The Unbeholden Artist

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The Society gathered for its last debate in the Philodemic Room for the semester (can you believe how fast time flies??) and also welcomed one very special guest—Ms. Linda Eang. Ms. Eang was visiting us from Cambodia as the winner of Next Generation, a show and debate contest run by the International Republican Institute. As the winner, she was taken for a two week tour of the US and chose to see the Philodemic Society’s debate! We were honored to have her. For her visit, the Society debated Resolved: Artists Should be Beholden to their Audience. We also had our penultimate induction! Mr. William Greco (COL ’15) of Connecticut affirmed the resolution along with Mr. Mitchell Tu (SFS ’17) of California, while Mr. Luke Schafer (COL ’16) of New York negated with Ms. Katherine Landau (SFS ’17) of New York.

The framing, which was discussed by both Mr. Tu and Ms. Landau, defined beholden as both a sense of gratitude as well as obligation and the audience of an artist as anyone who would likely come across the art. Naturally, the artist was the creator of the art.

Mr. Tu began the debate by discussing the importance of meaning to art—it’s essential, he asserted, that a work of art can convey the meaning of the artist. In fact, he posited that the very process is meant to represent the inner reality of an artist. In the same way the best windows are clear and easy to see through, the best art must hold a strong and interpretable meaning. Of course, this doesn’t preclude the art from misinterpretation, as all artists know. In closing, Mr. Tu boldly claimed that “it should rank as the highest of wrongs” for an artist to create an utterly incomprehensible work which he or she knows will never be understood in any way. There’s simply “so much social utility…lost” when the artist doesn’t factor in his or her audience.

Ms. Landau approached art from a different angle though, first noting that the resolution is about what should be, not what is. Art is created from a myriad of mediums and for a plethora of reasons, but this debate truly focused on the relationship between the audience and the art; society and audiences do influence the art, but does that mean that the artist should be beholden to it? Ms. Landau cited Daphne the Weaver, an acquaintance who created tapestries that filled a niche in society, a need. Why should she feel beholden if she is providing a service? Ms. Landau called these artists geniuses, and declared that “genius knows best”, and that only the artist can foresee the beauty his or her art will provide in the future, since the audience’s needs are dynamic and ever-changing. Finally, considering the artist too much ruins the integrity of the art, infringing on the original intent behind it and also perhaps preventing some works from existing.

Mr. Greco used his keynote to buttress Mr. Tu though, arguing that to understand the resolution, we must first understand the origin of art. He posited that “man is by nature an artistic animal” and that art is common to all man through all time—an exchange that tells stories, teaches ideas, and expresses sentiment. Yet, he asked “what’s a teacher without a classroom”? In the same way, art is only art with the audience; there can be no art without the audience. As we are indebted to our parents for our lives, the artist is indebted to the audience for the life it gives his or her art. This obligation and gratitude is only paid back with the full utilization of one’s gift and the appreciation of the artist—nothing more is necessary.

On the other hand, Mr. Schafer proclaimed himself to be present in defense of the misunderstood. This resolution asked if the artist should be continually thinking about what the audience wants, and Mr. Schafer acknowledged our desire for comprehensible art; after all, it’s in human nature to ask “why?”, and it’s painful not to know. But there are many things in life too that cannot be truly understood—the artist has every right to make us slightly uncomfortable and should actually “bring us to the edge of reality.” The artist can and should keep us in mystery if he or she so chooses.

However, Mr. Dinneen gave us a reality check on what art is actually like; as a writer and contest winner, he shared that he knows that “the masters control the giftcards and [he] will appease them.” His statement was quickly rebutted, as Mr. Weiner suggested that art on demand isn’t really art at all and that since the audience benefits from the artist, it is they who should be grateful. On the flip side, Mr. Mellon reminded us that “art doesn’t occur in a vacuum” and that it is in the interest of the artist and of art as a craft for the artist to keep his audience in mind. Mr. Rosenberger then took this opportunity to bring up Ayn Rand who implied that the audience comes to the artist because there is art—it isn’t that the artist makes art because of the audience.

Mr. Kleinman supplemented Mr. Greco’s point by asserting that art must be experienced and therefore the audience must be involved in its creation. Nonetheless, Ms. Egan pointed out that artistry is not an occupation that necessarily has a goal—when children draw, they do it to express themselves and their lives, not for anyone, and that is art. Yet Mr. Musgrave quickly pointed out “great art is commissioned” was only created because of the audience—think of the Sistine Chapel and Beethovan’s 9th. Ms. Coccia flouted his point using Caravaggio as an example though; he refused to paint for his patron and is still considered one of the greats. Mr. Mouch followed her by trying to redirect the debate, suggesting that the artist can be his or her own audience and, we all have at least some obligation to ourselves.

