Who’s your audience? That’s a challenging question that artists like to pose to other artists. If we are the target of this question, most of us want to simply reply “Everyone!,” for we insist that our art is universally accessible. The public is our audience!
The question is really a ruse to lure you into that all-too-familiar debate between populism and elitism, in which elitism usually wins out. It goes something like this: If you commit yourself to unpretentious work free of abstract, coded, or art-insider tendencies that might alienate an unsophisticated audience, the indelible qualities that make art honest and personal are lost. These are that same qualities that render art vulnerable to interpretation and disagreement. Which is to say that one's audience may be everybody, but then it is also no one at all.
It’s useful to look at advertising in this context: advertising is the applied science of addressing everyone but no one in particular, of saying something but meaning nothing much at all. Advertisers lasso the largest possible audience using the sparest messaging.Take for example the recent Colin Kaepernick campaign from Nike (developed by agency Wieden+Kennedy). It is simply a portrait with nine words on it. You need not be a sports fanatic to decode the message and understand its relevance. It is a message not just to buy shoes, but propaganda supplied to the raging culture war over race in America. It makes sense that Nike should align itself with those protesting the murder of young black men at the hands of old white cops. Young black men buy more sneakers, after all. Sometimes corporate and human morals align. Setting that aside, they've produced a stunning advertisement. Even their tagline appears as if it might be a radical battlecry, urging the public into civil disobedience against injustice.
Advertising has a near monopoly on public communications. But what happens when artists attempt to speak broadly to a public?
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ iconic billboards from the 1990s are an inversion of the private-public dichotomy: thrusting private, intimate feelings into public spaces. Not unlike the Nike billboard, Gonzalez-Torres’ work reflected a culture war from its own moment in time. The 80s and 90s were an especially turbulent time for gay activists: the AIDS crisis, a Supreme Court ruling that effectively outlawed sodomy (until it was overturned in 2003), and relentless cultural opposition towards homosexuality intersected to make for an especially hostile public sphere. Gonzalez-Torres’ simple, photographic gesture was not necessarily fitting for a billboard – it was reflective and personal. A bed, containing two pillows marked with imprints of absence. It is a visual whisper, elegantly memorializing two lovers gone. It requires no more deciphering than a commercial advertisement, but it communicates something deeply resonant – and less fleeting than an ad.
Let us return to our aforementioned ruse. Its premise assumes that advertising is necessarily populist in its crafting. But advertisements are diluted by their very purpose. Their commercial agenda tear at its connective tissue, hampering its capacity to reach people and impart lasting resonance. Their audience is not everybody – in truth, advertising intends to create its own audience, converting hearts and minds into a herded coalition of consumers.
In contrast, artists, at their best, do what advertising purports to do. When an artist makes work for no one at all, something authentic and human emerges. The act of reflecting only for the purpose of reflecting on ourselves is, surprisingly, how we speak most clearly to everyone else. When we make work for nobody in particular, we are making work for everybody. Work that is truly worthy of a public.