comfort.
** There may be others; perhaps as an invocation at the opening of Elizabethan or Greek plays. Please email me if you know of earlier precedents.