The Writer’s Desk: Audiences Don’t Owe us Anything

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!”

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11 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Audiences Don’t Owe us Anything

  1. Darlene says:

    I really think I agree with you, Sam, especially when I am in the audience (as opposed to the artist–when I’m the one writing the thing, of course everyone owes me an open mind and heart). Really, what you’re saying is true. The underlying and unbroachable right of the audience is its free agency, and I feel resentful if I think I’m being manipulated.

    I get annoyed when I hear an artist complaining about being misunderstood, undervalued or "discriminated against,"–but only when I think that artist’s work isn’t that great. If it’s an artist I like, then their frustration seems justifiable and I even share it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between justifiable frustration and a egotistical tantrum; perhaps the only difference is in the eye of the beholder.

    And yet, after all that, there is still something to be said, though I’m not sure what, about educating an audience. We’ve discussed this before at AML and although I can’t say we’ve reached definite conclusions, I think it’s an important thing to keep discussing. I have seen it happen in the book groups I’ve led, and any teacher of English or art or music appreciation has seen it as well. People CAN grow in their appreciation of artistic merit when they are led gently (as opposed to being forced).

    Perhaps the difference is that the artist himself cannot do the leading (or complain when it seems not to be occuring).

  2. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I’m a proponent of the idea that every time a work is experienced by a person, there is a collaboration going on between the artist and the person experiencing the work. I also believe that the only part of that collaboration the artist has control over is what the artist chooses to include in the work and what the artist chooses to leave out. And artists don’t have control over what gets in there accidentally (aka "subconsciously").

    The collaboration involves all the things that the person experiencing the work brings to what the artist has included and left out, and the actual "art" is the synergism that results from that collaboration.

    Every single synergism is going to be different, even if the person comes back and experiences the work at a later time–things the person brings at that later time will not be exactly the same things the person brought the first or any other time.

    I guess I have some resistance to the "educating the reader" idea unless it is nothing more than pointing things out that the person experiencing the work may not have noticed and offering possible interpretations for the person to consider adding to the synergism (as opposed to firm assertions that there is one RIGHT WAY to experience the work and anyone who doesn’t bow to that RIGHT WAY needs to be "educated").

    So, amen, Sam, and thank you. Maybe a "useful artist" is just one who includes the things the audience is looking for and leaves out the things the audience is not looking for.

  3. Sam Payne says:

    You’re kind to amen, Kathleen. I’d chime in that I often find great usefulness in artists that presented to me things I wasn’t looking for. But the process they’ve used to get me there is akin to…well…wooing, I guess. Pardon the example, but while I’ve won over some girlfriends that might not have been looking at first for what I had to offer, I never won one over by demanding what I figured she owed me. And if it never worked with a girlfriend, and never works with my wife (relationships in which there were/are actual stakes on both sides), why would it ever work with an audience, who can simply walk away from me with no repercussions at all?

  4. Sam–I agree that an artist can’t demand or even expect anything from an audience, but I think the an audience owes itself. If we want more than hackneyed, sentimental art in any format, we need to be open to new artists with new appoaches and new themes. We won’thave quality art without our support.

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Good point, Course Correction. But it’s up to the audience and not the artist to determine what works the audience supports. All the artist can really do is offer work and hope that experiencing it will be what the audience wants.

    If enough audience members appreciate new approaches and new themes enough to help other audience members learn to appreciate them as well, those new things will have a chance of reaching more audiences. But it has to be up to the audience, because there is such a thing as a "vested-interest" problem otherwise.

  6. Kent Larsen says:

    Wow, how great to see my friend David Skousen’s name getting dropped in a blog post. I can say I knew him then…

    But, more to the point, I think you are generally right, except when it comes to literature, film, and other cultural products that have reached an important enogh level. At some point we do have to tell the audience, ‘in order to have the minimum level of cultural literatcy you do need to know about ‘Don Quijote’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Our culture breaks down without a common cultural vocabulary (although what this is does change over time).

    But, it is clearly presumptuous for any artist to assume that his work has reached that level, especially when the culture the artist is part of is actually a sub-culture (Mormon culture) of a broader national and international culture.

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    But if any educating is to be done, it should be the job of the educators who are also part of the audience for the work.

    Educating the audience is not the job of the artists themselves, except, possibly, insofar as the artist brings new approaches, new themes, new techniques, and such to the work.

    Then, if the audience asks, the situation has changed. Aren’t questions a basic part of art? Answers, on the other hand, especially The ONE RIGHT ANSWER, I suspect, are not.

  8. I’d agree with the notion that the audience doesn’t owe the artist anything, but I also think the inverse is true: that the artist doesn’t owe the audience anything. "Owing" isn’t a part of the equation on either side. You can’t have an obligation that goes only one way. The artist offers, the audience chooses.

    So is it just as problematic for readers/viewers/etc. to harangue artists for what they have and haven’t done as it is for artists to harangue their audience members (or potential audience members) for what they have and haven’t done? We don’t seem to have a problem with audience members telling artists what they "ought" to be doing. Granted that such language generally includes an (often unspoken) condition: "if you want to keep/attract my patronage." Might the same be true the other way around? If audience members are allowed to (sometimes rather rudely) demand what they want, why is it considered uncool for artists to do the same?

    (I don’t, by the way, have any particular answers to this. I just think it’s an interesting question to raise.)

  9. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Rudeness is never justified in any direction or situation, so I agree with you there, Jonathan.

    When you consider that "information should be free, but entertainment likes to be paid," audiences do have that one little bit of clout over artists–they get to choose whom they pay.

    Just as artists are not obligated to produce works that audiences may be more willing to pay for, audiences are not obligated to pay (whether with money or support of other kinds, such as attention and praise) just because an artist has produced a work.

    It would seem to me that the truly rude demand from an audience would be that artists produce without "pay" from audiences who choose to experience an artist’s work.

    Of course, it has to rankle artists when audiences choose to "pay" to experience works that the artist considers undeserving, but it also rankles when artists talk about imposing some kind of "education" on audiences so that they will choose to "pay" to experience works that the artist considers deserving.

  10. Scott Parkin says:

    If art is an offering, then it’s a gift given and ordinary rules of politeness apply (in both directions).

    If art is a transaction, then an exchange of value occurs that demands judgments as to whether value received fairly represents value paid (in both directions).

    In a market-driven transaction, artistic merit is merely one of many selling points that must be weighed by the consumer. If a work requires a level of education or experience to be appreciated, that fundamentally limits the immediate available market to those with that experience or education–at which point the artist must decide whether to educate a wider potential market, or accept a limited market.

    You’re not judged on effort; it’s a transaction based on perceived value, not your quality as either a human being or an artist. If the buyer values you as a person, they may be willing to spend more on that basis, but others won’t.

    There’s little or no mystery there. If I can’t speak German, it doesn’t matter how exquisite the art or transformative the experience if the art requires that knowledge to be appreciated–I will simply be left out of the target market for that work. If reach is more important then the work will be translated; if art is more important, then audiences will need to learn German to meet the art on its own terms.

    (Kafka is wonderful that way, btw. He was a gifted stylist in the German language and wrote with extraordinary elegance is a language better optimized for clarity than style. That elegance is only evident if you have read enough German to recognize the startling difference. That his works remain vibrant when translated attests to the power of the story; but to see the additional layers of artistry you need to read it in the original.)

    It is a shame when quality works are ignored or find only small audiences. Which is (it seems to me) one of the valuable contributions of forums like this one–we have the opportunity to offer good report and praise that can increase the total realized market for that work (as opposed to total potential or total available market).

    Sadly, we are a small community with limited reach. The question is whether we’re also a small market with limited disposable capital–an entirely different conversation.

    In any case, the minute I expect to be paid then I lose some level of control over the nature of the value transaction, and I put myself at the mercy of many factors that have nothing to do with artistic quality, social relevant, or ultimate absolute value–my work becomes merely another bauble in a crowded marketplace trying to be noticed amidst the din.

    Or so it seems to me.

  11. Richard Dutcher says:


    Good post. I think you must have misunderstood that conversation. It has always been my belief that the audience doesn’t OWE a filmmaker anything. I’m certain I was frustrated that I couldn’t get audiences out to the film, but I was certainly far more frustrated that Mormon filmmakers had driven the audience away. In that case, I’d say the filmmakers had failed to delivered what THEY owed to the audiences: well crafted and intelligent movies.

    But a great post. Good thoughts.

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