Is it ‘art’ if there is no audience for it?
…reminds me of that old thought experiment first posed by George Berkeley in the early 18th century: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it does it make a sound?” Is there no sound if there is no ear to hear it? Is there no art if there is no audience for it?
Berkeley was serious about his question but I’m less confident that Duchamp was. In an interview with Pierre Cabanne questioning the relationship between an artist’s work and the spectator Duchamp said, I consider, in effect, that if someone, any genius, were living in the heart of Africa and doing extraordinary paintings every day, without anyone’s seeing them, he wouldn’t exist. The reason he ‘wouldn’t exist’? Because for Duchamp the artist exists only if he is known. Without an audience there not only is no art, there is no artist. Duchamp continues by saying that art is a product of two poles — there’s the pole of the one who makes the work and the pole of the one who looks at it. And he adds, I give the latter as much importance as the one who makes it.
How many viewers, then, does it take to make art ‘art’?! To my mind that’s as absurd a question as the debate in medieval scholasticism over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. It’s absurd not because there is no answer but because it assumes that art and the object of its work is made for consumption by an audience or clientele — that it has no life of its own. (Of course if you want your art to support you financially you have to commodify it for consumption. Then a new set of questions arises about what monetizing does to an artist’s work & to the artist him or herself.)
But what if, after its creation, an art work is born into a life of its own, a life as independent of an audience as a tree in the forest? The tree does not depend upon being seen or heard for its being. It’s there regardless of our awareness just as are so many things around us that disappear into the fog of daily routines. Consider Emily Dickinson…. Her work was no less poetry for her keeping it to herself and not publishing. Duchamp is just being silly to suggest that Emily did not exist because no one read her poetry in her day! But what if he meant that, in fact, she did not exist as a poet?
The fact that a falling tree could be seen and heard…that Emily created poems that now can be read…testifies to our inter-relatedness. Emily becomes a poet when her poems are read. We may read them or we might not; we may get them or we might not. But they are no less poems either way. We might appreciate a tree for its beauty or turn it into firewood and furniture. Those are the hopes & hazards of independence & inter-relatedness.
A more apt understanding of Duchamp’s view of the audience, one that recognizes both the independence of art’s object and its inter-relatedness comes when he says, the creative act is not formed by the artist alone; by deciphering and interpreting [the artist’s work] the spectator adds his contribution to the creative act. The painting, the object, is not the creative act. It doesn’t depend on an audience for its being or its meaning and, once shown, neither does the artist control its being or its meaning. The audience is a contributor to the creative act — for better and, often, worse.
So what? Why is all of this even an issue?
Because an artist’s ego makes it so. Most artists want to be seen and heard. And, as Duchamp said, if they are not seen and heard for all intents and purposes,“they don’t exist.” Their work doesn’t matter. Popularly, in our market-driven society, if an artist doesn’t ‘sell’ they probably aren’t very much of an artist or they don’t know their market (audience). Accordingly, their work is dismissed as irrelevant or of little value. When faced with such a dilemma, why would an artist keep on making art? Because artists who think or feel deeply about what they’re doing realize that their art is not there to please an audience any more than a tree grows to be timber or to please a builder. The work has a life of its own, a life that interconnects with both the artist and the audience, but at its best remains fundamentally itself & mysterious.
Edward Ruscha said, I never think of an audience or never did think about communicating a particular idea or trying to twist some kind of logic into what I’m doing. It’s inexplicable, from one point to another, how I do something. I never really understood my audience or knew who my audience was. Thankfully I am happy about that.
Most artists welcome an audience, would like to sell, be seen, be heard, be taken seriously…. But really those things just don’t matter. What is most convincing of that fact is that when an artist has no shows and makes no sales…they keep on painting. Maybe that’s why I’ve always called myself a ‘painter’ rather than an artist?