Art and manipulation

by Mark Isaacs

Years ago on a web forum I created and managed, there was some squeamishness, not to mention downright hostility, toward the fact that I was quite comfortable with the idea that not only could art be manipulative, it should be.

I suggest that the reason much of our current music is so listless is that it has the same squeamishness about this idea of manipulation. Either squeamishness or just lack of means and/or the will to bring it about. Creating a generalised mood – often just a single mood for an entire song or movement. – is often the extent of its flirtation with manipulation. Lacking the tools of truly sophisticated harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and textural vocabulary and without real control of foreground dynamics or background overall formal design, no truly momentous narrative journey results that could evoke a spectrum of – yes, manipulated – emotional charges, detonations and defusions.

I expect to be manipulated by art. When a great artist manipulates me it’s the spiritual equivalent of a great lover manipulating my body. Bring it on please. If a mediocre artist manipulates, well, it’s less than extraordinary but rather better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. However, if my lover is not interested in manipulating me, or sanctimoniously finds the whole idea of manipulation unsavoury, then frankly I’m not interested.

To paraphrase Woody Allen on sex: Is manipulation dirty? Only if it’s done right.

I don’t necessarily mean to deploy “manipulation” in the sense of “deviousness”. But, hang on: there are benign and wonderful forms of deviousness in art, too. Giving the impression that a crescendo is going to peak to a shattering climax and suddenly surprising us by letting it drop away to a whisper is devious. And manipulative. And it works a treat.

“Communication” and “engagement” – touchy-feely words that many people might prefer to use in relation to an artist’s intention – are fine and dandy, but connote a more balanced axis where each side has the same affective latitude as the other. For example communication and engagement occur much more readily within a performing ensemble, although manipulation can be necessary there too!

Generally in art, one side – the artist – tells the story and the other side, the audience, is there to experience an affective response to that story. To this extent the story-teller is the manipulator. It seems pretty elementary to me, even a stating of the obvious. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, particularly in live performance and particularly again in jazz where there is more freedom for audience participation. Stuff travels back the other way too. But it could be argued that an enthusiastic audience that palpably eggs on a jazz soloist is in turn manipulating the artist! But, on balance, it is the artist who manipulates the audience.

I think the squeamishness we have about the word “manipulation” could be to do with issues surrounding the idea of “power”. But willfully consenting to be taken and manipulated by a power you trust is sublime. That’s what I do when I go to hear a great symphony orchestra play Mahler. But at the same time I don’t consent to the manipulation of attending a rock stadium. Aesthetics aside, I don’t give my assent to having my hearing permanently mutilated.

Freddy, my somewhat sanctimonious and cranky web interlocutor, asserted that:

Manipulation implies cynicism and/or exploitation. There’s no way of getting around it.

Here’s a little vignette I wrote in response, cast in the Australian vernacular. It attempts to show – sometimes by quite obvious propositions – my various ways of “getting around it”:

Yesterday arv I went to the doctor and he manipulated my shoulder and that bloody sore muscle felt much better! Came home but – bugger me – still don’t know how to set the VCR timer to tape the movie we wanted to see after the kids went to bed. Fortunately my wife came home and she was able to manipulate the remote control and all was well. Watched the movie with her after dinner and boy can that Swedish cinematographer manipulate a camera, such beautiful shots! I love a good thriller, and it was great the way the script deliberately manipulated us into believing that the farmer’s wife had killed all the livestock; what a payoff in the denouement to find out that it was the nephew all along! This morning that grumpy old bugger Freddy tried to manipulate me into accepting that each and every one of those things that happened to me yesterday involved “cynicism and/or exploitation”. But I didn’t mind that he did that. That’s his way and I can cop it. She’ll be right mate.