Monday, June 20, 2011

Good Art, Bad Art, Selling Out My Share

by R.S. Mellette

So, is a stop sign art?

By the previously stated definition a stop sign in the street is not art, one hanging in a gallery is—but does that make it good?

Like most words in the English language, Art has many meanings and uses. When I talk about Phil Jackson's job as the Lakers' head coach, I might say, "The man was an artist." Do I mean he was an actor, writer, painter, director, choreographer, composer, etc.? No, of course not. I mean he was a great coach. I might say, "He raised the job to an art form," but again, I'm not talking about The Arts, I'm using a metaphor.

In talking about The Arts, when we say something is "a work of art," it is often interpreted as meaning "it's a work of art that is also good." If you'll excuse the play on words, an object of art is objective. It either is art or it isn't. The quality of that object of art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Back at UNC-C I once asked an acting teacher for advice on being a playwright. She said, "I don't know anything about writing, but I know this: A Broadway ticket costs $75 dollars." Okay, I've just aged myself. "You have to write a story that's worth $75 to the average working person."

I only asked her the question because I had a crush on her, but damned if that wasn't the best advice I've ever been given when it comes to the arts.

Decades later I sat in on a workshop of a one-woman show in a Los Angeles garage theatre. After the reading, the audience—all theatre artists—were encouraged to comment. One person said, "I don't mean to say you should concern yourself with the audience, but ..."

That's a phrase you hear a lot in theatre and it has two sources. The proper one comes from acting. An actor has to forget there is an audience out there in order to stay in the moment of their character. At the same time, they have to keep their artist's eye aware of the same audience they're trying to ignore. An actor can't face in the wrong direction, block the audience's view of another actor, mumble, etc. If an actor misses this balance, they may hear from the director, "Don't concern yourself with the audience, that's my job."

The not-so-proper use of that phrase comes from bitter artists of all disciplines. As I write this I'm sure there are novelists blogging about what a bad piece of writing Twilight is and how they will never simply "cater to the audience."

No one is saying you should, but...

I raised my hand in this workshop to say, "I think you should consider your audience. They're paying you. A 99-seat theatre ticket costs $15. You've got to take your audience on a $15 ride, at least."

No one agreed with me. Some were downright offended. I would understand if they'd said, "Give them a $100 value if you want your play to show to more than just your friends and family," but they didn't. I was chastised for trying to put a monetary value on art.

And they wonder why theatre is dead.

Yes, it's true that an artist who tries to guess what the world wants to see is guaranteed to miss the mark. It is just as true, and infinitely more pretentious, for an artist to claim that they don't have the audience in mind when they work.

How far would a restaurant get if the chef claimed, "The customer is not my concern. They don't have my knowledge of the culinary arts, so they cannot possibly appreciate my explorations of the taste of human shit."

The artist who faces the blank page, or canvas, or sheet music, is exactly like the performer on stage. They must split their focus between the work they are creating and the people they are creating it for. Like so many things in life, this is a balance. On one extreme is a journal, where the writer has no audience but his or her self.

On the other extreme is... what? Network Television? Children's Theatre? Pop music? Sexy Vampire Novels? The sellout of your choice?

I don't think so. I've worked in network TV, children's theatre, film (independent and studio), the music industry, and publishing and I can tell you, there is no such thing as selling out.

How do I know? Because I'd do it in a heartbeat!

But there's no one standing on the corner of Hollywood & Vine saying, "Hey, buddy, come here. You want to publish a book, make a movie, be a star? You just take this money and do what I tell you and I'll make it happen." Even if you want to do porn, there's a line around the block of porn star hopefuls. You have to work your ass off to show your ass off.

Music aficionados particularly like to accuse bands of selling out, or saying some kind of music is "just pop music." In the visual arts, their counterparts talk about "pop culture" like it's evil incarnate. Well, I have news for those people. Culture that isn't popular isn't culture, it's just a bunch of crap no one has heard of.

The artists who create Pop Music like Pop Music. The people who put out the poster of Farrah Fawcett in a bathing suit like hot chicks with luscious hair. They aren't selling out, they are making the art they like and appreciate.

By the same token, my learned professor of music from UNC-Charlotte, as smart as he was, would probably not do as good of a job composing "Lollipop" or backing up Jim Morrison. If van Gogh had painted Farrah Fawcett's poster, not as many young men would have held it up with one hand—and consequently, she would not have become the icon of a generation of Americans.

And no one would ask these artists to create that kind of work. It's not their voice.

Only Michelangelo could find David inside that rock. Others tried and failed. Only The Kinks could turn a 3-cord riff into a new class of Rock & Roll. Each artist does what they do, keeping one eye on the work and one on who they are working for, the audience.

So is a stop sign art? On a street, no. On a wall, yes.

Would I buy one to hang in my living room? Hell, no!


Christopher Hudson said...

