Monday, March 21, 2011

The Artist and The Viewer

I was thinking about the relationship between the artist and the public. I came up with two very different ideas about it all. The first one I'll "The artist and the viewer"... and the second I'll call "The artist and the public". The idea of the viewer is an abstraction of any single person who views art. The idea of the "public" is an abstraction of all the people who look at art.

Artist & The Viewer.

It seems to be an accepted truism in art, that the reaction of the viewer is important. One way in which it is important is in selling artwork to individuals, right? Because they won't buy it if they don't like it. But even beyond this, the reaction of the viewer seems to be integrated into the very idea of why art exists at all. We hear of the power of art, or the purpose of art, etc.... as being the communication of some effect into the mind of the viewer, or into their emotions, or psyche, etc. We hear too about the therapeutic affect of art, or the ability of art to raise the consciousness of the working man, or to give visions of pure aesthetic beauty to those whose lives are ugly. And so on and so on.

These ideas all place the position of the viewer as very dominant, even more dominant than the artist who creates the work. I was wondering if this situation derives historically from the growth of individualism and democracy in Western European thought. As more and more aspects of the world are delivered over to the governance of the common man (with great success), it seems that the common man (in the noble sense of the free individual) becomes the locus of meaning of things in the world. When the world becomes a marketplace on which not only goods and services, but ideas and attitudes are exchanged in a continual flow... then the agents of that exchange (the individual) seem to be the makers of meaning. They make meaning individually, and those meanings accrue through various social mechanism to become the "social meanings". In such a world, it becomes difficult to speaking of "meaning" apart from "social meaning", and the two become one, and a social-metaphysics results.

I could hardly call social-metaphysics evil, considering that the marketplace itself is a social-metaphysical thing. But the truth of the market is the truth of all the individuals brought together by a market mechanism that reflects supply and demand. The truth of the market is knowledge of socially metaphysical groupings. No problem there. But, not all truth is social metaphysical. We don't have a social mechanisms to determine what people think that "2 + 2" equals. It is understood that some kinds of knowledge is validated in other ways, and that the role of the individual is to "learn" those facts... those truths.. those meanings.

[An aside]
I was thinking that things must have been different during different periods of art history. For instance, were classical Greek sculptures made to achieve therapeutic affects for Greek citizens? Did the viewers of these sculptures talk about "what they got from them".... or "how they made me feel". Were they built for the purpose of bringing beauty to the masses, and making the working man's day more spiritual?

Was Notre Dame Cathedral built with the point of view of the common person in mind? Did the architect care about their reactions? Would those who built it stand in front of it later, and eavesdrop on public opinion in order to feel justified?

Probably not, to both of these examples. I think that the meaning and purpose and justification for art in past epochs must have been along different lines. In our own day we couldn't imaging discounting the common man from our estimation of what we're doing. And I'm not talking about "human consciousness" in some abstract way, as I'm sure considerations of human consciousness informed the making of all art... but did so by informing the construction of the ideologies out of which the art sprang.
[end of aside]

So where does art fit in? Is art a kind of truth that forms only in the mind of the viewer, or is the truth of art something that exists on it's own.

The idea that the truth of art is in the mind of the viewer leads to problems. For one thing, it biases artistic perception toward the reaction of the viewer. This leads to the further problem of figuring out why people react as they do. If one subjective reaction is hard to swallow, what do you do with countless subjective reactions. Obviously, all these subjective reactions will cancel each other out to a large degree, and will lead to the kind of skepticism that is popularly explained as cultural relativism. Varying subjective reactions to art (or anything) will be explained as stemming from the differing cultural backgrounds of the viewers, such that no-one can claim knowledge of the art work. Since the artist is not immune from the conditions of cultural influence, they too become simply another subjective voice... despite the fact that they created the art.

