Art Without Audience (have you met Ms Jones?)

My ever-surprising niece, Isis, tells me I have an enthusiastic follower. One of her teachers, Ms Jones. I immediately sense an audience. Doesn’t change what I write – though, perhaps, the experience of writing.  I have an interpreter, a judge. An appreciator.

I know I have a tiny number of loyal ‘followers’ and I know some of them. Robyn, my dear friend in New Zealand, makes occasional comment, as do one or two others, Robert in New York. I am grateful to them, flattered, actually. But these are friends and still I write into a void of strangers – albeit a void rich with potential. I do seek audience.

Why do I write Blogs, then? To ‘connect’? – yes – to be part of what the psychologist Rom Harré calls ‘the public conversation’ into which we enter from the privacy of our minds. I bring to that conversation my personal curiosities, passions, spontaneities. To be assertive? – certainly – I am one of those academics who choose, not just to describe and understand, but to advocate. To ‘troll the system’? – that’s closer to it. We live in morally damaged times. To relieve my sense of nausea at the human abuses we witness every day I write out of indignation and hope. I see my Blog as, in a wee way, restorative – but also as a rebuke against the cruel absurdity that is public life today.

But as Isis tells me of her teacher friend she speaks of an enthusiasm whose intensity lifts my ‘following’ over and above. I engage with an audience.

Should that make a difference?


Many years ago I was studying in Wolverhampton and took a train with David Bent, now leading contemporary painter, but then an art student. We were going to Birmingham for the evening. It must have been Autumn. We abandoned the train before New Street in a Victorian terraced suburb and submerged into one of those heavy-hanging fogs that we experienced way back then. We walked, consciously from one pool of lamp-light to another, feeling our way by memory to our destination pub. The streets were echoingly empty, people displaced by the ethereal mist. We floated into and out of a light-pool, took a few steps back into the  gloom. Dave stopped. He had noticed something or someone. We traced back and made out a person – head bowed, trilby down over forehead, scruffy mackintosh up-collared, stick-leaning and wearing dark sun-glasses in the dark. Standing just outside the suffusing light from the street-lamp. But Dave had noticed a familiarity, and it was this that had made him pause. He approached. “Hey! Rob!”. The hidden head did not rise. The figure hung there in the silence.

The misty figure was, if I remember his name well enough, Rob Con, art student at the same art college as Dave’s. Widely admired by other students and thought to be up-and-coming. Brilliant, even. Here he was. ‘Being’ a tramp. In the emptiness. There was no audience. He was determined and immobile. Impassive, it seemed, to the lack of observers. But the moment was complete. It was accomplished. We, of course, were witnesses – but entirely superfluous and accidental. So utter was his apparent commitment to the self-installation.

So – with no audience – is it art?

Or is it art of the purest kind…..?

The Blogs I’ve written about Beyoncé. Her exhibitionism, her need for affirmation, her extreme fantasising. Would she? Could she? Does she – perform anonymously? What is hercommitment? But, then, is she not more like a Tinkerbell than a Rob Con – there by the grace of the faith of others. “Clap your hands if you believe in Tinkerbell – her light is fading!” Where’s the confidence there?

I think back to a moment when travelling in Peru – a visit to Sacsayhuamán, a hilltop fortress overlooking Cusco where presided The Inca. At the edge of the hill, fronting a steep drop of about 300 feet to the town below, were the remains of a circular tower. Here stood The Inca, apparently, to address his people below. Stand in the centre of the circle, it is said, and you experience a peculiar effect. I did. Sound changed – as though I were standing in a box with my own voice echoing back to me, as though I were listening to myself in real time through headphones. I am a rationalist and not susceptible to metaphysical phenomena. But I did hear that. What, I thought, if that effect was present – magnified, perhaps – as The Inca stood atop the tower bellowing to his people below? Why so? For what reason other than to ease the ruler’s fear of the awesome, godly power he held. What terrible vertigo was assuaged by the soothing, intimate sound of his own voice swaddling him protectively?

The fragility of power and celebrity.

That awful, impure need for audience.

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