Does art require an audience? Does art require an audience?
I posed this question to a dozen artists over nine episodes of Working (it) Out, the ArtSlant podcast I began hosting this summer. It was a question that came up at the end of a master’s seminar class I was in last year, and it took me by surprise. My answer, which I assumed was really the only one, was “yes.” Yes, I thought, because without an audience, does it count as art?
I went home and put the question to my partner, also an artist, and instead of validating my point, he felt entirely differently about it.
I argued, “If it’s not part of discourse, then it doesn’t really count,” (arrogantly) positioning discourse as the gate-keeper for what counts as “art.”
“What about a painter who doesn’t show their work?” he asked.
“Well,” I countered, “in theory, if someone makes a lot of artwork, and every one of them they destroy before anyone ever sees them—then the work doesn’t really count as art, because the work is only for them.”
We went back and forth about this for a while, and I realized that a simple “yes” didn’t really address the question sufficiently. It only gave rise to more questions, just as a simple “no” does as well. Working (it) Out provided a platform to work this question out through asking more questions, and hopefully really listening.
Duke and Battersby, Dear Lorde, 2015 (27:03). Courtesy of the artists
Speaking with fellow artists produced a huge variety of answers. Emily Vey Duke (of Duke and Battersby) and I share an alma mater, NSCAD, a progressive and politically engaged art university in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After educating students in a radical art history (Manet was not just some dandy in a yellow suit, but rather a radical and subversive shit-disturber who unsettled the bourgeoisie and disrupted the gaze rendering the nude naked), NSCAD dispatches its graduates with a mission to change the world. This mission foregrounds the need for audience: art can only change the world if people are paying attention to it, right? For Duke and Battersby, the answer is “Yes... art is a relationship between a maker and a viewer,” and they see art as just one kind of labor that makes up culture, not to be privileged over other such forms (civil engineering, presidency, etc.). Talking to these two was an affirmation of my thinking about the artist-audience dynamic. They expressed a sense of accountability to this process of culture-making, but also cautioned strongly against allowing considerations of audience to enter into practice too much.
Daniel Keller, conversely, wasn’t shy about changing his art to be “something that could hang on a wall” (in other words, marketable, made for an art-buying audience). A later guest, Kelly Jazvac, felt similarly to Duke and Battersby, and she also expressed a sensitivity to the different kinds of audiences her work encounters depending on context (e.g. Nuit Blanche vs. a geography conference vs. an art gallery). Keller and Jazvac’s work share a deep engagement in environmental concerns embodied through materials; Keller portrays an unsettling, half-imaginary future while Jazvac shows us the very creepy present full of façades, plastics, and evidence for the anthropocene.
Maryse Larivière, LSD: Love Sex Dreams, your delusion, my reality, Installation view at 8-11 Gallery. Courtesy of Yuula Benivolski
These outlooks were all within my comfort zone of what art could be and could do. Maryse Larivière challenged my thinking a bit with her preference for an audience of one, and having this hypothetical (and sometimes real) person embedded in her process. Larivière includes her poetry, creative non-fiction, and fictional dialogues within a vibrant visual art practice. Her audience of “one” is her ideal audience, and so the work manifests with some inside jokes, a sense of play, or love, and for an outside audience it creates a sense of a game they must be willing to enter. This is where my clear definition the role of audience started to slip, or at least to feel slippery; Larivière‘s writing disseminates her ideas far outside of the exhibition context, and although her work seems so internal, so personal, maybe her gesture of making a new world to inhabit was a move toward changing this one. A tighter loop perhaps.
Roya Akbari, Film still from Only Image Remains, 2014, 30 minutes, Color, Farsi / English subtitles
And then there was Roya Akbari. Akbari turned me on my head. Everything changed moving forward after our conversation. Akbari pointed out that if work only counts once it enters discourse, then every artist whose work is censored is not making art, and isn’t art under struggle, art challenging the status quo, the most urgent? To even make it is an important and potentially emancipatory gesture.
A lot of the time, when artists find themselves at a family dinner trying to explain that what they do is different than say, hobby painters, they’ll break it down as follows: “What I do is part of an international discourse, I am a professional artist. What you are thinking of is therapy (or self-gratification).” Again, Akbari undercut this assumption: “...isn’t it therapy?” Ka-pow, mind blown, of course it’s all therapy, it’s not like we’re manufacturing bathtub plugs. This question demands another: “If it’s not therapy, then what is it? What is it for?” Of course it’s something we’re doing to express something urgently from our psyches, of course it’s therapeutic. For many of us, we’re hopeful that the effect of this expression will be compelling, and yes, world changing, and maybe we’re a little critical of artists not trying to use the amazing potential of art to do just that—but it’s no less art. All the “low-brow,” Sunday-paintings, apple-face-dolls, sock monkeys, tattoos, video-game landscapes, beautiful protest signs, Vines, Instagrams, and especially the art made in the darkness of censorship, all of it must be art if any of it is going to count for anything. Maybe Beuys was right about this thing (problematic figure though he may be): maybe part of making the world better is the idea of everyone being an artist.
Nicole Miller, Ndinda, detail from The Borrowers, 2015, Koenig & Clinton, New York
Nicole Miller followed Akbari. Miller employs a bit of catharsis and conjuring, one subject (usually a person) at a time, and pursues her own investigations of subjectivity—all of it totally okay with manifesting something therapeutic. I then spoke at length with Postcommodity about their radically inclusive and disruptive project Repellent Fence. Countering the colonizing gestures of monumental earthworks preceding them, they built their work (floating 26 helium scare-eye balloons over the US-Mexico border) after a lengthy consultation process with the communities where the work was presented, and made it ephemeral (vs. purchasing land, building a thing, and leaving forever...cough, cough, earthworks, cough). Their work engaged the political history of the land on which it took place, and invited the scrutiny of the people who occupy that land through face-to-face meetings. As a gesture, it defied a violent line on the landscape, the border, and stitched together the communities separated by this line.
Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015, Artists’ study of balloon installed near the border fence
In another grad seminar, we read some of the Mongrel Coalition Against Grinpo’s work. MCAG is a group of radical poets kicking ass and naming names against the hegemonic conceptual poetry movement (see the Gold Star Awards), formed in the wake of the Kenneth Goldsmith/Michael Brown fiasco, when Goldsmith read a mashed up version of Brown’s autopsy as poetry. MCAG, among other demands, calls on those benefitting from the processes of colonial violence (chiefly, white people, or WP) to disavow their privilege. Sounds good, I thought, “but how?” I asked my colleagues, “how do we do this effectively, to disavow our privilege?” The answer, befitting the trajectory Working (it) Out has taken, was “we shut up and listen.”
What I heard: Art is therapy (and that’s okay), you don’t really need an audience, but perhaps just an idea of audience (even if it’s yourself), and if you have an audience, be accountable to them. Try to say something, and try to listen.
(Image at top: Gillian Dykeman "Guided Tour" performance for Land's End at the Logan Center for the Arts (University of Chicago), 2015. Photo: Nabiha Khan)
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