In a profile that ran a week ago in the New York Times Magazine, Syracuse-based author George Saunders devised a little thought exercise to describe his ideal audience.
Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.
But, he continued, “If there's something in my work that's making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I'd like to figure out what that is. I can't change who I am and what I do, but maybe there's a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I'd like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”
Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.
His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders' words are a reminder to send out more invitations.
Saunders' thought experiment isn't good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it's great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.
Saunders' idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.
“Duchamp's nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn't play '4'33' sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John's 'Numbers' fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn't like modernism. Let it be.”
The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era. And though Buffalo is a place whose cultural institutions are attuned to a wider section of the public than those of other larger cities, we are not strangers to Acocella's notion that audience-building for “difficult” art is a dead-end pursuit.
Our more-visionary organizations, such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery under Louis Grachos, the Burchfield Penney Art Center under Ted Pietrzak and Anthony Bannon, and the Road Less Traveled Theatre under artistic director Scott Behrend, have begun to head in the right direction. Ditto with CEPA Gallery and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
Elsewhere, the mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.
But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders' so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.