Any talk regarding art viewers beckons a series of questions. Who is an art viewer or the spectator of art? Should she be an informed person or a casual enthusiast? Where does he reside and how far does he travel to see art? Which are the places that she expects to see art? Why all those people who look at the works of art are not qualified as art viewers? What is the minimum qualification that one needs to become an art viewer? These questions may sound a bit outlandish because most of us think that viewing art does not need any special qualification and one could be an art viewer at any given point of time. Also the post modernists amongst us would argue that anything and everything around us is a work of art therefore we are constantly watching art works. While all these answers are valid in their own contexts, the most feasible answer could be sought from the living and lived examples that we see in the context of art production and proliferation. For the time being let us forget that the works of art happen or take place everywhere around us and we are constantly watching them. And let us pitch our argument in the fact that the works of art are produced in certain places and are exhibited in certain specified places. Some may hugely offended by reading this for them art is no longer a ‘special’ thing produced somewhere and shown elsewhere. But we will come to that a bit later. To begin with let us say, an artist creates a work of art in his studio and the works thus produced are exhibited in a gallery or a museum.
In one of the earlier essays I had explained how artists seek recognition and appreciation more than money when it comes to the exhibition context. Money is an outcome but appreciation and recognition are the direct impacting that an artist seeks when she exhibits her works. While money as an outcome could remain elusive and tentative (till the actual dealings are done and money is transacted) within the gallery space till the last moment of the exhibition, appreciation by the viewers is something pre-assured in an exhibition space. Once the exhibition is formally opened and the viewers/patrons flow in, what the artist craves for is some words of recognition; it could be a cursory enquiry about the textures, forms or about the theme. It could be an enthusiastic conversation on the school of style that the viewer wants you to be an associate. You could agree with his point of view or dispute it; however, the engagement is all the more satisfactory for the artist. Some viewers do not talk at all. They don’t even look at the face of the artist. But they do spend a lot of time before each work of art on display. Looking at them is the real pleasure for the artist; a complicated pleasure that is eked out of the thought about the viewers’ reflections. Viewers are a difficult lot, if you have sit in a gallery while your exhibition is on, you would know it. Many are very stingy with appreciative words; many are stingy in expressions; many try to ignore the artist; many often hang an enigmatic smile on their lips which could put the artist into depression at times. Some viewers play too pricey to be neglected. An artist during her exhibition is more mentally troubled than her gallerist because of these ‘viewers’.
Who are these viewers? Where do they come from? Why do they play pricey? They do because they are very valuable people in the art scene though nobody openly accepts this fact. There are different types of viewers. First of all, there are adamant art lovers. They can’t even explain their love for art. They like to look at the works of art and be happy about it. Such people are like the eclectic readers. They just love reading books so they keep on reading. Secondly, there are art fraternity viewers. This set shows a tribal behavior. These viewers have well demarcated roles within the art scene as (fellow) artists, critics, art writers, art historians, art friends, small time collectors, big time collectors, art dealers, gallerist’s friends, party goers, celebrities and so on. Then we have exclusive artists as viewers. When one artist exhibits it becomes a family necessity that the other artists go and see his works. The artist who is currently exhibiting definitely thinks that only her fellow artists understand her better than anybody else. The artist may say the same thing to the critic and the art writers. Here I would like to avoid the collectors’ lot as devoted viewers for their viewing has got a different purpose; the purpose to collect or not to collect. The last but not the least set of viewers is comprised of people who just walk into see an exhibition. They are not compulsive exhibition goers as we have seen with the first lot. But they are people who actually decide to get out of their homes and catch up a show in the town. They may not have any previous experiences in looking at works of art or they may not be regular in galleries. But they do come out of their homes and enter the galleries once in a while. And I would say these are the people who make an exhibition ‘successful.’ If anywhere in the world, an art show becomes a blockbuster show, it is because of these people who ‘decide’ to go and ‘have a look’.
