Have you heard the oft-repeated phrase about the viewer being necessary to complete the work of art? “…the viewer completes the conversation.” “…the work doesn’t truly become complete until it is out in the world”.
At a workshop once, I found myself having a visceral reaction to this statement, and finally had to respond, which probably shocked most people in the room. Why do people keep repeating this notion… why do they think it’s patently true? And what exactly is this amorphous quality that the viewer is supposedly adding to the work?
From what I see in museums and some galleries nowadays, their cell phone is having the actual interaction with the work.
What, if any kind of dialogue is such a viewer having with said piece? How, exactly are they completing this piece of work, if there is no obvious interaction taking place? Are they completing it by taking a “selfie” with it? or saving an image of the work in their phone before moving to the next shiny bauble after 5 seconds?
It’s not like some awkward passage down in the lower left corner was waiting for this passerby to take brush in hand and make the stroke that resolves the matter…and it’s also not often the case that you get to have any meaningful dialogue with someone who is really looking at the work. You see little discussion, argument, or thoughtful gazing. (there are exceptions to this, and when you are present as the artist, you can gain insights into what the work might be conveying – I say this as someone who has exhibited my work in plenty of galleries and other public locations over the years.)
Art gallery openings are often a schmoozing, networking and sales opportunity. People are there to support their friends, and admire the work at hand. All this is good and often celebratory. We should celebrate the effort and hard-won results of artists. (And a chance to be amongst humans again after months thrashing around in the studio can be enjoyable.) Does this complete the artwork?
Why is a conversation between the artist and the work any less important, or less complete, than a crowd of people in a gallery “looking” at the same work? If you are living with and experiencing the piece, being challenged by it, feeling a sense of completion when it all seems resolved, when it teaches you something….why is that not enough?
“To put it as simply as possible – and this is a simple answer, not a total answer – I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. “(James Elkins)
Does having the work in a more public location, in a more rarified, or approved air add validity to what has already been accomplished? Are we giving ourselves more credit as viewers than we deserve?
Here’s an idea…
Let’s start to question the tropes repeated again and again…… and make up our own minds. Instead of implying that the work of art needs the audience to complete it, I would offer another possible truth. Maybe it’s the viewer, (and I include myself in this demographic) who might be incomplete until they have an opportunity to interact with beautiful, challenging, technically accomplished, emotionally resonate work. The viewer has more to gain from the exchange, not the work. Perhaps by being experienced and appreciated, the work can live on in a way that resonates through time. Completely.
The song is ended
But the melody lingers on – Irving Berlin