Another problem is that the individual viewer has no guidance in viewing art. They are told that their gut reactions are all important starting points. How does one go from "gut reaction" to "informed viewing"? Not easy. Informed viewing requires a process of learning. But more than that, it requires a re-statement of the relationship between the viewer and the thing viewed. To embrace informed viewing, the viewer must draw their gut reaction into question to some extent. They must come to understand that reaction is a complex process wherein their emotions and their knowledge work together, such that they can change their reaction by becoming more informed viewers.

BUT... what is it that they can be "informed" about. What exactly is the "learning" that a viewer can undertake? Of course, we know the types of things that can be learned, so that question is rhetorical. The point is this... that to say that someone learns something about art is to say that some truth about art exists beyond simply reacting to it. This means that reaction and knowledge are not the same thing.

So, there must be some truth to art, and that truth can be made to exist in any particular work of art. This truth has to be put there by the artist. This all seems to make sense... but like I said in the beginning, the bias toward always considering art from the point of view of reaction... and the strong tendency of modern democratic society to legitimize art based on what viewers make of it... these things distort what is going on.

Of course, the danger in supposing that art can ignore the viewer, is the idea that art can rely solely on assertions of meanings by the artist (or art establishment)... which I take the phenomenon of conceptual art and post modern art to be... where no aesthetic qualities even exist to be reacted to, and the viewer substitutes belief for reaction. Basically, you're told what to think, and what your reactions should be in regard to.

I realize that the dichotomies discussed above smacks of a false alternative. We could say that the truth isn't solely "in the viewer" or "solely in the art"... or solely anywhere for that matter. We can say that all truth is a relation between viewer and viewed. But how that epistemological abstraction solves the problem, I don't know.

Given the dichotomy as it exists, I get the impression that one can go in one of two directions (reflecting these dichotomies). One can make art that is viewed favorably by the viewing public without requiring that the public do anything but "react" to it in a natural fashion. The "public" could be everyone in society, or it could break down into smaller groups, such as lovers of landscapes, or abstract art, etc. In fact, it can break down into any number of groups EXCEPT one... it can't become the sophisticated insiders who make up the post-modern artworld's upper echelon. Because that group doesn't react, it buys into ideology.

This dichotomy sucks, as dichotomies always do.

If there does exist an "art world" that has an ideology... then why not participate in it? If one could stomach producing conceptual art, at least one could reap the benefit of having your art viewed other than via gut reaction. You can assert what your art means, and be taken seriously. Your claims would be part of the viewers mind. You could exist in a high-minded fashion among other high-minded people, and feel like you actually knew something. The problem is, I find these ideologies lacking... and can't believe them, much less align myself with it simply for some careerist benefits.

So, you reject such group nonsense, and you are isolated. Sure, you have your own ideology and your own standards, but you have no public that gives a crap about such things. The only thing you can be sure of that the public knows, is that they "like what they like, and know it when they see it". It's an honest statement, but depressingly narrow in actual fact. Just as relying on "gut" reaction gives no guidance to the viewer... delivering your art to these "gut reaction" viewers gives no guidance to the artist. I suppose artists cultivate a style of work that they can consistently sell, and that's that. But what does "consistent sales" have to do with artistic truth? Potentially very little.

I suppose that the way out of this dichotomy is to stick to your guns... produce work that you can verify to yourself has meaning... and to cultivate a following among some informed people who both believe in what you're doing, and who react favorably to it based on such belief. This presumes too, that the belief is rational, and not simply that you cultivate your own brand of artworld nonsense. This seems like a very idealized solution, the kind I love to identify, but the kind that experience has taught me seems never to exist... or for very long.

It reminds me of how it's difficult to find rational people who can discuss philosophy. People who can do so are not group oriented, and so drift in and out of view. And even when you can nail them down to a time and place, their natures cause them to argue to narrower and narrower points of distinction, so they break apart soon enough over differences, rather than on their 99 percent of agreement. There is NO GROUP POWER in such things, and so they cannot be the basis for movements or institutions or a market, etc.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking about the artist and the viewer. The topic of the artist relation to the public at large is the other idea I was thinking of... but I don't have that written down yet.

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