- Art and the Educated Audience
When writing about art, aestheticians tend to focus on the work of art and on the artist who produces it. When they refer to audiences, they typically speak only of the effect that the artwork has on its audience. Aestheticians pay little, if any, attention to the important active role that an audience plays in the workings of a healthy art world. My goal in this essay is to do something to end the neglect of the audience. I will focus on the role of the informed or, as I will call it, educated audience. I begin by subjecting the concept of an audience to some old-fashioned conceptual analysis. Once we are clearer about what an audience is and, in particular, what an educated audience is, we can begin to determine what it can do. In my view, an educated audience can play an important role in encouraging the production of artworks with high aesthetic value. Indeed, highly valuable artworks are unlikely to be produced without a broad educated audience to whom artists are responsive. Consequently, the aesthetic education of audiences is crucial to the health of an art world.
2. What Is an Audience?
In its original sense, the noun "audience" refers to the people within earshot of some speaker: one held forth to an audience. In connection with the arts, "audience" was first used in something very like this original sense. It referred to those who heard actors perform plays or those who heard the recitation of poetry. Soon the concept of an audience also applied to those who heard the performance of musical works. By the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of an audience had been broadened. It came to apply to the readers of a novel or other works of literature. More recently, the concept of an audience has been applied to those who view paintings, sculptures, and films. [End Page 29] Now an audience consists of people who experience artworks of any sort. Having an experience of an artwork is a necessary condition of being part of an audience. This condition is, however, far from being sufficient.
Some people experience works of art but are not part of an audience. Consider, for example, ushers in a concert hall or theater and guards in art museums. An usher hears the play or the concerto but may not regard it as an aesthetic object. Similarly, a guard sees the paintings (and so in this sense experiences them) but does not, perhaps, attend to them as aesthetic objects. Or consider a person who arranges to meet a friend in a gallery. He almost certainly sees the paintings, but he will not count as part of an audience if he is completely intent on looking for his friend. It seems, then, that members of an audience do not simply experience artworks. They must experience artworks in a certain way.
Audience members experience an artwork in such a way that they are able to benefit from its aesthetic value. When I speak of "aesthetic value," I mean the value an artwork possesses in virtue of its sensuous properties. I will not here take a stand on the nature of experience of aesthetic value. Some writers have suggested that the contemplation of art involves a distinctive sort of experience. Perhaps it does. (It has been suggested, for example, that audience members must have a measure of "psychical distance" from some object if they are to have an aesthetic experience of it.) I simply hold that audience members experience an artwork in whatever way makes it possible for them to benefit from its aesthetic value. If aesthetic value causes pleasure (or "aesthetic emotion," understanding, or anything else) then audience members can have pleasure caused in them by an artwork's aesthetic value. The capacity to benefit from the aesthetic value of an artwork is a necessary condition of being part of the work's audience.
Notice that not just anyone can be part of the audience for a given work of art. Audience members must possess certain capacities. In the most basic sense of the word, an audience is composed...