Introduction to "Choosing an Audience": Excerpt from the book In the Making

Production and consumption comprise complementary aspects of art’s cultural course. On the production side, artists transform the private zones of their imaginations, insights, knowledge, emotions, and intuitions into forms that are transmittable to others. On the consumption side, viewers not only have the option of purchasing works of art, they also consume art each time they delight in it, learn from it, and identify with it, or reject it, criticize it, and condemn it. Without the crucial linkage between the creator and recipient, art is stuck in a state of pure potential, like a battery that is fully charged but not in service.

As a result, the artistic process really doesn’t culminate until a recipient tunes in to a work’s power source and receives its charge. By devoting the first chapter to audiences, this book honors the fact that viewers are as essential to art’s consequence as are artists and works of art. Furthermore, it proposes that the audience’s expectations, values, tastes, and concerns are not necessarily after-affects or post-scripts. They can affect artists’ conceptual initiation of works and their subsequent fabrication of them.

Textbooks examining the history of art, like the living room walls on which paintings are hung, provide innumerable examples of two equally effective approaches to the relationship between artists and their audiences. One might be known as ‘populism,’ which typically refers to a common majority. Its antithesis is ‘exclusivism,’  a privileged minority. Majority and minority are quantitative designations, but they are not necessarily indicators of an artist’s impact. Since influencing a few young artists can have the same resonance on the future of culture as brisk sales to the mass market, artists representing both camps are eligible for acclaim,. Furthermore, ‘privileged’ is a qualitative word that does not belong solely to exclusive audiences. Although unsophisticated viewers may not comprehend fine art precedents and intellectual theories, sophisticated viewers may lack the necessary background to recognize an artist’s references to ghetto experiences and popular culture.  Today’s artists dip into such a well-stocked storehouse of artistic themes and styles, most art viewers take turns being knowing recipients or baffled outsiders. As a result, many works of art provoke contradictory responses. A style may constitute beauty to some viewers and ugliness to others. Topics may seem suitable or offensive. Imagery may be exciting or banal. Manners of expression may be familiar or exotic. Such audience heterogeneity is not unique to art. Indeed, it is an abiding characteristic of contemporary culture where the technological sophistication of cable networking, satellite transmissions, and the Internet has made it possible to multiply and divide audiences. ‘Consumers’ of art are being treated to the same abundance of choices available to consumers of coffee, aspirin, and sneakers—contemporary artworks can be plain and fancy, cheap and expensive, conventional and unusual.

The reception of a work of art is not only subject to the particular values and expectations of individual viewers. The artist’s task is further complicated by the need to contend with expectations that derive from shared cultural experiences. For example, entertainment, sports, fashion, and politics have progressively amplified the aesthetics of the visual and aural environment. More, louder, faster, brighter, and bigger are guiding principles for the designers of today’s media-dominated environment. As a result, contemporary artists are challenged to attract the interest of a population that is bombarded by powerful stimuli throughout the waking hours of every day. Capturing the attention of the viewer is the initial challenge for the artist. But a successful linkage merely enables passage into the next zone of interaction—the a multifarious and unpredictable response triggered by the artwork. Audience response is hardly exhausted by the refrains: “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” This bilateral opposition suggests that an art response is as simple as an on/off switch. Responses to art seem more accurately compared to a cockpit control panel with its elaborate array of devices monitoring numerous simultaneous variables. A Direction Dial might point to the location of a response, revealing if it is emotional, intellectual, intuitive, sensual, or neutral. A Pleasure/Pain Indicator might register a enthusiasm or abhorrence.  A Comprehensibility Dial might specify instantaneous recognition, eventual comprehension after prolonged analysis, or permanent confusion. A Temporal Dial might compute how long the memory of the work of art survived. Each and every one of these dials could be accompanied by an Intensity Dial to measure the gradations of response from disinterested, to mild, to extreme.

Decisions regarding whom to affect, how to affect, and where this affecting transpires can occur at any juncture within the creative process. Some artists consciously design both the artwork and the means by which it interacts with an audience. In these cases, genius, innovation, insight, vision, perseverance, and sensitivity are applied to determining an artwork’s consumption as well as its production. Other artists postpone these concerns until the work of art has been completed. A third group ignores this entire discussion and surrenders the authority position. No rule is violated when they allocate the public presentation of their work to a representative or even to happenstance. Thus marketing, promotion, and advertising can either be instigated by the artist or the artist’s representative. In either case, they can reflect exclusivist or populist motives. Furthermore, they can serve the egotistical desire to bolster personal fame, or an altruistic desire to advance social awareness of a worthy cause. But no matter how the process of linking an artwork and an audience is conducted, exhibiting successfully usually means that the artwork and the audience are tuned and synchronized.

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