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
2 thoughts on “wait…. is this work really complete..?”
Spending alot of time in Colorado perpetuates this perspective. There are many places where a continuous discourse on artwork is cherished and engaged in. There is a level of isolation in this part of the country that contributes to this thinking. It is understandable. But it also flies in the face of artists who wish to contribute to the discourse of the history of art. In that arena, discussion – response – argumentation are all valid and good. The third person in the discourse of art also is about access – it is where the Humanities bloom. Don’t all viewers meet the work with their own type of completeness? We do not actually know how the person walking through the museum with their cell phone really is connecting with the work. There are many learning styles and there are many perspectives. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience art and its power to transform. Finally, I understand that you understand that you are working with a Duchampian theory here. I would offer that his intention was not to imply that the audience was anyway incomplete but that the practice of perception by another was the necessary root of the experience in communicating through a visual form.
Thanks for taking the time to write. I think you’ve missed some of what I was saying in your rush to characterize me as being among the “isolated” in Colorado. My perspective has nothing to do with where I currently live, but is formed from a lot of years making and looking, reading and teaching. In fact, I’ve lived and worked in lots of other places and have spent considerable time in urban centers, engaging with art and other artists, etc……but the main point I was making concerned the word “incomplete” as it’s used in this oft repeated phrase. That it implies that something is inherently lacking in the work until it is made public. I just bristle when phrases get repeated mindlessly, but no one stops to define or consider what they are really talking about. Everyone else in the room just nods mindlessly.
Re: your second sentence- I never implied that discourse, or contribution to the stream of art history is a bad thing- in fact if you read more carefully, you will find the opposite; that I bemoaned the general lack of discussion. (Perhaps I’m a tad sarcastic about the cell phone thing.) I was saying that response from thoughtful and engaged viewers is where the artist and others can gain something more from the work. But I don’t believe this implies the work is incomplete. I am not speaking against access or experiences either. I am simply calling into question the use of this term “complete”-( wasn’t saying Duchamp implied the “audience was…incomplete” he was talking about the work or its meaning)…. What I think we really should be saying is something more along the lines of “interconnected” or “part of a larger dialogue”.
And finally, I don’t consider myself to be a complete human being… in many ways. As I concluded…I think we are all works in progress, and when we do have the opportunity, (and I think everyone should) to be directly engaged with great art, we feel something resonate in us for a long time. (though I wonder if someone busily snapping images on a cell phone has ever had the experience of weeping in front of a painting)
This is not about completing the work of art, it is about completing ourselves as human beings.