Art, Artists and Audiences

“And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free”

These are lyrics to the song “Closer to Fine,” by the Indigo Girls, released in 1989. They were the words sung by about 10,000 people attending a concert at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. The Indigo Girls began the song but stopped singing after the first verse and chorus, continued to play their instruments and invited the crowd to take it from there. And we did. It is a powerful thing to be among so many people singing words together – and these aren’t simple lyrics. Not “I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  We were among strangers, and yet we weren’t. We all shared the experience of singing that song for decades, in our cars, in our dorm rooms, in our headphones while we jogged, while hanging out with friends. We were different people, living separate lives, varied ages and backgrounds, but united in finding meaning and connection in that song. It is a unique sensation experienced only when attending concerts in person.

When I bought the tickets a month or two ago, it was to see Brandi Carlile; I didn’t know the Indigo Girls would be the opening act, that was a bonus I learned in the days leading up to the concert. I first became familiar with Brandi Carlile from my local radio station (WEXT) and noted that I liked her sound. I saw her interviewed and was further impressed. I bought the tickets based on that. Then, more recently, I saw video of her performance with Joni Mitchell, and I am a huge fan of Joni, at the Newport Folk Festival. That sealed the deal; I was excited to attend my first in person musical performance since the pandemic began.

Tanglewood’s capacity, with lawn seating, is 15,000. It was close to full (there were some inside seats open until the rains came). Though most had come for the main attraction, it was clear that the Indigo Girls had their own fans, as well. The audience was very enthusiastic from the first notes and the performers fed off the energy of the crowd. I can only imagine how it feels to have lyrics you have written sung back to you by thousands of voices. How validating! Perhaps, after years of it, it becomes old hat. It didn’t seem that way for any of the performers that night. Brandi Carlile exulted, with her bandmates, that after years of playing chowder houses and chain restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, they had made it; they had, in her words, achieved their dream. I couldn’t help but feel happy for her and her talented band as they reveled in the cheers and absorbed the energy of the crowd.

Artists may pursue their art for a variety of reasons. Some may not love the public part, the performing; they may derive more satisfaction from the creative process. Some may choose to generate their work alone; others seek out collaboration. Brandi Carlile appears to enjoy both the performing and the collaborative potential music presents. Writing books, poetry or essays is generally a solitary craft, at least initially. Publication involves others.

No matter how the work is produced, though, the reality is that if you don’t have an audience, it may feel incomplete. People can talk about creating for its own sake, but without a reaction, without any audience, isn’t something essential lost? And, beyond that, the artist certainly can’t make a living without it.

This notion was reinforced by another ‘show’ I attended of an entirely different sort. The Clark Museum, also in the Berkshires, is hosting a Rodin sculpture exhibit. I have always appreciated Rodin’s work, especially The Thinker and The Kiss.

A small reproduction of The Thinker sits on my desk

I learned a few things from this exhibit. Rodin sketched first, then created a clay or plaster model (not necessarily full size). He did not cast the bronze or carve the marble himself; he employed someone to do that. I was surprised to learn that a woman, Camille Rosalie Claudel, did some carving for him. She was his student, assistant, model, and romantic partner for a time (Rodin also had a lifetime woman companion with whom he had a child but that is another story).

Learning that someone else did the carving was interesting on many levels. Part of me feels like the carving is an essential part of the artistry. One of the extraordinary things about sculpture of the human form is coaxing emotion and texture from stone. Does Rodin get credit for doing that if he didn’t do that part of the work?

Is this common practice? I have watched a number of profiles of artists on the news magazine CBS Sunday Morning. When working on large installations, artists have used teams of people to weld, pour concrete and other tasks involved in creating the work. But that struck me as different than having someone else do the ‘sculpting.’ But, where do you draw the line? Does it matter?

I don’t recall when I’ve seen Rodin’s work displayed at other museums whether the person doing the carving was given credit. If they were, I didn’t notice. At least at this exhibit they were.

I was also surprised to find that it was a woman who did the work. Maybe that wasn’t unusual either, he was creating in late 19th and early 20th century and I would not have expected that. It comes as news to me.  

