Spoke last week in a stake fireside in Las Vegas. David Skousen introduced me (he also accompanied the opening hymn for the fireside: a rendition of “The Spirit of God” that would have parted your hair. Also, as he stood at the pulpit I learned that he’d dated my stepmom). In his introduction, he spoke of the necessity of being a “useful artist,” which is kind of a loaded phrase. And while I wouldn’t presume to speak for David as to exactly what he’d call a “useful artist” (I’ve got my own ideas about artists and their usefulness), it did at least seem apparent that his comment had to do with the relationship between artist and audience – that it contained an assertion that in the process of making art, the audience has a seat at the table.
So I’m thinking over the last few days about audiences. And the one solid principle that I keep coming back to is this: audiences don’t owe artists anything.
I’ve got a long-ago memory of a sort of group conversation in a hotel room with Richard Dutcher and his wife. Dutcher had just released States of Grace, and was pounding us all pretty hard to go and see it (which my wife and I later did, and were duly edified, and bought the DVD as soon as we could). Dutcher expressed a degree of frustration with how the film had been received by the average LDS moviegoer, and perhaps in the throes of that frustration (which others in the room were sympathetic to), a lot of comments were tossed around about “what the audience has to do” in order for States of Grace to work. For example, according to the particular tenor of that conversation, the audience “had to” support the film by showing up, and they “had to” open their heads to stories that might stretch them a bit, and they “had to” look in the face some things that might be difficult to consider, and they “had to” engage with the artist in the sort of conversation he or she wants to have, and on and on.
Truthfully, I found myself cheering right a long until after the conversation was over. But in the aftermath of it, I thought of the members of my own audience (I’m a performing songwriter). I’m thankful for them. I love them. I think often of how I might serve them. But it’s unequivocally a one-way street. If there’s a contract of any sort between my audience and me, they don’t know about it. And they’re certainly not bound by it. They don’t owe me a thing, and they quite pointedly don’t “have to” show up, or open their minds, or look anything in the face that they don’t want to, or engage in any sort of conversation with me – any conversation at all. Art doesn’t have any teeth. I can’t fail the members of my audience if they don’t like what I bring to the table. I can’t garnish their wages if they don’t pay attention.
Perhaps that doesn’t get to the nut of what it means to be a “useful artist,” but I’ll stand on it as a true principle, and one that deserves a place in the discussion of endeavors that depend for their success on the participation of an audience. And when it comes to being useful as an artist, I’m sympathetic, I guess, to the side of those who believe it might be an art sin to begin an artistic endeavor by saying, “Here, let me teach you…” On the other hand, I wonder if it might be just as serious a sin to end an artistic endeavor by saying, “…There, that’ll teach you!”