Then the non-member speaking time began with Ms. Jayme Amann (COL ’15) who used dance as an illustration and described how the originator of modern dance was despised by her contemporaries but is today adored. Mr. Brian Bies (MSB ’18) pursued a different argument, asserting that if you create something for nobody, not even yourself, “there is no meaning to it.” Ms. Sarah Griffin (SFS ’18) disagreed, however, because “art is self-expression”, regardless of whether anyone understands it; we have all read some classic novel that is impossible to relate to, at least on the first try. Ms. Margaret Crownover (SFS ’18) cited further examples—Macklemore and Miley Cyrus—to show how we do expect artists to be beholden, and how artists themselves feel beholden to their audience. All the same, Mr. Phillip Ma (SFS’17) called this “the cult of utility”, and asserted that art becomes sterile when motivated by wealth or prestige. Finally, Ms. Alex Weissman (SFS ’18) responded to Mr. Musgrave by noting how little Michelangelo wanted to paint the Sistine Chapel—this still didn’t rebuke his entire point though, because artists do have a duty to those who will see their art.

Mr. Perez-Reyes subsequently picked up Mr. Mouch’s previously thrown down gauntlet and declared that we approach the beautiful for itself—not for others and we also don’t need to understand it in order to try expressing it. Mr. Willis challenged Mr. Perez-Reyes’ view by positing that because art is a relationship in which the artist attempts to represent something to the audience, if it’s not observed, can we truly call it art? Sergeant Edgar passionately rebutted this notion; the artist doesn’t need to be understood, but only beholden, which means that the artist must feel gratitude. He used the example of a Mexican artist who created an exhibit to protest violence and had some of the perpetrators as her audience—of course she is not beholden to them! Mr. Fletcher’s speech, on the other hand, didn’t betray such a strong inclination towards either side. He described how the audience should not be limited and how art helps see to it that “humanity moves forward…and benefits.”

Ms. Grace returned to the question of the origin of art, explaining that her art—opera singing—“lost its meaning” after constant, conscious practice; it needed the authenticity of freedom. But, claimed Mr. Mazzara, “audience gives art life”, and the artist benefits from the feedback of the audience to improve! Not all audiences want to criticize artists. Nevertheless, Ms. Thanki called art a one way street from artist to audience and noted that the artist exists independently of the consumer, whereas the consumer relies on the artist. Then President DiMisa took his prerogative to address the “should”—it’s the ideal world. In such a world, there would be an interaction “between someone, their expression, and people trying to learn from it.”

The keynoters then repossessed the floor, starting with Mr. Schafer. Although the minority voices had been silent throughout the night, he chose to speak for them, proclaiming that oppressed voices have no need for gratitude and justification for their existence. He closed with the example of 1863 with the salons of Paris. In that year, many of the salons’ rejects petitioned for their own showing and received the Salon de Refusès, where they were openly mocked. Since there isn’t always thanks for producing art, there’s no reason for consistent gratitude.

Mr. Greco still stood firm by his opening. He, as a musician, mentioned how we still care about what people think and want some sort of audience regardless of who we are. The audience obliges the artist with its mere presence! Moreover, for independent artists, if art is self-expression it needs an audience to express to. In fact, if art is an outlet, it implies that we want others to hear.

Ms. Landau refuted Mr. Greco’s thoughts, citing the example of Julius Caesar, a play she recently saw. Yet this play was created four hundred years ago—the play would have been totally different if she were the target audience. Thus, artists exist prior to consumers—that genius isn’t owed to anyone. The genius of the artist transcends time, whereas the audience itself does not.

Mr. Tu followed her, repeating her thanks to various Philodemicians, and announced that he’s probably beholden to all of us. He concluded that art can be “incomprehensible”, but that there’s always someone that derives some meaning. Even if artists are their own audience, they have an obligation to express the scene in a manner that will be understandable for their future selves. Most importantly, the mere attempt by the audience to understand an artist’s piece means that the artist owns them gratitude.

Then the floor was divided as per usual, and the resolution was negated with a vote of 43-1-20! Once again, I want to extend a hearty congratulations to Mr. Tu and Ms. Landau-they are excellent additions to the Society and the sophomore class. We are so happy to have them! Ms. Linda Eang reported being very impressed with the Philodemic, and enjoyed her time with Georgetown-she may even be applying here!

Happy Thanksgiving and ELD,

Rosa Cuppari

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