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How subjective is art?

Art of course is in the eye of the beholder. Two people gazing at the same painting in a gallery will take away different experiences from it. One might love it, while the other might not so much. A violin screeching might move one person to tears and another person to want to leave the auditorium. There have been countless studies exploring the impact of various types, forms, genres and so forth on differing cultural groups, but they often seem to leave holes in their findings.

I remember quite a number of years ago, the first time I went to an opera, I had this thought bubble up from the depths of my mind that this would be a mainly white experience. But then the star soprano as well as several other singers, and a significant percentage (I guess, since I’m no statistician) of the audience were black. I kind of chided myself a little for having thought that only wealthy older white people would like opera. That was the image that Hollywood portrayed at least. I realized it wan’t so much the “liking” part that was the issue—it was the priciness of it. Things have changed now in that virtually any major live event requires you to hock a piece of your grandmother’s sterling silver set in order to purchase tickets.

I had a similar revelation years later, when a friend scored some free passes to a rap extravaganza. Those same neurons fired up a thought that we might be the only white people there. I was so wrong again. In fact I’ve had similar types of preconceptions at one time or other about jazz, blues, country, reggae, metal, the ballet, Shakespeare… And I learned the same about film as well. There are plenty of great foreign films that cut across cultural boundaries and have every bit as much visceral impact on me as anything Hollywood churns out.

We all might at one point in our lives believe that there are distinct cultural lines in art appreciation, but we learn as we get older and wiser that culture really has no absolute boundaries. It has only the boundaries we consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) place on it ourselves.

It is clear that we all have differing tastes in music, literature, film, food, and so forth. And it is also clear that those tastes are shaped by a mix of both innate and cultural factors. I personally have little doubt that our experiences in life shape not only our tastes and proclivities, but our perceptions as well. But my pondering here is about whether there are things an artist often consciously (or perhaps subconsciously) thinks about while working, with respect to how to reach (and appeal to) an audience.

Do you ever notice thoughts entering your head as you’re working on something to the effect of “how would this be appreciated by potential readers/viewers/listeners?” If you respond that that sort of thought never crosses your mind, I’m going to venture a guess that you may be deluding yourself.

When you compose a song, write a short story, make a film, take a photograph, paint or sculpt: who are you trying to please? Only yourself? Take some time to think about that. And let’s set aside the inherent imperatives and pressures of the commercial artist, for whom we already know the answer to that question.

As subjective as art may be, there are elements that appeal to the collective consciousness of large numbers of people. We know that ultimately what you create comes from your own heart and therefore is a reflection of your subjective sense of art and aesthetic. But most of us want so much to get our works seen and heard by more than just ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends—and this means we might just be flavoring our work just a bit to make it more appealing to others. We want not just to be artists, but to be famous (at least a little bit).

I believe there is a distinction however in the motive behind the endeavor. If the intent of a line of prose, or a piece of music, or a photograph, or a video clip is primarily to make a living, either through its direct sale or via its use in advertising to sell an article of apparel or a cosmetic product, or whatever, then clearly that work could be categorized as commercial art.

But how do you explain why certain pieces of music, certain visual images (both still and moving), and certain combinations of written words that were created without commercial intent, at some point find their way into advertising?

The answer is in my opinion quite simple: some works of art evoke a mood or emotion that Madison Avenue types believe they can take advantage of to encourage people to be receptive to buying their product or service. An exciting bit of rock music might be used to help sell a flashy new sport coupe. A piece of sombre music might be used to help sell life insurance. Or a photograph of an older couple strolling on the beach might be used to sell an investment service.

We see and hear this sort of use of well-known images and sounds virtually every day (Pachabel’s “Canon in D” comes to my immediate mind). It saturates our collective consciousness. We know that not all of these familiar images and sounds were created by artists with the immediate intent of profit. We might even curse these ad men for “sullying” the pureness of these lovely works of art—long after the artists have created them. But we also revel at the sheer power of these works that they would be so utilized.

So to my original point about the subjectivity of art, I contend that a work of art is no less magnificent for having been created with the tastes of the masses in mind, than had it been created by a recluse, truly without any thought as to how anyone else might perceive and/or judge it.

In fact, nature has created some of the most wondrous and magnificent works of art without a thought toward it. What makes art great or not so great is completely intangible and immeasurable. Its greatness is independent of the eye of the beholder or of the profit it generates. Art existed long before human beings started creating their own variants, and it will exist long after they’ve stopped.

Cheers,

B.C. 3-28-2013

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