The artist exists in an awkward relationship to her audience. She labors for many months, perhaps several years, to produce an exhibition of paintings to present to the public. She sacrifices time with her family and friends, isolating herself emotionally, intellectually, and physically. She reads, thinks, writes, reflects on her work, often questioning, doubting, and, on more than one occasion, vowing to cancel the show altogether.
In other words, our artist experiences death—she dies to others, perhaps, but it is to herself that she truly dies. The meaning of her life becomes inextricably interwoven with those paintings that cannot be finished and the exhibition that looms on the calendar. Perhaps she invites a handful of people into her studio to see the work in progress—her boyfriend, a close friend, a critic, the curator or a trusted collector. She gauges their reaction—what they say, what they don’t say. She imagines how viewers will respond to the gesture from that figure, the color of that tree, the look on that little girl’s face.
Our artist lives with doubt and fear. Success in the studio yesterday is completely forgotten when she is confronted with the results the next morning.
And so it goes for weeks, months, years.
It is often said that artists suffer from a post-exhibition crisis—after they complete a body of work and present it in an exhibition, they go through a period of mourning. And from my experience this is so. They have changed. Something in them has died.
At the opening of the exhibition, our artist appears, dressed not for the studio but for a performance. She makes herself pretty. (She has told her boyfriend to stay home.) She shakes hands, nibbles on some cheese. Perhaps drinks a glass of wine. But only one. She accepts the congratulations and tries to smile a lot and laugh. She’s asked about the paintings. And she makes up some sentences about them. (She’s rehearsed several lines that will satisfy her listeners and prevent her from having to talk more about them.)
She’s not interested in talking about her work. In fact, it revolts her. As she engages in mindless banter and witty small talk, gets flirted with relentlessly, she watches how people respond to this or that painting, how long they linger in front of them. She feels exposed and invisible. She realizes, much to her surprise, that she is not the same person who painted those pictures. And it hits her, she no longer knows who she is.
She observes her audience, those who are drifting in and out, chatting with friends and strangers, laughing and catching up on family and career, drinking wine, hovering over the elaborate spread. She notices that they rarely look at the paintings. And she reminds herself they are here for one particular reason:
They’ve had a hard day at work and they want to relax—relax with a glass of wine, a bit of nosh, and some culture—in that order. They have told their friends to meet them at the gallery opening. And then it’s on to dinner. The paintings are part of the process of unwinding, of softening the hard edges created by a difficult and stress-filled day at the office. The gallery becomes a place to decompress and recharge for an evening out with spouse, partner, or friends—or perhaps a nice buffer between work and more business over dinner with clients. An exhibition of paintings offers an attractive backdrop for such social performances.She remembers a few months ago, sitting in front of her paintings in her studio, thinking about how her paintings would be heard and who will hear them. She remembers not imagining her audience balancing a drink and dish or having a business conversation in front of them.
She imagined someone else. She imagined someone who needed them as desperately as she needed to paint them.
Yet those at the opening reception, distracted by the work day and looking forward to the evening’s events, are the ones who must buy the paintings in order for our artist to make rent, keep the lights on in her studio, and pay her child’s tuition bill that’s due in two weeks. Through her work in the studio that has resulted in these paintings, she has died countless times. And her paintings, like all authentic works of art, beckon the viewer to die as well.
Yet her livelihood depends on gaining the favor of those who regard art as a form of relaxation, entertainment, leisure. Those for whom art and other signs of “culture,” serve to deny death. Her livelihood depends on those who collect art because they like being around “creativity” and “beauty,” aspire to become cultured, and enjoy the new social networks and opportunities that being an art collector offer.
And our artist knows this. She knows that there are two collectors who care about her work, who talk to her about how it kills them, has transformed them, how they have learned about themselves and the world through her paintings. (They’ve even had some conversations about God.) Yet, these collectors are the exception. (And they came by the gallery before the opening to congratulate her, put a hold on two of her works, and have, by now, disappeared.) They cannot pay all her bills. She needs the others, the ones for whom painting is both entertainment, speculation, and investment. And that is why her dealer is flitting about the exhibition space talking to them, pulling her into inane conversations about the slopes in Aspen or if she knows so and so in West Palm Beach, or whether she’ll be at Art Basel this summer. But what she really wants to talk about is suffering. And whether art can teach anyone anything.
She recalls that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam likened writing a poem to putting a note in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. The person who happens upon it, washed up on the beach, is the one for whom the poem is addressed.
Our artist will be invited to a large dinner hosted by her dealer to celebrate her exhibition. She’ll be seated next to the collectors that her dealer wants her to get to know. She doesn’t want to go. She wants to go home and cry. But she will go. She will listen to the collectors talk about their art collections, their furniture in Santa Fe, that wild night with this or that artist in Paris or Berlin. She’ll try to keep up with the laughing. She’ll make eye contact with the men and look pretty and talk to their wives about motherhood and schools.
All the collectors at the dinner express serious interest in her paintings. One of the spouses will complain about the colors or the size of the pictures being too big for their guest bedroom, another will wish her work was “less serious.” (In the end, only two of the collectors will buy paintings. One will pay immediately. The other will take months to pay. But she will make rent and pay off her child’s tuition for the semester.)
She’ll go home.
And she’ll think about why those paintings that she risked so much exist in the world.
And for whom.