3 Questions to Ask About Art Other Than “Did You Like It?”

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We watch a lot of media and arts. But we don't always have a lot to say about it.

When you see a movie, a TV show, a play or some other cultural product with a group of people, what do you usually talk about afterwards? You probably start with the same basic question: “What did you think?” or “Did you like it?” But, once you’ve exchanged these initial impressions, where does the conversation go from there?

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For all the time we spend consuming media, which includes an average of four and a half hours of live television a day in addition to over 50% of the U.S. population subscribing to a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, we place surprisingly little emphasis on how to actually talk about what we see. While we may spend hours in the audience of some piece of art, a spectacle that may have taken months or years for the creators to develop, we can have surprisingly little to actually say about it.

This isn’t always the case, of course. I know certain groups of people with whom I can have nuanced discussions about what we see together, but I also know others that aren’t going to have that kind of response. Sometimes, we aren’t sure where to start when it comes to processing what unfolded before us. Those outside of artistic or academic careers may have also received less formal training in thinking critically about media and the arts. Some people don’t even think about movies or TV as things that warrant conversation at all. So, here are some questions you can raise for those times when the conversation doesn’t naturally flow, to get more out of what you see and go deeper into your arts experiences with others. These are very basic, but sometimes it’s good to start with the basics, especially when you’re just having a casual discussion with friends.

Did you agree with it?
Almost all storytelling has a point of view on the way the world is and how to live in it. Whether it’s more artistically ambitious or primarily just for fun, stories have characters who want particular things and hold particular value systems, and the writers make decisions about who gets what they want and who doesn’t. So, do you agree with the version of reality put forward by what you saw? Do you agree with the themes of the work and the values it seems to support? Do you share the same understanding of how a person ought to live and the priorities people should have in their lives?

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It is worth noting, of course, that just because a character gets what they want doesn’t mean the work as a whole endorses their behavior. And more complicated stories may avoid clear designations of right and wrong, leaving it to the viewer to work out the moral quandaries for themselves. Also, even when a story doesn’t explicitly invite you to ask questions on the decisions of its characters, as critical viewers we need to be evaluating them anyway. (Many of our society’s more subtle, embedded or systemic problems exist, of course, in similarly systemic ways in our art.) So what is important to the characters in this story? They may be things like material wealth, intelligence, attractiveness, power, revenge, forgiveness, popularity, etc. How do you feel about these goals?

All stories have underpinning ideologies. Do you agree with them?

Not every story has a clear message, and there can be harmless escapist fun in watching fictional people behave in ways real people never should. Art is not always a template for how people themselves should live. But at the end of the day, stories still project a certain take on how the world works and what is important in it.  And it’s up to you to decide whether you agree with those ideologies.

What do you think it’s saying about different groups of people?
Any work that has characters is doing some kind of representation, so how did you feel about the way it portrayed people of different demographics? This can include men, women, people of color, LGBT people, people of different cultures or countries, etc. Even if a work doesn’t deliberately set out to comment on a particular group of people, by representing them a certain way it makes a suggestion about how those people are or what they may be like. And, as viewers, we need to be evaluating these portrayals. Are they accurate? Are they fair? Do we need more or less of this kind of representation, and why?

Another question to ask about representation is whether or not anyone seems to be missing. Not all types of people make sense for every story, but roughly three-quarters of all Hollywood film characters are white (with people of color often occurring as secondary characters) and in 2014 71% of characters were male. With women and racial minorities so underrepresented, you can talk about the casting of what you’ve just seen. Are there choices you particularly supported? Are there parts you would’ve cast differently or ways the casting could’ve been improved?  And what factors do you think motivated these casting choices?

white men movie
2016’s Now You See Me 2. I’m assuming by “me” they mean white men.

What did you get out of it?
Lastly, did you learn anything? Have your views on any subject changed? Or, since a large change in viewpoint is a lot to ask, has it gotten you thinking deeper about a subject you weren’t thinking about otherwise? If you’re going to spend hours watching something, something about you should be different as a result of having seen it. When artists create something, they want to leave an impression on you. They want to communicate something that you can take with you going forward. So, what about this experience is going to stay with you?

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The arts are meant to be shared. But too often — especially in mediums like film and television where there are no talkbacks or guided audience discussions — what we think of as shared experiences may be better described as simply simultaneous ones.

Are these shared experiences or simply simultaneous ones?

So the next time you’re watching something with a friend, ask them one or more of the questions from this article and see where the dialogue goes. Some people may not know how to respond. Thinking about film, TV or the performing arts in this way may be new to them. But that’s okay. Because it means they’re exactly the people who need to be having these conversations.

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Sean Douglass

Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago’s annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He hosts the CFR’s podcast The Scene and is also an arts writer for the digital news publication Rantt.