We often talk as if the audience is already there and all you have to do is find them. But I’m starting to think that the audience – in the traditional, public sense of a large following – is always created. The audience exists because of your work. It cannot vibrantly exist apart from your work as some sort of premeditated target demographic. If it does, you may be building an audience for extraction rather than communion, for business rather than art.
I think of the brilliant art critic Harold Rosenberg —
“An artist is a person who has created an artist.”
Maybe because I grew up after Roland Barthes had definitively killed all of the authors and it was chic to ignore author biographies, but Rosenberg’s comment was obvious yet new to me: that, beyond the page or studio, the artist was tied to the realization of the work.
The artist doesn’t only create unprecedented forms, but also creates a community to realize the many implications of such forms. Think of Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just detailing how forms of balance and harmony have impacted ideals of justice toward what Steven Pinker called “the better angels of our nature.” An audience isn’t just a group of followers, but a way of being and moving through the world.
And to materialize that vision, it’s not a matter of finding the audience; it’s a matter of believing in all aspects of your work, being willing to fail a million+ times in order to get your work truly known. It’s a matter of building your name.
Patti Smith said that the best advice she ever received about being an artist came from William S. Burroughs:
Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.
One of the most lucid examples of an artist building a good name comes from Sunil Gupta.
Writings from Sunil Gupta
As I move through We Were Hear: Sexuality, Photography, and Cultural Difference (Aperture; 2022) by the Indian writer Sunil Gupta, I’m struck by how Sunil builds an audience, which is to say, a way of being. He built this through clear writing that augmented his candid photographs, and activism that demanded material change toward a decolonized, non-hierarchical world that valued queerness.
The photos from the early 1980s depict queer desire and queer affinity. There’s the 1972 self-portrait of Gupta posing as a sexy reader of The New York Review of Books (fundraiser idea for NYRB: show more people in their underwear reading your bimonthly). Joy, intellect, lust, innocence — this is a serious person who isn’t above a thirst trap.
Many of Gupta’s photographs feature groups or friends in intimate quarters, not unlike Salman Toor‘s paintings of queer friendship.
Here’s one of my favorites:
Sunil’s photographs constantly work against the many myopic, heteronormative readings of LGBTQIA+ lives.
He shows queers laughing with kids, forming their own artist groups, enjoying the park.
After observing these photos, I imagine it’s far more difficult to imagine queers as reduced to only their sexuality, as having less complicated or nuanced lives as their “straight” counterparts, that (as my favorite homophobic review from John Updike said of gay fiction: “nothing is at stake but self-gratification.”
“Just a notion of an interested audience”
In writing about his peer Anna Fox, Sunil observed of the late 1980s photography scene that mostly organized itself:
“Independent photographers seem to be doggedly pursuing a personal approach to photography in the face of all odds. There are no specific clients, no market or art buyers, just a notion of an interested audience.”— Sunil Gupta
I had to underline in a squiggle the phrase just a notion of an interested audience (when I like the syntax itself, I annotate through squiggles 😉
There’s something pure about this pursuit of art and truth over profit or social positioning. It echos Smith/Burroughs’ advice to Build a good name.1
Even if for an audience of one, you know when the work itself is worth your time and sweat as your own perception deepen and expands. As one person is changed by a work of art, so is another then another until you’ve all arrived at a new way of being.
- I realize there’s an irony here in quoting Smith, as this quote is from Gupta’s essay, “Black Men and Desire,” which is as astute decolonial reading of her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. But it’s 2023 and I think Smith and, if Robert were still with us, would both be rather hip to the need to think critically about his work.