Ink-Stained Scribe

George Lucas - The Phantom Audience

I've been a Star Wars fan since I was a little girl. In middle school, one of my walls was a collage of posters, pictures, and fan-art, I had a one-foot model of the Millenium Falcon suspended from my ceiling, and enough extended universe books to build a desk.

Recently, George Lucas announced that he was stepping back from making feature films because of the negative reaction he continues to receive from fans about alterations he's made to the Star Wars films. The Guardian cited a NY Times interview with Lucas, in which he said the following:

"On the internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie. I'm saying: 'Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.'" 
"Why would I make any more," Lucas says, "when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?"

[Insert appropriate joke about going to the Toshi station to pick up power converters here]

After my initial eye-roll, I had two reactions:
1. Lucas, as the creator, has the power to do whatever he wants with his franchise, but should have been prepared for a negative backlash.
2. Lucas's reaction to audience backlash suggests that he views his audience as witnesses rather than collaborators.
As a creator, I find Lucas's reaction both understandable and problematic. I understand the desire to go back, to tweak things and try to make them more like what you see in your head, but once a work has made an impact on society, the time to make changes has passed.

I'm a firm subscriber to the belief that art belongs to the audience, not the creator. It's is going to be true no matter how much the author wants to control, revise, or retract the original work, because experiencing art is personal, and what we come to understand through that experience weaves itself into our ideas of who we are and where we fit into the world. Both parties come out of it changed, having created the experience inside their heads as something meaningful and indicative of self, even if it's as simple as "Anakin is way more annoying than Luke -- I didn't think that was possible".

While a work of art reflects the audience more than the artist, it is also important not to take the artist entirely out of the equation. Art is the product of the ideas and values of the artist, and an audience resonates with the evidence of those ideas and values, even if their interpretations are completely different. Intention has nothing to do with it. They may want to know what the artist "meant", but only because they have already decided what the work means to them, and want to find out how they compare, and where that places them in the scheme of society/morality/the bright center of the universe.

Whether the intention and interpretation turn out to be the same is irrelevant. For example, no matter how many times Tolkein stated that The Lord of the Rings was not meant as a Christian allegory, the audience member who interprets it that way isn't wrong. He sees the parallels in his own minds, and those parallels become part of the meaning of The Lord of the Rings for him, part of his experience. It has somehow strengthened or created pathways of thinking about the world in relation to something that matters to him.

Respect of an audience's reaction is valuable to an artist as well, because it allows her to grow and reevaluate herself. By deciding whether the interpretation of the audience is or isn't what she intended, an artist can create her own meaning and understanding of self through the reaction.

Unfortunately, Lucas didn't get the chance to visit the Vader-cave on Dagobah for a little self-reflection. In a 2004 interview, he said: 
[T]o me, [the original version of the trilogy] doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. 
Whoa. Stop the Bantha.

Deriding fans for falling in love with something you created, even if you see it as incomplete, is rude enough to inspire Force-lightning. If there's anything Lucas should try to take back, it's that. Let's pretend the fans shot first.

To claim that the original version of the trilogy no longer exists is to say that this whole collaborative sub-culture built around the works, and the meanings derived from the experience of it, are invalid. To Lucas, the film may have been "half completed", but it was released to the public - with or without his permission - and millions fell in love.

He often claimed to have been disappointed, and yet something kept him going after A New Hope, and I doubt it was the desire to keep producing "half completed" films.

Image from nakedglitter on tumblr
When John Green wrote Looking for Alaska, I'm sure he was proud of it. Later on, however, he stated that he no longer agreed with what he'd set out to write in that book, particularly because some fans pointed out the unfair treatment of a female character. Rather than going back and making changes, however, Green used that change in philosophy to grow as an artist. He wrote another book -- Paper Towns -- in order to reexamine the parts of Looking for Alaska he no longer agreed with.

And that, in my opinion, is how it should be done.

Once a work of art has moved into the public view, it ceases to belong to the artist because each member of the audience develops his or her own unique version -- it becomes a collaboration. The audience gives the work meaning, rates its significance, and uses it to make more art and more communication and facilitate more development of self. Art doesn't just reflect one or the other, artist or audience -- it's a set of facing mirrors that reflect each other indefinitely.

Rather than treating his audience as collaborators, involved in an ongoing process of development, and allowing the original Star Wars trilogy to remain as it originally was, he treated his audience as witnesses to his inability to move on.

Further reading: Flavorwire's Open Thread on George Lucas.

AND TO PROVE that art inspires collaboration and dialoge and change and art, I've written the following song, using the music of YouTuber gunnarolla, as a tribute to George Lucas.