Post from 2935, August 2010

The Importance of the Audience

Sunday, 29. August 2010 21:08

In graduate school, a thousand years ago, I read a book (the title of which is long gone) by Stephen C. Pepper (and why I remember the author and not the title is also a mystery), part of which dealt with Pepper’s contention that art did not exist without an audience. Since I was studying theatre, the notion did not surprise me. Theatre certainly does not exist without an audience, since that is one of the basic ingredients.  I didn’t attempt to apply his theory to other arts myself (although he did in his argument) until later. And every now and then, that idea resurfaces in my thinking.

I hear artists and curators and art critics and those who are supposed to know about such things talk about how the meaning of a work is derived from what the viewer brings to the work, and how every viewer sees something different or arrives at a different meaning for a piece of art. I occasionally even hear someone say, when asked what the artist wants the viewer to think or feel, “he doesn’t want you to think or feel anything. What matters is what you get out of it yourself.”  Obviously, we are not talking about artists who are trying to make strong political or social statements here, but something else all together. It’s difficult to think about someone making such a non-statement in theatrical art; it’s much easier when we are talking about painting or photography.

In situations where the artist does not want the viewer to think or feel something particular, it seems to me, that there is a significant separation between the artist and the viewer. Perhaps that separation is always there, but in this case it seems pronounced, if not emphasized.  Maybe, with the possible exception of acting in a live production, such a profound division between artist and viewer exists in all art.

There is, now that I think about it, a great difference between the processes of creating art and showing art, and certainly between creating art and viewing art. The viewer cannot help but bring his/her own experiences, preoccupations, mental state, thoughts, feelings, temperament to bear on the work he is viewing, not to mention environmental variables that might impact the viewing experience. The artist has no way to know what the viewer will bring, what the viewer might think or feel, or what meaning the viewer might attribute to the work. The artist is involved in his/her own process of creation, a much different thing.

This idea seems to be supported by the observation that what we often call art is an artifact that has transcended its immediate cultural and temporal frame, and manages to speak to viewers of a completely different time and culture.  It is work that, for some reason, continues to speak to an audience, an audience much different from the one for which it was created. It is difficult to believe that all those artists who are still appreciated had the foresight to intuit precisely what elements would appeal to an audience years, or even centuries later.

So, if it’s true that the meaning of a piece of art is really an attribution of the viewer, then Pepper is quite right; art cannot exist without an audience. For an artifact to become art, it has to be experienced. And if all this is true, it forces us to ask, what then is the role of the artist in the artifact/audience experience? Or does he/she have one?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comments (1) | Author: