Is the Artists' Audience The Main Ingredient?

When I attended the gala event for Kerry James Marshall's "One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics," exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art  during Chicago Artists' Month of 2004 I was struck by the cultural complexity of the attendees.

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US artist Kerry James Marshall explains his work "Garden Party" (2003 - 2007) exhibited at the Documenta 12 art fair, 15 June 2007 in Kassel, central Germany.

In other words, I had NEVER seen so many people of color at the MCA at one time in years, if ever! I also went to the Romare Bearden exhibition in 1991 at the old MCA location on Ontario Street. I saw Betye and Alison Saar there. All the artists, collectors and art lovers I knew made it their business to go, too! Some more than once!

At Marshall's gala I remember whispering to Madeline Raab, a former commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, something like "See! If they bring shows that reflect us, we will come". I thought I saw every black middle class man and woman in Chicago in the huge rooms, thrilled to support an artist who made us see ourselves, who made us part of the fabric of the cultural community of Chicago and the world.

Joyce at Dolls of J Joyce and Madeline with my doll.jpg

Me (right) with Madeline Rabb (left) at my "Dolls of J" (detail, left) reception at Eye Emporium.

Artists have to think about who will come see their work. That's a no-brainer. And galleries have to think about who will come see, and collect, an artist. And the bill collectors have to hope that someone will buy artist's work so that the bills get paid! All this makes sense. It's the "art before the cart" that I consider problematic! 

I hope that my audience is universal. Even when I paint individuals who survived American slavery I am not only addressing the condition of black Chicagoans, black Americans or blacks from the African diaspora, but anyone who has been limited and controlled, been abused, been marginalized in the many ways people of African descent in this country and the world have been and continue to be.

Should artists think about their audience and what the audience wants AT ALL?

I have heard some artists (who are not abstract artists) say, "Abstracts are selling so I am going to make abstracts." I have heard artists say "Corporations buy non-objective art work for their collections, so that's what I will produce."
(This clearly is not a universal truth.)

Is there a right or wrong answer? I doubt it. But there are numerous questions concerning this issue that we can consider so, at least, we are conscious of  why we do what we do:

1. Is it deceptive for "fine artists" (not illustrators or designers) to make art for the audience?

2. Are artists who make art for the audience anti-art in any way?

3. Should collectors avoid artists who switch styles for the sake of sales?

4. Should the artist do what it takes to sustain her practice?

As for me, I think first about what moves me. I trust the audience recognizes my authenticity and will respond to the images I produce. Oh, and I have the luxury of working at a university that pays me every two weeks.

What do you think?


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  • This subject has been floating in my head a lot this year. Unless I'm doing a commissioned piece my art has always been to first satisfy me....but even a few times this year when I've been hired to create a piece I've been told "do what you want. I just want an original from you."

    The reason why I now even question this subject is because my art has become pretty much my only source of income. So I Di pay attention to how people respond to my work and what type of wok draws them in.... I will never go out of my way to create a piece of art just because I know it will sell and it has nothing to do with my growth as an artist.... It will almost feel like selling out

  • My "audience" always sits on my shoulder while I create. There's a fine line for me between my thought process and imagining how it will land in the minds of others, imaginging their response. But what's interesting is the mental image of that audience - and how that can change. Before I had an audience in reality, my imagined audience that gave me line-by-line feedback was perfect, supportive, they got all the jokes, etc. But now, with a real audience that whips tomatoes at me a lot, the audience is super harsh, like judgmental prison guards, snorting and making fun of every single line. As nightmarish as that sounds, they might be pushing me to make better work that the supportive audience of my imagination.

    Sometimes I have a specific person in mind, like, for inexplicable reasons, my "transparency pages" on chicago art map is written for Brian Hieggelke, editor of New City. For some reason the whole series is an imagined dialogue with him - though I've only met him twice and that was years ago.

  • Thanks for the feedback Paul and Kathryn.

    In my experience artists are out to please. We don't poll our audience, first, but we sure hope that whatever it is we do is received with adulation!
    We also can't help being ourselves. That's what makes us artists!That's what separates us from the crowds and makes us individuals. And that's what makes each artist's voice invaluable!

    I contend the ones who serve the audience and not themselves are frauds.

    Thinking of someone when you make work is fine! I often think of my mom. But when the work is geared to fit a niche that is not within the artists' view, passion, concerns, practice, style, intentions, whatever word you choose, then I think the work is dishonest.

    If nothing else is the world is true, art has to be, of course unless the artist is addressing ideas around lying!

    Oh, What a wicked web we weave....

  • I don't think it's deceptive for "fine artists" to make work for the audience, it can be survival and I think the choice is dependent on one's goals as an artist. There are many artists that continue to plug away with their unique voice without any financial gain or even acknowledgment sometimes.
    It does appear the market, in the Midwest, generally encourages artists to compromise their authenticity, particularly with some curators and/or galleries favoring trendy styles, genres, the right "resume" and the right actor to play the part of artist (age, gender, how long you've been out of school, etc.) In a struggling economy, they have to guarantee some sales and audiences too.
    If you plan to make your entire living off art, it would be ignorant to ignore this reality. I don't see WHY collectors would avoid artists that switch styles as very often they are driven by trendiness promoted by art magazines like Art Forum or Juxtapose. And in reality, if they like the final piece, shouldn't that be enough? and if you are really authentic but the piece stinks, should someone buy it anyway because it's "authentic?" It's a choice based on goals.
    While there are artists who are able to financially profit off their authentic voice, it can be a long and difficult road to find that audience and I don't feel artists, who already have too few opportunities, should be the ones examined. The curators and the galleries have the power to influence the audience far more by promoting artists that work authentically and taking chances without trendiness or formulas.

  • Different audiences for different artists/artworks. The hardest thing for the artist is finding the fit with the audience for that artist's work, and I suspect both the artist's work and story gets tweeked subconsciously, if not consciously for most artists.

    If the art is created with the dialogue in mind, it would seem to have audience in mind, which is different from the collector wants to see X, will buy X and so I'll give them X. It's a question of degree.

  • Dee, you said it. The audience is certainly important. We want people to engage with the art work we produce. I think we want to help them understand what we do by writing artists statements and hoping someone else will write about our work.

    Of course no one can speak for ALL artists. Generally speaking, though, I hope artists respond to their own needs and motivations. I am possibly too idealistic for my own good. I want the motivation to have pure roots. I want the collector to search for the authenticity within the work.

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