The field of art is considered to be free, open and accessible to everyone. In reality, no outsiders have been spotted here for a long time. Does “art audience” today really only mean people who have an (economic) interest in the art world? Is anyone immune to the half-drunk advances of its warped social economy? Are we all alone? With these questions in mind, our reporter Elvia Wilk went from Berlin to Venice to the hotspots of this summer's art viewing and asked people.
A few months ago at a Berlin gallery opening I asked a friend if he thought there was anyone in the room with no professional connection to the art world. We started scanning the crowd.
“How about that guy? Isn’t he a philosopher?” my friend said.
“Yeah,” I said, “but he does panel discussions about art.”
“Her? She’s an actress.”
“Moonlighting as a video artist.”
Long story short, we couldn’t find anyone.
Over the following weeks I developed an annoying obsession with trying to find people at exhibitions who had no vested professional interest in being there. Of course, this forced me to try and define arbitrary boundaries of “professionalism” in a context where that word has become almost laughable. Art people are all collaborators whose work is supposed to be pleasure and whose pleasure is supposed to be work and whose social capital has some kind of obtuse yet real relationship to economic capital. And as I asked around, it seemed like even people who I’d met years ago as innocent bystanders had all by now written a catalog essay for some group show or worked the bar at a project space. Apparently even if you don’t start thirsty, if you hang out around art people long enough eventually you develop a taste for semi-mutually-exploitative collaboration.
But the knowledge of the bleed between work/life categories only strengthened my resolve to find someone at the far end (the “life” end) of the spectrum from me. Was there anyone to be found here who was definitively not a collaborator? Was there anyone with an interest in seeing art who was immune to the half-drunk advances of its warped social economy?
The sudden need to find people unlike myself was an acute expression of a chronic suspicion that I’ve had for a long time about who the “art audience” is: the same people who have an (economic) interest in its exhibition. There’s a clear undertone to this suspicion that makes it more like a concern: people “like me” aren’t just people who work in the arts; on the Venn diagram of privilege I am also white, western, and middle class.
When I was in art school, “audience” was used to mean “non-professionalized.” Perhaps that distinction has disintegrated along with the general supposed consumer/producer breakdown across sectors. The question is whether, in contemporary art, that indicates a democratization or rather the evolution of elitism, marked by ever-more obscure signifiers. What does this mean for people who still fit the formerly-thought-of-as-audience category, those groups alluded to with grant-proposal phrases like “public outreach,” “accessibility,” “community oriented” and “under-served”?
The audience is a completely different concept depending on where you look. I haven’t lost perspective entirely: my small, closed loop is not an accurate sample of the world art economy. I also realize there could be a faulty cause-and-effect conclusion drawn from the fact that I don’t know any non-art people who see art; maybe it’s because I only know art people. So for once instead of reading articles on the internet and talking to my three friends, I decided to do what a real journalist does and go “talk” to “people” on the “street.”
This article was supposed to be a series of interviews with those elusive non-collaborator members of the art audience, that essential public who maintain their livelihood in other fields and who experience art for the sole purpose of entertainment/edification. Assuming that different venues have different kinds of audience/consumer target groups, I planned to hit a project space, a commercial gallery, a museum, and a biennale, approaching strangers at each and asking them friendly yet incisive questions about what they were doing there. It was a simple, innocent plan –
I would meet new people, discover that art’s influence extends beyond my own front door, feel relieved and vindicated as a relevant member of society, and continue happily down my career path.
I started out in Berlin, where I stationed myself between Praxes, a (recently closed) independent project space and the adjacent St. Agnes church space run by Johann König gallery – two birds with one stone. Over several hours I managed to entrap 15 people into speaking with me, 12 of whom were artists or art students. That percentage did not bode well for my search, and neither did our conversations, which were entirely unremarkable. Here’s a typical clip:
Me: “How did you two end up at Praxes?”
Woman: “Well, we’re artists. We’re here from Montreal for a month. We’re going out every day checking things out in different areas. We just stumbled on Praxes after seeing the church next door.”
[…]Me: “Do you feel like going to exhibitions is business or pleasure?”
Woman: (uncomfortable) “Um, it feels like both. I try to approach it like pleasure. I don’t feel like it’s obligatory but… it’s useful.”