Well, R.S., I'm not 100% sure I understand your point ... I think you are you saying that an artist can appeal to his/her audience and still be an artist ... to which I say, hell yes. On the other hand, they don't HAVE to ... it's an 'artistic' choice ... but one that usually has a direct impact on an artist's ability to eat.

RSMellette said...

No, I'd say they do have to appeal to their audience. The audience is the customer. The artist makes a product. To say the artist doesn't have to consider the audience is to say that the business doesn't have to listen to the customer.

This becomes a practical issue when considering not-for-profit arts organizations. The Virgin Mary made of a pile of elephant shit. Does it make a statement? Yes. Should the State be required to support that as a work of art?

Let the arguments begin.

Leslie Rose said...

If an artist's purpose is to express a thought, emotion, or sometimes political statement through their product, then I think it's important that the audience is able to receive and understand the message. I've suffered through some "out there" theatre, music, and paintings that have convoluted a message to the point of utter confusion. Yet, I "get" everything at Comic Con.

Matt Sinclair said...

Whether something is art is one thing, whether the state (by which I assume you mean government funding) should support it is something else. I believe art can be art without anyone buying it. Art that is ahead of its time, for example; art that was not designed to be art per se, such as cave paintings by prehistoric humans; even the work of van Gogh, whose audience didn't really exist for many years. There's lots of art I'd not allow to be shown in my house, but it's art. Your stop sign example is a good one: context is everything.

RSMellette said...

I get in a lot of trouble, being a liberal, when I say that I think the State has a perfect right to say "no" to artists who apply for grants based purely on the representative's taste. I think it's fine for a government to say "we're not putting our name on that work," so long as they never, say "that work is not allowed to exist."

If an artist can't get a private gallery, or theatre, or publisher, etc. to support their work, then I don't think the government should be compelled to. By the same token, I think it's an important part of the government's job to support the arts as our legacy. Think of Egypt. Sure, there are tons of payarus writings about rental agreements, bill disputes, etc, but it's their art that tells us most about who they were.

Sophie Perinot said...

I think it is very important for writers to not be embarrassed about considering what entertains when writing. Just back from a great writers conference, but (as always) there was always a "militant subset of attendees" who look down on considering books entertainment and with equal derision on concerning yourself with writing something an agent can sell easily to a publisher.

There is no shame in being an entertainer and no shame in selling well.

RSMellette said...

Brava! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Interesting stuff!

When I teach the kids in my class about art, writing, media, presenting reports... I tell them it's important to keep the audience in mind. Sometimes the audience is me, sometimes it's the class, the school, a company, their parents or anyone who walks down the hallway.

How they want to influence/impress that audience helps them determine how to create their report, artwork, narrative...

Audience is important!

RSMellette said...

Funny, when you put it that simply it's a "duh!" kind of moment, but as Sophie said, there's always a subset of people who think art and entertainment are two different things.

In Hollywood, the snobbery is the other way around. They think "art" is a bad word that means something people are forced to see - but M*A*S*H* was art. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was art. Reality TV is questionable... is it a documentary, which would be journalism, or mocumentary which would be fiction? I suppose it's presented as more staged entertainment than journalism, so that would make it a part of the arts.

But the point being, we who deal in fiction - be it sexy vampires, mindless TV shows, or Pulitzer-Winning literatur - are all artists.

Christopher Hudson said...

Art and entertainment can be two different things ... but they aren't mutually exclusive.

RSMellette said...

No, my point is they are the same thing. Art is entertainment, entertainment is art.

To approach publishing, or film, or TV, or music, otherwise is to get bogged down in discussions of quality and value to the human condition.

Is a pop novel literature? Yes.

If you think otherwise than you have to say that Mark Twain is not literature, Dumas is not literature.

Is Neil Simon not an "artistic" playwright because his work is more popular than, say, Peter Shaffer? No. If you believe that to be true, than Shakespeare is the biggest hack of all time.

Why is this important? Because as long as we think there is a difference between art and entertainment, we keep artists in a box. They must take a vow of poverty because they are artEESTs. Meanwhile, entertainment is the second largest US export and a trillion dollar industry.

They are one and the same. Art and entertainment - success in one is success in the other - be it for an audience in a 99-seat theatre, or for billions worldwide.

Jean Oram said...

I think it comes down to why you are doing/creating something. If you are creating it for you, or to make a statement, etc., then yeah, maybe the audience doesn't matter. If you are hoping that an audience is going to pay you for your creation/art, then heck yeah, you'd better take them into account. ;)

RSMellette said...

I'd argue that if you're creating something just for you, then you are not creating art, since there is no communication with others.

Of course, there are artists so shy that they SAY they are doing work just for themselves, but in the back of their mind they want others to see it and appreciate it. A painter who never shows anyone his work, or so he says. Get that painter on a date with the object of his desires, and soon he will be displaying his work for an audience of one.