My student educators were fortunate enough to meet Bob Gober a few weeks ago on a walkthrough of the Charles Burchfield retrospective he curated at the Hammer. Gober, preeminent contemporary sculptor and curator of several highly regarded shows, approached my five UCLA students in the midst of their docent training, and quietly introduced himself. He didn’t say much about the show, but impressed upon them gravely how important their jobs were – to him personally as well as to the future audience of this landmark show. “You are representing this show to the world,” he said, urgency in his voice. “That’s a serious job.”
With that introduction, I’d like to consider audience in this post, and to expand the discussion of audience into one of taste and accessibility. As Martha Rosler says, “It seems appropriate to begin a discussion of ‘audience’ by taking note of the fact that there is anything to discuss.”
There has been much written about judgment and taste in regards to fine art, most notably by Bourdieu and those who have built upon his work. Yet as Rosler so astutely points out, a (not so) latent refusal to acknowledge a mass audience (thereby implying a non-art audience) is still par for the course in the art world. She writes: “Unconcern with audience has become a necessary feature of art producers’ professed attitudes and a central element of the ruling ideology of Western art set out by its critical discourse.” This critical discourse rests on the fact that without the need for broad appeal, the purpose of art can remain thus ill-defined. When we need to appeal to a mass audience, we need to more clearly define the purpose of art, and what it can achieve. And if we do that, then we strip art of its freedom, its creativity of expression, and its “art for art’s sake” self-actualization.
I’m a fairly practical person, and I’ve always felt uneasy when people use the “art for art’s sake” phrase, usually as a way to avoid criticality or condemn the political and the contextual. I understand the difficulty in compromising aesthetic judgments to put on shows or make work with the broadest appeal – I am as critical as any of the unchecked blockbuster show, put on to put butts in seats or, as the case may have it, shuffling bodies in crowded galleries. My issue with “art for art’s sake” lies in the obfuscation of how judgment and taste are applied by curators, collectors, and art producers, and in the way that mass audiences are regarded by these professionals. They are either philistines who must be somehow imbued with the “right” sensibility, or the converted whose innate sensibilities enjoy reinforcement. “Art for art’s sake” perpetuates the cultural myth that art is universal, and urges us not to dig deeper into the contextual role of art. We either appreciate it or we don’t, because it is what it is and needs no prior explanation. Rosler pinpoints this divide quite eloquently:
“Mass audiences know that there is a restricted body of knowledge that must be used to interpret the codes of art at the same time that they recognize their outsider status. One is left confronting a void of permissible response out of which the exit line is often an apologetic and self-derogating “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I [don’t] like.” For the art world audience, the knowledge that informs their taste recedes in unimportance compared with the compliment to their inborn “sensibilities” (taste) that an appreciation of high art offers.”
This view of audience as responsive only to their “inborn sensibilities” gets suspiciously close to a discussion of values, rather than one of acquiring knowledge. As one who has trained in conflict resolution, I know very well that once the argument gets down to values, very little ground can be given or gained through compromise or rational discourse. When art becomes about “knowing” rather than “appreciating,” however, we can begin to analyze the prior knowledge necessary for a rational judgment of art, and the opportunities possible to provide access to these codes.
The Burchfield show is just such an opportunity, and Bob Gober most certainly recognized that when he spoke to my docents with such gravity. He labored precisely and carefully with a pedagogically like-minded colleague of mine, the fantastic curator Cindy Burlingham, to abrogate the notion of the visionary, the genius, the poetic soul. Though Burchfield was all of those things in some way, in Gober’s show, it is clear that the man worked at it his entire life. Through his scrapbooks, his wallpaper, his labored drawings and doodles and carefully reconstructed paintings, we see the vision of a man who built up a knowledge and an understanding of his own practice that only really paid off in the last 15 years of his life. And through this show, visitors have an opportunity to build up their own knowledge – of artistic process, of the time period, of the way the art world worked at the time (a vitrine featuring the remarkable Sunwise Turn bookstore in New York, a little-recognized hub of modernism at the time, is a wonderful window into this social context). Bob Gober was absolutely right to impress upon the docents the seriousness of their job – they have the opportunity to either reinforce art appreciation as the arena of the elite, or to open up a base of knowledge and the painstaking but rewarding study of art as a possibility for anyone.