A Question of Audience: For Whom Do We Make Art?

Conventional wisdom says that we make art for our audience. Contemporary experts tell us that we make art for our markets and that if we do not have a market, we should go out and develop one. We should commercialize our art.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the commercialization of art. No one in theatre who is honest could be. Theatre is inherently commercial; you must sell tickets or you cease to exist. Theatre producers hold to the axiom, know your audience.  Those who do not, or will not learn are destined to be unsuccessful, regardless of the work they produce; only accidentally will they hit the mark and satisfy their particular public.  Even those who are considered “cutting edge” have knowledge of the audience who will be occupying the seats and appreciating (or not) the work that they do.

Perhaps the same axiom applies to all artists. Perhaps success is measured in terms of sales. We certainly have people telling us that developing a clientele is the way to be successful in the world of art, no matter which path we choose to take in that world. And there is no shortage of advice on how to do that: we are counseled to limit what we to do a specific style and create niche markets to occupy. We are also told to exploit social media, to basically turn ourselves into a brand, and our art into a business.

But in the face of all this advice I wonder what happens to the artist. Does he/she become merely a producer of the commodities demanded by his/her public? Does he/she find that pandering to the market (a charge often leveled against musical artists who become popular) leads to a more financially rewarding life, a more artistically satisfying existence?  Does the market take over? I am reminded of stories of writers who were so compelled to write that they would scribble on napkins, toilet paper, matchbooks rather than deny their art.  Certainly, the market was not on their minds.  In fact, most of us did not get into the “arts game,” as a friend of mine called it recently, to get rich.  I know an artist who claims that she would “live in a cardboard box” before she would abandon her art. I hope it does not come to that, but it does illustrate the nature of the artistic impulse.

Some great artists were and are also great marketers, shifting between the roles of artist and huckster with ease, each approaching his/her market in a unique and profitable way. This is what I hope the pundits are trying to tell us.  If we want an audience for our art, we must figure out a way to sell it, and we can rely on no one but ourselves. This does not mean that we pander. It means that we, like savvy theatre producers, locate those people who can and will appreciate and support what we do, who will eventually, we hope, pay us for it.  If we do not succeed in our marketing efforts, we have still made the art. We have still created that which we had to create.  Because regardless of sales effort we do or do not undertake, we make art because we have to. We are, in a sense, our own audience because, ultimately, we make art for ourselves.

Date: Sunday, 7. November 2010 22:30
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  1. 1

    The failure of a project is not a failure of the artist. Art wouldn’t be daring if we didn’t work hard at things that sometimes don’t work.

    The only failure of the artist is failure to use her talent. Low sales this year might mean she can’t do certain things next year, like purchase expensive materials she thought she needed. But this will not stop her. Rather, the thwarted artist changes direction, changes venue, changes medium. Or increases her martini allotment, beyond Ms. Parker’s “two at the most” (attributed).

    Several of your entries so far, Light Guy, speak to the artist’s suffering. An artist can get caught up in marketing in a way that alienates her from her art. In such case, the trouble is not the marketing. It’s the alienation. She needs to step away from the glamour of quantifiability. Art is seeing. Glamour is blinding. A marketing plan that gets so stuck in your mind that it interferes with your writing, directing, cetera is like food that gets so stuck in your throat it interferes with your breathing.

    No artist is complete without a good sense of humor: A good sense of humor is a regular Henry J. Heimlich always at hand. Thus, the artist anxious about pandering might take a tip from Pandarus himself: “Loke alway that ye fynde / Game in myn hood . . .” (Chaucer. Troilus. II. 1109-10). And careful with the martinis.

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