I recently finished my third novel, a literary ghost story called The Thespian, which consumed more than two years of my life, and for which I have yet to find an agent or publisher. What if, like the novel I wrote before it, this novel never sees the light of day? What is this lowly writer to do? It’s answering this question that gave The Thespian its theme, its heartbeat. What is the nature of art? And what, if at all, does the relationship between artist and audience have to do with its creation?
Art – Artist – Audience. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking about this triangle for years, and it first germinated in my mind when I was watching a news article about a violinist who had busked at a train station only to be summarily ignored by the commuters. It transpired that the previous night the violinist had played to a crowd of thousands at the Royal Albert Hall. I didn’t know how I felt about this at the time, but it became obvious that this news article had spoken something to me, and that over the course of writing The Thespian I had been trying to translate it.
Edgar Allan Poe talked about “Art for Art’s sake”. Poe’s example of this is the writing of a poem purely for the sake of the poem, but I see it a little differently, I see pure art as creating with no agenda, and it’s for this reason I don’t believe there is such a thing as “pure art”, not in the modern age, at least. If we imagine such a thing as “pure”, then we also have to acknowledge the pollutants that can sully it. Money, fame and ego have to be the major three pollutants, but none of these things can apply the kind of corruptive pressure to an artist the way an audience can, because an audience represents all three of these things, all at once, and for an artist to truly create something pure, he or she would have to create something with no audience in mind.
Imagine a sliding scale. At one end you have an artist working on a masterpiece, a can of petrol and a box of matches waiting beside his easel for when the painting is finished. And at the other end, a writer furiously penning a raunchy Fifty-Shades knockoff while the market’s still hot for it.
Whether the artist is a painter, sculptor, writer or musician, he or she will be creating their art, to some degree, with an agenda – perceiving their art, to some degree, through the lens of the audience. And the funny thing is, the audience cannot be trusted, because the audience is as corruptible as the artist because the audience is under the illusion they have subjective opinion, but this opinion can be manipulated in many ways – by others’ opinion for instance – friends or experts or majority popularity. But by far the most interesting to me is the corruptive power of narrative.
The chef, Raymond Blanc, is a true artisan of food – if not an expert in wine, then certainly a man who knows his own mind. I watched him taste a cider and declare it bland, but ‘Wait!’ says the wine expert serving him, ‘this cider was produced by three men who learned to make wine as prisoners of war, and when they were released in ’46 they started producing apple wine, and from that came this, their very first cider…’ Raymond Blanc smiles and tastes again: ‘I like it better now,’ he says, and his smile says that he knows he has been manipulated, but doesn’t mind.
Apply this formula to the violinist busking at the station. The art he was producing for the commuters was the same as for the patrons of the Royal Albert Hall, but the narrative surrounding the art was different, and so the audience was corrupted. As I was writing The Thespian, this merging of ideas regarding the nature of art and the corruptive power of narrative seemed too perfect, almost as though the first time I had seen the violinist article and couldn’t immediately pin down what it meant, my subconscious had figured it out straight away and was feeding it to me as I wrote.
So what if this novel never finds an audience? What is my agenda regarding my art? I’d love to say that my art is pure, and that I create just for me and for the sake of the work, but alas, I’m just like everybody else. A little money and fame would not do my ego any lasting damage, and I’m just shallow and insecure enough to want people to like what I’m writing, but what I have come to realise is that I also love to write stories, and if nobody ever read them, I can honestly say that I would still write them. There is something pure in that at least.