Tuesday, April 3, 2012

An Artist and His Audience

What is the goal of an artist?  To make a great work of art.  What does this mean?  There are many answers to this.  He could express truth, beauty, etc.  Is not one of the goals of art to engage others with this expression?  Every artist, from the most crassly commercial to the most stringently artistic, wants an audience.  The question becomes where is the balance between artistic integrity and actually engaging real people.  To be too mainstream is to sell out, but to be too obscure is to be irrelevant.  Art is also a matter of personal expression balanced with engaging universal themes and ideas.  The last concern, or for many the first, is monetary, given the commercial nature of today's media world.  Engaging others is one of the central goals of an artist. 

Every artist, from the most crassly commercial to the most stringently artistic, wants an audience.  In the case of mainstream filmmakers, we know this.  Whether they want money, fame, or to just entertain a lot of people, they have mostly sold out any sense of artistic integrity.  They most likely feel no sense of duty to high art and see the creation of entertainment as a valid and worthy pursuit, pandering further and further to the lowest common denominator to achieve this goal.  In today's Hollywood, we know the names of those who distressingly keep making more money and movies.

In the case of those filmmakers who break the mold, they still desire an audience.  They may not have naive illusions of attracting a mainstream audiences, but they still want someone to see their work and get something out of it.  As French film director Jean-Luc Godard once put it:
“I’m always doing what is not done.  What I never do is what everyone else is doing. I always begin with ideas and that doesn’t help with the audience. But I always prefer a good audience. I’d rather feed 100 percent of 10 people. Hollywood would rather feed 1 percent of 1 million people. Commercially speaking, my way is not better.”
For him, being original costs him huge mainstream audiences and money, but he still desires to meaningfully engage the small minority that likes his work.  He's even admitted that some of his movies were "flops," seemingly noting the difference between obscurity and super-obscurity.  Even in my own work, which I acknowledge does not have huge popularity, I was pleased to see this YouTube comment:
"I especially like the scene where St. Faustina is in the chapel conversing with Christ, and when the camera switches to the Eucharist and the music stops... That's a really cool effect."
Knowing that someone is enjoying my work makes it worth it.

Art truly involves two qualities, the personal and the universal.  The personal is how an artist expresses himself and makes an original work.  The universal is the element that ties a large audience together and gives them a stake in a work.  Why should anyone care about an individual person's indulgent, self-absorbed musings?  In the past, art and society seemed more geared towards the universal.  Classic art so often involves cultural themes, such as Christian or mythological subject matter.  Our modern times have brought the spirit of individualism into modern art.  It is more a matter of personal expression and not concerned with universal subject matter or formal aesthetics.  Both schools contain elements of the universal and the personal, just in different degrees.  In fact, all human beings contain elements of the universal and the personal, none of us being exactly the same or entirely different.  In art, pure universality would involve bland, formless archetypes.  The personal can cause things to take shape, but taken too far leads to esoteric self-indulgence.  An artist who engages no audience is a mere hobbyist or else someone who selfishly withholds his talents.  Art is meant to be a public artifact.  Each artist must balance his artistic integrity with the desire for audience and find a medium that is correct.  A great work of art should reward, perhaps even challenge, but never downright punish an audience.  Also, if you believe in objective greatness, what are the odds that something is objectively great, yet not a single person realizes it?  Good art always has some audience.  There is always a minority with good taste. 

Another concern, beyond artistic integrity is money.  Art is commerce, especially for those looking to do it as a day job and especially in the film industry.  Film is one of the most competitive industries in the world, especially now with amateurs on the internet demonetizing the media world ever further.  Also, it's an expensive medium to do well.  Finding an audience is some people's livelihood.  Does this mean selling out is the only way to keep going?  No.  The people at the top are not the only people making money.  Wes Anderson seems to be relatively outside the box with each movie he makes and his career hasn't stopped.  Everything he makes has signature touches that break the mold, yet he still has an audience.  Even the film Into Great Silence, a documentary on the Carthusian monks who have taken a vow of silence, made surprising box office in Europe.  Sometimes you can't predict what audiences will do.  With decent distribution and a low production budget, profits can be made.  I've noticed that large theaters are playing more and more off-mainstream work.  Even considering monetary matters, there is room for creative artists.

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