One of the major themes of the exhibit was the role that patrons played in Rodin’s success in the United States. Without a few dedicated supporters, who bought his art, got it displayed in major museums and spread the word about his talent, he would not have become the world-renowned artist he became. It was also interesting to note that many of his patrons were women.

We may have an image of artists as lone creatives, toiling by themselves, perhaps tortured souls. A piece of that may be true. But, if we know about that their work, if they have achieved wide exposure, then it is likely that they have benefitted from a network of people who have supported them. Nothing wrong with that – and I am not suggesting it is luck, though that may play a role for some – but as a writer seeking publication, it is useful to keep that in mind.

8 thoughts on “Art, Artists and Audiences

  1. Wow Linda, your description of the audience reception at the Indigo Girls/Brandi Carlisle really resonated. As in the special feeling of having large numbers of people, mostly of like age singing lyrics that have been meaningful to them for many years.
    I had a similar experience not long ago. Zach and I attended a concert in Worcester in June, also the first time since before the pandemic. Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. Needless to say there were a lot of opportunities to sing along, as his fellow band mates were all frontmen for their own bands as well.
    But the emotional lyrics of All You Need Is Love took on new meaning as the tragedy in Uvalde had happened only a week before. After the band had left the stage, people got up to leave still singing the song. It was a really powerful moment that just illustrated to me how meaningful music can be in our everyday lives.
    Also enjoyed your descriptions of the art you saw during your visit, and how most of us probably took for granted that specific, well known pieces were created by the artist themselves. Gratifying to learn that’s not the case, that clearly these works were a collaboration with others to achieve the artist’s vision.

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    1. Thank you, Mary, for sharing. That sounds like a meaningful moment for you and reminds me of a time when I saw Alvin Ailey’s dance company – the audience would not leave, would not stop clapping to the music of their piece Revelations – long after the music and dance stopped. So cool!

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  2. I’m curious about your thoughts on the following:
    With todays’ modern technology, if someone designs a work of art on a computer then the computer prints it (2D or 3D), does the computer get the credit? Does the builder or designer of the computer get credit? Is the computer just a tool?

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    1. Interesting point, Stewart. Thanks for raising it. I’m sure people are doing just that – using computers in that way. I would definitely think of the computer as a tool in the hypothetical you raise, though I do think it is worth noting that the folks who designed the printer should be acknowledged for their creativity and contributions to the artistic potential of others. I’m not sure if carving marble is exactly the same – though I have no idea what is actually involved in carrying out a project based on specs – maybe it is really a mechanical process. I’d love to hear what you think.

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      1. The computer doesn’t decide to create something. A person, the artist has to create the work of art. Just like the hammer & chisel didn’t decide to carve The Thinker, Camille Rosalie Claudel did not either. Rodin designed it and employed her to do the work.
        The construction workers who built Mt. Rushmore were hired to do a job. If one person was not able to preform a job, another worker could be hired in his place. Only Gutzon Borglum gets credit with designing it. The Guggenheim Museum was constructed by hundreds of workers. Each one was replaceable. Only Frank Lloyd Wright was credited with designing it.

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      2. Interesting point – and I see what you are saying and agree up to a point. In my mind the designer/creator certainly deserves the lion’s share of the credit, and, depending on the particulars of the work, those who execute it might deserve more recognition than they get. I don’t think that an architect and the construction crew are analogous. In an overall sense, and we might have to agree to disagree, I think people who achieve success (not just in the arts) rely on others more than is acknowledged.

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  3. I absolutely agree that the crowd is a really important part of the concert experience. A crowd that is enthusiastic and excited and participating brings so much to the event. Personally, I love to sing along but sing really low so that I don’t ruin the experience for others. But every once in a while, I just have to let loose. You can’t sing Thunder Road quietly. It’s like eating pizza with a knife and fork. It’s just wrong.

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    1. I love going to Springsteen concerts with you and watching you sing along with such enthusiasm. It is the perfect opportunity for you to belt it out since your voice is drowned out by the sound of the E Street Band and the thousands of other voices. I know you won’t be insulted by my saying that.

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