Thursday, April 7, 2011

artist, audience, performance

I taught an interdisciplinary class called "Artist, Audience, Performance," where we discussed the ways that one of these words might influence another. For example, an artist intent upon the performance, the work of art, could lose any potential audience by becoming too difficult, too inscrutable and enclosed.  Gertrude Stein's early works, such as Tender Buttons, need great care before they can be appreciated, because ... well, here is a sample:

A Red Stamp
If lilies are lily white and they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.

Now, I love this.  I think the poem makes it possible to say that the silence that we typically associate with lilies comes because they have worn out (or collected into themselves) all the ambient noise. And any cut flower, brought into the house and placed in a vase, will disintegrate into dust and remind us of our own deaths. And if they are going to do this to us, perhaps we need a written warning of all their properties and behaviors.

Of course, this is just one way of perhaps two hundred of talking about this stanza.

And when Stein did court an audience, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,  and found it, she nearly stopped writing altogether, so startling and upsetting was all the attention.

So today, when I was researching Italian pictures, dating from about 1910, showing peasant women,  I was looking for a very particular kind of picture.  And what I found were studies in pencil or watercolor of women or children in dresses posing ... these became, some of them, postcards for the tourists coming through Italy, or France, or Switzerland, to take or send home as souvenirs. The time of women, dressed this way, gathering in any kind of harvest, was rapidly disappearing, but tourists were searching for the "authentic" rural life, and artists and photographers found it for them.

So the audience there had been tourists. And the market was clear.  Van Gogh, he who never sold anything in his lifetime, even drew a moving, plain study: "Peasant Girl Raking" (1881).  BUT at very nearly this same time, other artists were creating a fully different kind of "performance." 

Ingres (1780-1867), Delacroix (1798-1863), John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) and Lord Leighton (1830-1896) -- to name only the few I can think of -- all painted European women in the dress and formal settings of the Harem.  Some of these artists also painted peasant women; if they did, their peasants have none of the allure of their odalisques. And it struck me how different these two sets of portrayals were ... both were, in their way, lies.  The artists drawing the peasants (except for Van Gogh, who was telling the truth about this woman's twisted shoulders and leaning angles) are already selling nostalgia. But it isn't sexy nostalgia. The artists drawing the odalisques are part of a long, classical tradition of Venuses and Susannah and her Elders ... the nude for the sake of nakedness.

The performance is set in ... the (utterly accessible) hayfields, or the (inaccessible) private rooms of the Orient.  I think I understand the audience for the former ... who is the audience for the latter?  Hmmm...

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