Giving the public what it wants only perpetuates the abuse of artists

I read a post by an arts administrator the other day and was disappointed by how art was being taken almost entirely as “serving the public”. Its as if art is only defined by what it does for an audience and not what motivated artists to make it. You can perhaps see where this ties in to my previous essay about people glibly dismissing ‘starving artists’. Artists have their own idiosyncratic motivations. Dismissing that is a mistake. Too many people assume art has some function in society and that the concerns of artists are themselves insignificant. Is that what you think?

You can read the post here. Two other artists spoke up in before I took it upon myself to offer a different point of view. This is what I said:


It is revealing that Richard and Scott both chimed in to suggest that the audience focus of your essay was in some way a problem. Not wrong, necessarily, but lacking. They are both artists, after all, and when someone talks about art and leaves the artist hung out to dry its a real question what was missing. How can we talk about art and NOT consider what artists themselves think? How can we talk about the power of art and NOT talk about what motivates artists or WHY artists make art in the first place?

Are artists simply pawns in a larger game, or are they sometimes forced to play a game despite their own intentions? Do they have different motivations that are NOT aligned with serving the public? Is there a conflict between what art does in the public and why there is any art at all to begin with? Why do we make art? Why is there art?

A big question is this: Is art extrinsically motivated or is it intrinsically motivated? If extrinsic, then serving the ends of public goods may be all that matters. Art is a means, of entertainment etc. We can dispense with the artist’s own eccentric ideals and, perhaps, even the artists themselves. An artificial intelligence calibrated to public goods might be the art we prefer. Do we even need human artists? If machines made art would that satisfy us better? If serving the public were all that mattered, these might be serious questions.

In so many discussions it seems artists are the unspoken and neglected factor in art. By treating art as extrinsic artists themselves are forgotten. They are the humans we DON’T want to acknowledge. They are separate from the human public. We talk about art as being what art does FOR the public. Which is like talking about food as simply what it does for the people eating. You have a Hamburger and the point is that someone gets to eat it. But what of the cow that died to give us that burger? What were its dreams and intentions?

We think of art like we think of food: The consumer needs take exclusive precedence. The burger is simply what we consume. And art becomes more about consumption than who did what to get it to your table. Artists are like the cow that gets sacrificed for our meal. And until we respect artists and what their own motivations are we will continue sacrificing them to feed an insatiable appetite of the consumer. Is this right?

I don’t think so, and neither do most artists. STOP BEING A MINDLESS CONSUMER! If art matters to the public can it matter any less to the artists who devote their lives to producing it? To not even consider artists in the equation is inexcusable.

Why would artists support a public vision for art when they end up so inevitably and casually roasted over the fire? There are all these impressive claims for the value of art to the public, and yet artists themselves are devalued. They are removed from the point of view. Hidden under the rug. You want your art, but you don’t want the artists who made it. You don’t care about the artists, you care about the art.

Artists are treated like servants in a big house. “Do your job and don’t interfere. Don’t do anything to get noticed, but make sure the toilets are cleaned and the clothes are washed.” Results are all that matter. Some people want artists to be unseen, merely inconvenient necessities for the production of art. Who actually wants to know how the sausage gets made? If they could actually have art without the artists they think the world would be more perfect. Artists matter so little besides the public good that art does. Artists entertain like gladiators sent out to their death in the Colosseum. The spectacle is what matters.

But artists are not servants, not thralls, not slaves to your desires. When you say “To embrace a responsibility to entertain is not a denial of the desire to be visionary, provocative or profound – but of some recognition that even at that great height, there must exist something for an audience to enjoy” you are confusing the cart and the horse. A responsibility to entertain? Oh My God! There is a happy coincidence when art and the public find common ground, but to portray the PURPOSE of art as entertainment is to employ the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, namely that what follows from was therefore caused by. It imputes an intentionality that simply may not and usually doesn’t exist.

Entertainment may matter to YOU and to much of the audience, but don’t assume that artists are necessarily motivated by pleasing you. The audience enjoyment is NOT why most artists make art. They serve ART, they don’t serve you. They serve their own art. And if you really respected art you might better appreciate the artists who make it. They are more than your servants. They are human beings with their own intentions and own values. Stop sacrificing artists to the belief that their art is merely there to entertain you, that they are only valuable to the extent that they provide “something for an audience to enjoy.” Basic human dignity requires more from us than that…… Treat artists as people first, not as your servants.

Sermon over


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Giving the public what it wants only perpetuates the abuse of artists

  1. alison says:

    not a sermon at all. i am touched to the inside of my bones by what you have to express and the way you bring it forth. it feels sometimes like you are reading my inner self and writing it out for me to read and it all makes perfect sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.