Respecting your audience as an artist

Laura Tokie wrote an interesting article over at The Curator last week titled Art Meets Town. There are two things from the article I’d like to talk about.

The first, and more interesting, is that of respecting your audience as an artist. Don’t deny it now: As artists we can be snobs. We sometimes think our own opinions — and not necessarily just on artistic matters — are better than the commoners, so to speak, around us. Tokie uses Squidward as an example of this in pop culture.

She then talks about the founders of the Williamston Theatre in contrast to such snobbery.

    The professional artists at the Williamston Theatre are nothing like Squidward. The founders are big-pond tested Midwesterners who love the small-town way of life, and believe that art can be a thread in the greater fabric of a community.

    With this belief, the Williamston Theatre challenges attitudes held by many so-called artists, as well as so-called regular people. Some artists assume that they know what “the common man” likes, and dismiss their interests and opinions.

I’ve been a snob in the past, and sometimes I probably still am. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why this mentality seems so prevalent among artists (though if we want we could use Art School Confidential‘s suggestions), but ever since my wife pointed it out — let’s all be grateful for this kind of marital accountability — I’ve earnestly tried to change my perspective. In all likelihood, my musings (and problems) with the idea of artist as genius are a result of this attempt to loose myself from these chains of egocentrism.

The process by which the Williamston Theatre came into being is worth noting. Instead of just diving into the project, there was talk beforehand with city officials. This was followed by readings in local businesses in order to build relationships and gain support. “The four founders of the theatre didn’t want to thrust art upon the town, but rather tell stories with, for, and about their audiences,” the author notes.

Williamston, Michigan is a small town, and what I don’t quite understand in Tokie’s article is her apparent belief that artists must be “big-pond tested” — which I take to mean that the artists at the theatre were vetted by the big city — before being considered worthwhile.

    Squidward represents all that is bad with small-town artistes. They want to be special, the standard-bearers of all that is culturally excellent, but look down on the very people who could be their audience. They yearn for “these people” to be more refined and sophisticated. Ironically, some are not talented. There’s a reason they never tried to make it in the big city.

I’m really trying not to be irked by the last comment in this quote, trying to understand where she’s coming from. However, to me it sounds a lot like the same kind of elitism that she’s trying to debunk by lauding the Williamson Theatre. Yes, there is a cultural understanding that as an artist you aren’t somebody until you make it in the big city. However, quality of craft or concept are simply not directly tied to big city living or galleries. And if she thinks they are, I’d really like to hear her rational for that.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

5 Responses to Respecting your audience as an artist

  1. Julie says:

    I spent a lot of time thinking about this yesterday while riding my bike… and can’t remember a darn thing.

    A part of me bristles a little at the “big-pond proven” part… but on the other hand… well, if a Christian artist has some commercial success, then maybe they actually are a good artist, not just a well-intentioned one. Certainly they’ve managed to reach a larger group, not merely a specific “insider” group. (Arguably that’s a problem with a lot of conceptual art… if you don’t already get it, you probably won’t like it.)

    A few thoughts by which to start a discussion…

    The link on your blogroll needs to be repointed. 🙂

    • pcNielsen says:

      Oh to have time to change things like links! Our life with a puppy is getting better, slowly. I’m sure our friends with kids are laughing at us for all of the whining we’re doing 😉 I’ll try and get that done this morning.

      I’m not all that certain what to make of the “big-pond” idea either. I think I understand what she’s saying, but she didn’t say enough. That’s why I left the post with “I’d really like to hear her rational for that.”

  2. sojournwanderer says:

    Ah yes, puppy life. From what I hear, kids are worse… much worse. But they, too, get better.

    I feel like I might be missing something by not being familiar with Squidward, though the author provides ample description. What exactly is all this “sophistication,” anyway?

    One of the things that people seem to like least is for outsiders – people outside their culture, that is – to come in and, while failing to truly understand the culture, to try and change it. I mean, what if “sophistication” is just a masquerade for bad art?

    (You might enjoy this:

    I don’t know either. I just like asking.

  3. Laura Tokie says:

    Thank you for taking the time to consider Art Meets Town. I apologize for coming so late to your party :). Your blog is a pleasure to explore; it looks to me like we enjoy pondering similar ideas. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    Regarding the ‘big pond tested’ thing, this was meant to reflect the background of the founders at the Williamston Theatre as I understood it. It was in no way intended as a statement on what an artist must do in order to validate his or her gifts.

    Best to you, Laura

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