Attendance figures dictate our livelihood and means of production. We rely on the numbers gleaned from door counts, ticket sales and surveys and are held hostage by the ebb and flow of patrons through the thresholds of our galleries. Sadly, the echo chamber that constitutes a large part of audiences at small-to-medium art venues is often not sizable enough to warrant an exchange of money from the wallet of the government into the hands and pockets of artists and art workers. This places us in a position where we have to defend the relevance and value of cultural affects that have such little reach.
So, we turn to the general public and ask them to sample our wares.
The public doesn’t always like us, and, why should they? It’s not as though we provide a service for free, expose the inner most parts of ourselves as a form of entertainment or deliver experiences or ideas that have been the product of years of consideration… except we do, and we offer this invitation to share in our domain while asking for little in return.
Who in our industry hasn’t heard the phrase “I don’t get it,” or been on the receiving end of an unsolicited sermon denouncing ‘conceptual art,’ as elitist because curators and artists are out of touch art wankers? In accordance with these verbal jousts, art must be visually appealing, its lone significance is how good it looks on the wall. Emerging from this is a mistaken belief in a conspiracy of anti-aestheticism that is continuously being unpacked by artists and writers.
These opinions are typically parroted from the mouths of people who seem deeply personally offended that they “don’t get it.” As though artists and arts workers are inconveniencing them simply by creating something that doesn’t fit neatly within their narrow definition of art. This criticism of contemporary art as elitist is a thinly veiled form of anti-intellectualism disguised as inclusivity.
The public feels alienated, while artists, authors, organisations and funding bodies go to great, unsuccessful lengths to reach them.
Should art be accessible? Yes, absolutely. But who is to say those of us making it are the ones creating barriers. Art civilians do not need protecting from dangerous or challenging ideas. Yet as artists and art workers, we are constantly negotiating how the public perceive us. What this says to me is that the voices of the people speaking, the artists, are not worth being heard – that our narratives are not credible enough because they aren’t consumable enough.
While I truly believe that art is an open dialogue, sometimes it feels like we’re just yelling into an abyss from our ivory towers.