The other three human subjects I identified included one curator (strike) and two sociologists (nice). Unfortunately the sociologists were neither particularly interested in art – they were there for the architecture – nor in speaking with me.
Round two went down in Venice. Figuring that the working crowds would have made their pilgrimages already during preview week, I thought the Biennale in June would be excellent hunting grounds to find some real authentic art viewers. I stationed myself outside the entrance to the Italian Pavilion near the Arsenale and lay in wait. Overall I got about 10 people – I say “about” since the majority were too suspicious or rushed to give me more than a passing answer.
My most fruitful conversation was with a pair of mid-30s guys from London, one who works as “an artist for films and TV commercials” and the other a lawyer who paints as a “hobby”. I counted them as professionals because of how they described their careers, but they seemed to count themselves as audience, mainly because they felt alienated by the exhibition. “A lot of it is maybe too high-brow, so I don’t get it,” the lawyer said, basically summarizing the fear of every public institution dependent on taxpayer money. “Video is kind of a waste of space when you’ve got these amazing, beautiful environments where you can put things,” he went on. “I think it might be time for something a little less conceptual and something a little bit more skilled. Something that makes you think, but doesn’t make you think you don’t understand.” I almost asked whether he ever read contemporary art writing to the end aiding comprehension, but stopped myself, afraid of the answer.
In the main exhibition at the Giardini I was relieved to find out that someone else had done the heavy lifting for me: Hans Haacke’s “World Poll” (2015 – based off his original poll at MoMa in 1970) is an installation where visitors are able to participate in a 20-question survey on iPads that asks questions including age, nationality, profession, and political views. Here’s the breakdown of the professions of every Biennale-goer who had taken the survey so far:
10% art historian
5% art critic/journalist
8% art museum curator/administrator
3% art dealer
1% art advisor/investor
16% other professional interest
36% no professional interest
Apparently 64% of visitors so far that year (as of 25 June, 2015) had a clearly stated professional interest in art. That sounded reasonable, but I added another 15% mentally to account for those casual collaborators among us. Other statistics indicated an almost entirely Italian, Western European, and North American demographic, 87% of whom have at least an undergraduate degree. So perhaps privilege precedes participation. Or is it vice versa?
As a final attempt to learn something, anything, I prostrated myself at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, which had just opened to the public about six weeks earlier. I thought that the pomp surrounding its opening, as well as the lavish architecture of the complex (including one building actually coated in gold leaf), would draw art-friendly non-professionals to it like a flame.
After spending an hour instagramming Rem Koolhaas’s glass-walled, marble-floored pavilion internally landscaped with glass platforms displaying copies and originals of classical Roman sculptures, I overheard a duo of loud-talking North Americans rushing through a hall of Baldessaris and Hockneys. I made my approach, and they immediately clammed up. “Yeah, we’re artists,” the woman said, narrowing her eyes. “But who are you? And who do you write for?” When I tried asking whether they had come to Milan primarily to see art, she shook her head at me. “Now this is getting way too complicated”, she said. I saw the way she was glaring at her male companion and I decided to back off.
I could barely bring myself to do another interview after that, but my friends pushed me to finish the task. I got a German architect, a Columbian designer, and an unresponsive Italian. They all thought the architecture was very nice. I decided my penance was done.
By this time I had realized how ill-advised my plan had been. Though I had known I wouldn’t learn anything statistically significant, I did assume the interviewing experience would be anecdotally insightful – which it was not. I’m not a comedian, and this wasn’t Times Square. Rather than funny-awkward, it was actually excruciatingly unpleasant to squat art venues and accost people. And yet the amount of discomfort I felt exacerbated my need to overcome it – had I really become this xenophobic?? In a warped way, interviewing people I don’t know became about me triumphing over my own pretentious in-crowd tendencies, and, predictably, ended up reinforcing them.
This seems to mirror the faulty logic of a lot of so-called public outreach programs dependent on quota systems and the like.
And so, unromantically, ended my nostalgic journalistic exercise. The conversations I had mostly strengthened my assumptions, and I disliked the experience of having them. Worst of all, I’ve lost hope of being heard around the world: if you’re reading this, there is at least a 64% chance that you are professionally engaged in art, or you’re even someone I already know. If you’re not, please email me at email@example.com and tell me how you ended up here and what you thought of the show.
Elvia Wilk is a writer living in Berlin. She is a contributing editor at uncube magazine and at Rhizome.