Their decision to go and take a look at the works of art on display may not be directed or driven by an expert opinion or the public opinion. Sometimes these could be the reasons for such a decision. But one cannot say it for sure whether their visit to a gallery at a given moment is decided by an expert opinion seen in a public forum or it was just a compulsion to catch up with something that would perhaps become something historical in their life time. Such viewers, I would say are created by the dynamics of history. Such dynamics of history could be seen only in a society whose members are cosmopolitan in outlook and derive some pleasure and pride in looking at something that is ‘framed’ and ‘displayed’ in a demarcated space. This lot may be looking at film posters, theatre posters, public sculptures, graffiti and many such public art pieces in their daily commuting. But they don’t spend a few minutes to delve deep into them. The daily visual might become a part of their visual memory or cultural understanding about the places and spaces where they live but such etching in memories may not be indelible as the grooves of such etching could be facile and shallow, which could be replaced by another set of daily visuals. But if they take some time to go into a gallery or a specially demarcated place for art and look at the displayed art pieces, then it is a conscious act, a choice which could change their attitude towards life forever.
A viewer is created by the dynamics of history and his/her ability to feel that dynamics in the air. When a political movement happens, many people who have been apolitical in all their lives suddenly make a decision to come out and join the demonstrations in the streets. They are the people who have felt the dynamics of history in the air. At the same time there are millions of people in the same city who remain in their homes or work places, pretty much aware of the goings on but are unaffected by the force of the events. In the case of the making of a viewer also these factors work. Hence, if a person walks into a gallery, we should understand that he could become a ‘real’ viewer for his decision to come there must be a choice and for him it must be a life changing experience. Once he is hooked to the experience he would like to replicate it in different times and in different situations. In this context we could also say that a viewer is a person who volunteers to walk into a gallery. She is one of the people from the public who make that crucial choice of being a volunteer for looking at art. This person may not have seen any review of the show, she may not have any friendship with the artist, she may not have even heard of the artist, it may be her first visit to a gallery; but there is something that goads her into the gallery and she would become a permanent art admirer provided her first visit has generated some life changing experience in her.
Taking these into consideration I would say an art viewer is always in the making and he need not necessarily be an art insider. He/she could be a member of the public who makes a choice to visit an exhibition. This person cannot be taken for granted because in our society there are many such people who are waiting in wings for the right time to make an entry. If they were not there the art scene would have been a very boring one with the same people (friends, family and fellow artists) exhibiting and viewing the works of art. A viewer is a person who is there to give you a strange but memorable encounter. This is the meeting of two hearts and brains. That viewer in her decision to look at your work of art has made a historical decision to be under the influence of your art. For that person to the works of art may offer a chance encounter with revolution and beauty. Such things rarely happen; a meeting of beauty and revolution. A bloodless revolution that would make two people fall in love with the same idea and would remain in an invisible relationship without even communicating about it. I do not mean to say that a set of people who just get hoarded inside a gallery or a museum for the purpose of ‘visit’ or ‘selfie’ qualify as ‘viewers’ in the same sense.
How do that historical dynamics take place vis-à-vis an exhibition? The presence of a set of works of art in a gallery could create a ripple in its surroundings. It gets mediated to the public by word of mouth or by active publicity and critical mediations. But these do not assure the arrival of the viewers in the gallery. An invisible rapport should be created between the people of the city and information about the work of art. The strength of such information should be so strong that it does not miss the antenna of the sensitive among the public. Once this transmission is done the people make the ‘choice/decision’ to walk into the gallery. They do not know what brought them there; was it mere curiosity or their deep seated interest to see the works of art. Nobody can say anything. Only that encounter could reveal it. Hence the arrogance of the artists and the gallerists that the general public does not understand art should be nipped in the bud itself. If one removes all the mystery around the art and the critical mediation that at times confuses than explains, viewers would automatically enjoy what they see. Often the viewers say that the symbolism (private symbolism created by the artists) that they witness in the works of art is too difficult to crack. I do not say that a work of art should be an easy give away but it could have explanatory tools so that the viewer gets into the core of it. But unfortunately to ward off such historical viewers, the galleries and artists mystify works of art as much as they could. But there are demystified art with lot of mundane symbolism which is an absolute give away. In my view such simplification of art and resorting to easy and stereotypical symbolism would not help to create a historical viewer, rather it would push a potential viewer into the rut of habit and familiarity. That is one of the biggest traps that the viewers have to escape while looking at the works of art. But what are these works with stereotypical symbolism? Also what are these works with desirable symbolism that helps the viewers remain on their track to glory? Perhaps, another essay would explain the difference between mundane symbolism and exceptionally fresh ones.
(Images for illustrative purposes only taken from the Internet)