6. Focal Point: Give them a paper weight.
You know when you open a window and the wind throws your papers everywhere? Well that’s what potentially can happen in the few minutes after you walk away from art. But if you have been given a paperweight that is heavy enough it can help hold the art pristine and powerful in your mind amidst the distractions.
This is some of the psychology behind art. Make your foremost idea strong and simple so it can be easily remembered, and so that it will carve out a pocket in their mind where the rest of your piece can land.
In design school they taught us that in visual art the focal point can give you footing and tell your eye where to start its journey.
Also this can mean, pick a compelling subject. Have you seen the photography of Vivian Maier? She definitely has some compelling subjects (lovers, beggars, and awkward old people), and they are compositionally where your eye goes to first on the page, as well.
In music, it could be the chorus that sticks in your head and cues your impulse to turn it on again. Or it could be an instrument used in a memorable way. Something so people could say, “It’s THAT song that does that one thing.” Or maybe it’s a lyric that touches particularly deeply and exemplifies the beauty in the rest of the song. Then just make sure they hear it, several times if possible.
In poetry, and speeches it could be the one word or phrase that, if you remember it, can trigger all the rest of what was said. Maybe we can think of it as the bucket that keeps the other words from spilling out of your memory. Pick a compelling bucket as your paperweight.
But also remember that sometimes adding a bunch of other half-as-compelling paper weights on the same table may distract from the original idea. It may water down the strength of your message, and therefore the memorability of it. So if there is a way to make everything in your piece be held by the one paperweight, do it. Have all the components hang from, or reinforce the first idea. Having one strong idea can help you build impact and momentum when the idea is remembered and when it is trying to be shared.
I’ve heard the guy speak who started the EndIt movement. You know, the red “X” people put on the back of their hands to symbolize their intent to end modern day slavery? It’s definitely a complicated subject but he gave people a paperweight which helped them hold the whole complicated subject on the back of their hands, as well as easily transfer the idea. He tells a story of a bunch of kindergarteners going to one of those trampoline gyms (I hope I remember the details right) and some of the parents of these kids had been doing the red “X” so the kids wanted to as well. But now, as the kids passed through the turnstile the attendant of the trampoline place noticed all the red “X’s” on the kids’ hands. She asked them what it was and they held up their hands and said, “EndIt! It’s to end slavery.” When the kids left, the attendant had added a red “X” to her hand as well. The point he, and I are trying to make is that if you give them something strong that they can easily hold onto, it sticks, AND it spreads easily enough that a kindergartener can remember and convey it. And all the complexity of the topic can be packaged in the mind space behind it.
Now, a lot of art is made better by subtlety. And that takes even more finesse and skill. But essentially they are doing the same thing. They are hitting home a message, a feeling, an idea in a strong way, but this time they are doing it in a way the audience isn’t even aware. This method is supremely good for the right mediums, for the right skeptical audiences, and for those who have the skill to craft it.
But the easier way is to make your paperweight obvious. You usually don’t want to make them sift through chaos to find a meaning. Our job as creators is often to deliver the message in a beautiful, powerful, and compelling way. Sometimes that means the best way of delivering the message is to walk the viewer through the process of finding it themselves, but try not to just throw everything randomly at the wall and expect them to figure it out. We want to put it on the wall in a way to make the meaning clearer, even if it is a complicated subject. Bring order to the chaos everyone else is trying to sift through. Unless your message is a message of chaos; then do chaos well. Have you read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? That book exhibited evil and chaos in a way that disgusted me. And I’m guessing that was what he was trying to do.
Make a strong, memorable statement. Engineer that statement thoroughly because that is the face of your work- the idea people will pass around. Make it simple on the surface and bite-sized. Because this is what people will say when they want to spread the word. “It’s a play about. . . the death of the last unicorn.” Or, “It’s the art show that . . . hung everything upside down, you know? Have you heard about it?” Make it strong and front and center.
What do you think about Jackson Polluck’s paintings. His random paint splattered on canvas is an example of something that, on the surface, lacks a focal point. But ironically that IS his focal point. He was the guy known for having no focal point.