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.
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!