The Artist and the Public
by Fernando J. Contreras
This article was originally published on Hades United.
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I rarely receive feedback from readers, so one of the most interesting aspects of this Kickstarter campaign was to learn about the role art plays in their lives. After the campaign failed, many friends reached out to offer support and advice, and as you probably have noticed, offering me advice is the sort of behavior that will get you featured on this newsletter.
Hades United didn’t sell, and if a product doesn’t sell, the first instinct is to figure out why and make changes. There were two lines of thought. The first group said I needed to make Hades United more accessible to the public. What’s wrong with giving people what they want? The second one told me to keep directing my creative efforts with the same intensity and in the same direction, but to find another job if Hades United didn’t take off after a couple of campaigns. If the public doesn’t like it, then why keep pushing the product?
Both positions underline the complex relationship an artist has with the public. A writer without an audience is a diarist, and one that focuses on pleasing crowds is an entertainer, so it’s natural to think that once these two boundaries are determined, the next step is to find an answer somewhere in the middle. But those two poles were artificially set, and if we look closely, it’s unfair to say that the general public is only asking for superficial thrills, or that the artist that fails to find its audience is a misunderstood genius. The very notion of thinking that an artist needs to find a compromise between commercialism and obscurity is a consequence of our failure to understand the purpose of art.
What’s wrong with giving people what they want?
If Dali would’ve asked people what they wanted to see prior to creating an artwork, he would have painted kittens, babies, and a sad Keanu Reeves. People were not collecting digital photos of their fancy artichoke dip because they knew Facebook was soon going to be launched. We only react to what’s in front of us, and even products with great functionality take time to penetrate the culture.
Plus the main function of art is not to be liked/disliked. Sure, I like Expressionism more than Cubism, but that’s not where the conversation ends. Who cares? Liking/Disliking is what children do to make friends. You like Taylor Swift? I like Taylor Swift!!!! Let’s be friends! You like the Yankees? I like the Yankees!!!! Let’s do business! You love Jesus? No? Then I’m going to carpet-bomb your country! Many people never grow out of that phase. Responsible adults abandon their personal convictions as they choose to find identification behind the safety of a tribe. Disagreeing turns into an attack on their character and not an opportunity to build an idea together.
Art is a complex process of communication, and to access it one needs to learn its language and its place in history. If I want to discuss, say, European painting, besides knowing about balance, color, texture, line, and technique, I must also know about the Renaissance, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, the Academy of the Arts, the Exhibition of Rejects, and so on. It’s also worth keeping in mind that art is a reflection of the power structures of the time, and that artists can be favored or forgotten depending on the zeitgeist.
The Baroque taught me how to create movement and drama in a two-dimensional frame. Without WWI there’s no Dadaism, and without Sigmund Freud there’s no Surrealism. Do I like them? Who cares? It’s in the discussion of those connections that value can be structured.
Thanks to Impressionism I know more about the psychological symbiosis between light and mood. I’m now aware of the colors that surround me and how they affect my emotions. Have you noticed that people look like raccoons and that landscapes turn flat on photos taken at noon? Would you be fine working out at a gym that has bright, spectral hospital lighting? I wouldn’t. Not long ago, I was invited to a party that took place in a house where all the furniture was purple. As I was trying to engage in your usual chit-chat about What a wonderful thing life is and How fortunate we are, the whole time I was wondering what sort of life a person must lead in order to decorate their house purple. I couldn’t even drink because they were serving wine, and I didn’t want to consume any more purple. Now, am I weird? Maybe, maybe not. But that not the point. I don’t own anything in purple. Do you?
If the public doesn’t like it, then why keep pushing the product?
After showing his Olympia at the Paris Salon of 1865, Edouard Manet was ridiculed. The painting was regarded as immoral and vulgar, and it was so poorly received, people would spit on the artist as he walked down the street. If he had listened to the public and given up, not only would we be missing two of his best paintings, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, and Un Bar aux Folies-Bergere, but the connection with Impressionism would have been broken. And while Impressionists were not the first artists to move away from representation, they became the bridge toward the new languages that defined the next century.
Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1863
But even when the public gets it right, it’s still frivolous to think success depends on mass appeal. Fame limits the development of the artist. If the monster likes chocolate cake, then chocolate cake you must feed the monster… or it will destroy you.
The popularity of a work of art does not hold a direct relationship with its intrinsic value, and even when it’s relevant in the continuum of art history, it is not valued by the public for the reasons it should be. At the Musee D’Orsay people push to the front of the crowd to take a selfie with Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Why? Because he cut his ear off. Because he died a nobody and now his paintings are worth 90 million dollars. A couple of summers ago I saw a Chinese girl taking a selfie in front of Van Gogh’s self-portrait, mouth open, about to take a bite on her sandwich. Click. And if you’ve ever wondered if Fernando yells at Chinese girls like a psychotic vigilante until they move out of the way, the answer is Yes, he does. I also saw a Russian woman with her head tilted back, hands on her hips, right leg up, leaning against a rail like a model in the cover of Vulgar Monthly, in front of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. Click.I called this The Summer of Poses.
There would be more value in discussing the thickness of Van Gogh’s brushwork and the flatness of his composition as an entry point into the social challenges of the XX Century. Meanwhile, downstairs, Eugene Delacroix, Berthe Morisot, and Jean Leon Gerome are being ignored.
And what about those thousands of Vincent Van Goghs who also suffered immensely and never found fame? Should they have opened a restaurant instead?
Jean-Léon Gérôme — Réception du Grand Condé par Louis XIV (Versailles, 1674) — 1878 — Musée d’Orsay
Biologist E.O. Wilson states in On Human Nature that if aliens came to Earth with the mission to learn all they could from our civilization, only the Humanities would be worth studying. It sounds strange, but it makes a lot of sense given that nearly everything we can call science is only five centuries old. Scientific knowledge would be the same to all civilizations, so the competence of aliens would be far more advanced.
On the other hand, cultural evolution is a product of the human brain. Wilson says that to understand art, aliens would have to study the feelings and constructions of the human mind. They would have to learn the intimate contact with people and knowledge of countless personal histories. Aliens would need to learn the way a thought is translated into a symbol or artifact. That’s why the Humanities are our most private and precious heritage.
And that’s why Hades United must continue to produce works of art regardless of public opinion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hades United hasn’t reached its public yet, so there is no public opinion. I don’t even have trolls and haters yet. However, I believe I can produce the depth of discussion, facilitate progression, provide a record of what culture values, and push the boundaries to grow and change. This alone is worth the struggle, especially now that our culture is moving fast toward the consumption of mind-numbing media. That’s why your help is very important.
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