Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What makes art matter?

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko (Tate Modern)
Is the value of art in its creation or is it made to be consumed?

In college, I had to fulfill one philosophy class credit. I took the most seemingly interesting class I saw offered in the subject, simply titled "Philosophy of Art." Whereas I walked in hoping I'd have a chance to debate philosophies expressed through art, I must have misread the syllabus because from day one we were not asking "What does this artist mean?" but rather "Does what this artist means actually matter?"

The age of digital media has made artistic consumption like testing snack samples at Costco. We walk around mindlessly searching for something to taste. One small bite after one small bite, grabbing at will and without premeditation. We toss our used paper cups into trash bins, bypass the neatly stacked piles of the product we've just tried, and go about our day. It's the accumulation of the food samples that make for the experience, not the food itself.

Basing the value of art on a sampling audience is exhausting. The reality is that loyalty is not always guaranteed, and a captive and engaged audience is not so simple to come by in this age of infinite entertainment.

Given that, I have begun to ask myself more and more - "Does the audience actually matter?" The question brings me back to those days of discussing the true intent of art.

Value is not the only thing qualified by an audience, often intent is as well. All those books you read in high school and college? Do you think most of the authors were part of building the lesson plans around them? Were they able, once their work was out in the world, to dictate the interpretation so carefully that absolutely nothing was misunderstood in scholarly analysis?

I'm doubtful.

Every piece of art - of drawing, of writing, of song, of dance - is passed on like a message in the game Telephone (or Chinese Whispers, as it is referred to elsewhere). Once shared, it is run through mind after mind, changing at each step. Perhaps we succeed in understanding the artist's intent, the message being the same at the end of the game as it was in the beginning. Otherwise, we find ourselves drawing our own conclusions, our ideas no less valid yet somehow different than the original message.

When I think of my writing in these terms, it makes me hesitant to assess the quality of my work by the participation of an audience. Fame and success, or the ability to captivate people is a Costco snack, but not a whole meal.

The meal might just be the personal victory of making something in the first place.

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