At a recent art writers salon dinner hosted by Tricia Van Eck at her still-in-the-works space 6018 NORTH (her new endeavor after leaving her position as the MCA’s chief curator), the group of us were posed some questions, and one in particularly proved thorny. Things got heated, chaotic, and nasty, which is to say interesting, but also uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before cooler heads steered us for safer, but well-charted water. The topic in question was, “Who Are Our Publics?” The popular notion seemed to be that everyone was a member of our audience as art writers, and presumably of contemporary art as well. I disagreed, postulating a hypothetical Sally from Schaumburg, whose taste in art was barely diverse enough to encompass both Monet and Thomas Kinkade, and I suggested that she might not be a member of our readership: a notion that turned out to be more controversial than I’d intended. Some were quick to defend and embrace Sally, while another posited a counterpoint in the form of “Tyrell from the South Side.” (The only Tyrell I know was the guy who created the replicants in Blade Runner, but then the only Sally I’ve met was a very bright young woman I met at an artist’s residency, so what’s in a name?)
Richard Holland of Bad at Sports was making a good point: that not everybody has to like art. His example was that, to him, contemporary country music holds little interest, and that there is nothing wrong with that. I’m inclined to agree. There’s no apparent limit to the number of human activities and interests in which I am neither active nor interested: polo, competitive eating, romance novels, and dog shows not hosted in Tijuana strip clubs, for example. (Okay, Bangkok too.)
I am sure that I could learn to appreciate stamp collecting if I got involved in it, although I haven’t done so. I could probably learn to enjoy adult contemporary music but it would be an ironic enjoyment. Allowing for sufficiently fine granularity of specificity, there are literally more hobbies and interests in the world than there are hours in a person’s life (a little under three-quarters of a million hours, on average, for an American female, and only a hair over a million for the longest life on record, of 122 years, held by Jeanne Calmet of France, 1875-1997). The depth of one’s interest in a subject is playing a zero sum game with its breadth: every hour that I’m shooting guns is an hour I’m not playing chess, and either one is an hour I’m not making art, or teaching, or writing. The “Renaissance Man,” the factotum (yes, like the Bukowski novel), the Jack-of-all-trades is a rarity today, in this age of globalism and infinite variety. It may have been possible to master the lute, the paintbrush, and the chisel, but add the sitar and the berimbau, the electronic stylus, and the performance stage, and you’ve got a tall order for a would-be master-of-all.
The idea persists that our audience should be everyone. The notion carries with it two connotations, neither of which can be easily discounted. On the one hand, it is an admirably egalitarian notion, that anyone is capable of appreciating art, and of reading about it, granted that the writing is sufficiently accessible. On the other hand, the idea that everyone should be our audience is only a short step from the corporate ideal that we should be selling as many widgets as possible to as many people as possible, and the more they buy and the higher the price the better.
It’s worth working to make art and art writing available to, accessible to, as wide an audience as possible. But viewing art, or reading about it, is an opt-in activity. With the rare exception of the occasional Calder flamingo or Picasso baboon, art doesn’t generally confront passersby on the street with its image. Rather, generally speaking, the viewer must make the choice to seek out an experience with a work of art by entering a gallery or museum. A would-be reader of art writing must choose to open the magazine, or click on the link to the blog. When a person takes this step, they become our audience.
The most important element in a would-be public is interest. Writers can generate interest by writing compelling content, but ultimately it is the artists who generate interest by making good work. Reading a scathing review of bad work can be entertaining, but it’s a shallow schadenfreude in which we indulge when we prefer to see bad work ridiculed rather than good work extolled. More to the point, bad work well-mocked adds nothing to the overall credibility of the field. Nor do sensational art-world scandals. Rather, legitimate interest in art, and in art writing, is created by work well done, on both fronts.
An initial interest can only be sustained if it is supported by an openness, or at least open-mindedness, to new experiences, to stepping outside one’s comfort zones, to different points of view. This can lead down a perilous road from well-meaning diversity and multiculturalism through a kind of pluralism and cultural relativism that lead to an “everything’s okay” aesthetic and a criticism that is reduced in function to classification. To quote Tim Minchin quoting someone else, “If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.” But adequately tempered with a healthy skepticism, an open-mindedness is what keeps Sally from dismissing every painter since Monet as “just throwing paint around,” and Tyrell from shying away from Mapplethorpe as “nasty and fucked up.”
Open-mindedness has a lot to do with upbringing: one generally inherits the views of one’s parents, at least as a baseline, and modifies them only with experience and education. Education may, but need not necessarily, involve a formal college degree. An informal education based on real-world experience can be just as valuable in terms of opening one’s eyes to the value of diversity, of people, of experiences, of points of view.
All of this is of course moot if the hypothetically interested, open-minded, educated, and experienced “public” isn’t exposed to the art or art writing in question. A viewer doesn’t need an MFA to appreciate art or art writing, but they at least need to know what’s out there so they can see it. If they haven’t heard of it, they can’t look at it…and can’t read about it.
As artists, we can contribute to the creation of a voluntary and consenting public through our artmaking practices, and as writers through our writing. This is our duty, if we want a public that is generally interested, open, educated, experienced, and exposed to what’s going on, and not simply dragged along by mandatory art courses in school or publically-funded public works. (Not that these aren’t valuable, only that they aren’t sufficient.) Our artwork and writing must be compelling, and not merely superficially sensational, if it is to generate real and lasting interest among those who would otherwise remain apathetic. By addressing controversial subjects frankly and without self-censorship, and without clinging dogmatically to a “party line” consensus on divisive issues, we can do our part to encourage open-mindedness. We can foster the publics’ education by teaching, if that is our calling, or by public performances, installations, and interventions in the communities we wish to serve. And lastly, we can all work to expose our potential publics to the art we would have them appreciate by exhibiting or performing our creative works and publishing, through whatever venue we can, our thoughts on the subject.
At the end of the day, though, it’s like the lady [Dorothy Parker] said: “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” Whenever I think of art and the public, one particular whore comes to mind. Let’s call him…Bob from Bensenville. I was at the MCA for the opening of one of the UBS 12x12 exhibitions, which coincided with the MCA’s “First Fridays,” often mocked as a chance for suburban professionals to come look cultured while attending a de facto singles bar. I attended with an open mind and tried not to subscribe to the stereotype, but Bob made that tough. In my memory I picture him in a sleazy leather jacket. His friend turns to him and asks if he wants to go upstairs and check out the MCA exhibition galleries. “Fuck the galleries,” Bob said. “I’m just here to pick up chicks.”
Art and art writing can be a deeply interesting and fulfilling experience for the publics who participate in them, and at their best they can even be fun. An egalitarian society by its nature ensures that all its members have access to art, along with literature and theater and music and the other elements of high culture. Lack of access to art is a tragedy like a lack of access to wholesome food, green space, fresh air, education, and the other elements of a healthy and well-rounded life. It remains up to the individual member of the public to choose what elements of culture to consume, even if that does not include those that we are committed to producing.