The Unknown Audience

Some of the things that Scott Lyall brought up two posts back are aspects of the current dialectic of theatricality, which Smithson knew a lot about (in fact more than Michael Fried, who has come to own the concept). This has to be opened up much further, but first just to observe that if objective criteria of judgment are hard to imagine, likewise artists are in complete ignorance of their audience. That an artist cannot know at all what their “public” sees in the work, what they understand or don’t, more importantly what they misunderstand, is one major cause of the anxiety of reception that produces backstories in the form of a statement or press release. All explanations presuppose some knowledge on the part of the listener, and an artistically formed statement, one that is an integral part of a work, has to do a lot of work with what the artist knows the audience knows. The obvious never needs to be stated, but many backstories today intend to make everything obvious, and in that way diminish the work.

Markets are assumed to be anonymous, in fact they are supposed to be in order to function. For example, the names and identities of buyers and sellers of stocks are no factor in the market, and any two shares of the same company are interchangeable. Historically the art market was never like that—the individual products, the works themselves, are incommensurable and it matters very much who buys what. This is still true, but the art market is becoming more and more like other markets. Over time artists have less idea who their patrons are and what they mean by collecting, and so increasingly things that never needed to be said have to be made painfully clear. This is one of the roles of the critic or catalog writer, to state the obvious for readers whose obtuseness is unknown, but better presumed.

The increasing objectivity of the art market—its ever growing resemblance to other markets—is one reason why it’s getting harder to form coteries, even though the audience of artists is probably the closest we have to an audience that “gets it.” But another problem enters here, which is that the closer one is in time or space to anything—a person, a work—the harder it is to see it. Enigma is directly proportionate to proximity. Intense, immersive contemplation of an object only makes it stranger, until it becomes completely uncanny and starts to take us apart with its own gaze. At this point experience becomes  unsharable, and so there is a kind of inner limit to collective reception. Concreteness and specificity, aspects of “presence,” resist collective reception, while abstract generalities become common currency. The metaphor is accurate.

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2 Responses to The Unknown Audience

  1. David Court says:

    Hi Robert. Glad you’re carrying on this discussion. A few thoughts:
    I have to agree with Scott Lyall’s distinction between the contemporary and the present, with the embodied viewer as only one possible “figuration” of reception. And I ask a question: does the dialectic of theatricality (and absorption, I assume?) have that much to do with the contemporary?

    A text I was just reading by Bernard Steigler, ‘The Proletarianization of Sensibility’, might be of interest here. Steigler reminds that reflexive judgement is necessarily anxious, unprovable:
    “The cognitive is never mysterious. The reflexive, on the other hand, is the mystery of the extra-ordinary itself, but of an extra-ordinary without transcendence. In this sense, it is the mystery of immanence itself, the becoming-profane of the world. That is to say: its becoming-ordinary—whence the fact that a reflexive judgment is only universal by de-fault [par défaut]. Its universality—the fact that I posit that everyone should find beautiful, and not merely pleasant, what I find beautiful; that everyone should find extra-ordinary what is also ordinary—is its very mystery, precisely because of the fact that it only imposes itself by de-faulting itself: one will never be able to prove this universality. It will forever remain fundamentally doubtful.”

    This is where Fried loses me, to touch on that reference: “presence” is not the whole story; it a fiction of the object subject to attention, something that happens to it. The object does not confront with a gaze but with indifference.

    • David, thanks again for the comment, and I will respond in the posts. There should probably be one on theatricality at least.
      Looking back over the last few posts that started with the idea of “backstory,” I can see that the conversation is getting complex; it touches many topics and many routes are opening up. I think the way to make it work is to press on the most painful point, to find the source of greatest anxiety, always understanding that an artist’s anxiety will be different from that of a collector or curator. I’m completely open to suggestions from anyone.
      Just one small point. Of course the impression that a work is alive, that it is looking back at us, is a projection; when you make that point you are a rationalist, and we should all be rationalists. The question is what is more pragmatically useful, a rationalist or a quasi animist position. I think the latter, because such “fictions of the object” are of the order of reality most relevant to art, that of appearances.

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