Comfort and Curiosity: A Consideration of the Audience's Primal Needs

by Barry Drogin

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

The narrative art depends upon an interplay with a cultured audience saturated in certain presumptions and previous artistic experiences.... What was meant, the future reader must ask himself, to be surprising, to be in its small surprise amusing, to deviate interestingly from normal expectation, to be, in brief, news, telling the vanished inhabitant of today's long-settled dust what he did not quite know before, broadening and enlightening his sensibility with the delicate shocks of art?... Any narrator begins by believing that he has something marvelous to tell. An appetite for the marvelous comes with the first childish comprehensions, as a mode of acclimatization to the marvel of being alive. --- John Updike, Preface to "The Mabinogion"
[As adapted in the January 29, 2001 New York Times Book Review Bookend as "Medieval Superheroes" - published three days after this essay first was posted.]

Anyone with small children is given a refresher course in understanding the simplest, most basic needs and desires of the human animal. I was surprised, for example, to learn that joy and laughter are not learned cultural responses but are in-born traits (despite the old wive’s tale that a smiling baby “has gas”). Similarly, a nightly bedtime “ritual” is required to ensure that a regular transition to sleep is achieved. Children have favorite books, favorite songs, favorite activities that must be repeated, sometimes in immediate succession, over and over again. On the other hand, at other times of the day, there is the need for surprise, the need to touch objects that have never been touched (or that are forbidden to touch), to explore objects for their feel, their sound, their shape. Sometimes a baby is upset and must be comforted; sometimes a baby is bored and must have its curiosity sated.

The game of “Peek-a-boo” is an excellent example of these contrary needs - for repetition and for surprise - being combined, which is, perhaps, why it is referred to as a “game.” Reading books has the same effect - the pages are turned as a ritual, but the visual stimulus on each page is a surprise. As they mature, “Peek-a-boo,” without elaborations, quickly bores, and favorite books are learned and become completely ritual.

I think it is important to note that a child is not curious for the purpose of making the world familiar and comfortable, but is curious and enjoys surprise for its own sake. Boredom is as irksome to the human animal as is pain, hunger, and weariness.

The realm of art incorporates in some ways a return to a more child-like state. It should not be surprising, then, to find that audiences express child-like needs in their expectations of art. In some ways, modernism attempted to impose a state of maturity that denied an audience’s most basic needs. This reached an extreme when, for example, the child-like need to possess an [art] object was challenged by installation, conceptual, performance, site-specific and environmental art, as well as the use of materials known to deteriorate over time.

Modernism’s challenges to the notion of beauty are not my concern here, as I believe an expansion of aesthetic appreciation evolves with every age. But I do think it is time for art to consider the ramifications of its own institutionalization and canonization. In a world of over-population and mass production, the creator and the re-creator perceive themselves as being in competition. This extends to the point where a semantic war is being waged, whereby the provider of known aesthetic experiences nevertheless tries to market “new,” “vital,” and “original” repetitions of historical work.

I am offering herein a perceptual framework for justifying these irreconcilable audience needs. These acknowledge not only a sociological or cultural need, but a primal human need that underlies an audience’s choices and expectations.

We have reached a point in Western Art where the catalog of previously created work has grown so massive, and so available, that an audience can restrict itself to previously created work and satisfy it’s need for ritual comfort -­ the repetition of familiar “workhorses” (labeled “timeless masterpieces” to bestow the veneer of value) -­ as well as satisfy curiosity -­ through the “discovery” of lesser “masterworks,” “new talent” or “novel interpretations.” What’s more, these needs can be self-sustaining while skirting the entire issue of the evolution of the form. Obviously, the work of Mozart answers questions, while raising other questions of its own. However, in the name of comfort, an audience can choose to not be bored by Mozart’s answers, or concerned about Mozart’s questions. Instead, listening to Mozart becomes a comforting ritual that gives aesthetic pleasure almost despite of the musical questions and answers posed, which may not even be perceived as part of the ritual.

This is in marked contrast to the aesthetic issues perceived by, say, a new music or art gallery audience. In this case, a piece that is perceived as derivative, imitative or unoriginal induces boredom, and the audience’s need to sate curiousity is not served. What’s more, this is an audience that has already experienced and comprehended a great deal of the massive canon of the past, up to and including recent work, which means that it is a smaller, more knowledgeable, more sophisticated, and, by extension, particularly elitist audience. On occasion it returns to older pieces as a refresher, or even as a guilty pleasure, but it’s aesthetic needs cannot be met by a constant diet of the old.

A problem arises from the cross-jealousies of these two competing audience needs and the industries and economies that have arisen to serve them. Those serving the comfort audience are continuously creating their own demise, for if an audience member purchases a “definitive” version of its favorite work, and then repeats the aesthetic experience continuously in repetition, then there is nothing left to sell. The market is saturated with ever cheaper and cheaper versions of the same public-domain pieces, until their economic value approaches zero. The old sells once, or else it must be dolled up to appear to be new. The new is treated as possible future fodder for the "canon", pieces that will "stand the test of time" and prove to be "timeless masterpieces," usually after the creator has died.

Those serving the curiosity audience, on the other hand, are jealous of the size of the comfort audience, for they serve a smaller elitist audience which, in a democracy, is quickly losing majority support. The jealousy can be all-consuming and blinding ­- if we only had media coverage, media outlets, access to subscribers and corporate funding! Some think the issue is “accessibility,” some think “community outreach.” Others think it is merely an issue of familiarity -­ force my work down the throats of the comfort audience again and again, and they will embrace it!

As a side note, I’m not sure a correlation can be formed between an audience member’s day job and an audience member’s decision to seek comfort or curiosity in art. One individual may seek challenge and excitement at work as well as at leisure. Another may find the excitement of work exhausting, and turn to art for comfort. One individual may hate a boring job and rely on art for excitement. Another may find a boring job exhausting and turn to art for comfort.

Interpreters, curators, cultural historians and the like feed off of the more lucrative comfort industry, providing the illusion of interest, newsworthiness and, although the word has little meaning in this context, progress. It is also, dare I say it, easier, although the competition can be quite fierce. The opera field has seen its share of gimmicks (blindness, youth, even cancer) pay off its exploiters quite well.

For those creating new art, there is a hierarchy of the new that is starting to implode on itself. There have always been conservative artists and cutting-edge avant-garde artists, but the sheer number of imitative, reactionary and commercial artists, the democratization and professionalism of the artistic trades, the vogue of using market indicators - the price of the work, the size of the audience, the size of sales, the volume of media coverage - instead of originality as the measure of value, the difficulty of "starting a revolution when the revolution before last has already said anything goes" (Charles Wuorinen), and the burden of historicity, have all but obscured the possibility of truly new work being created and discovered.

I am reminded of a New York Times review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love," which noted that its audience was less interested in seeing the work than in "having seen" the work. The new is becoming so difficult to do, and finding it is so difficult as well, that sensational and spectacular claims are used to proclaim the creation of everything intended for the curious audience, which damages the currency of marketing and disappoints the one audience that is receptive to the evolution of art.

This creates a conundrum. The audience interested in comfort is perfectly happy to completely ignore new work unless it is a reactionary imitation of old work. The elevation of low-brow forms, the admiration of kitsch and craft are also rationalized alternatives to justify ignoring the new. The new, meanwhile, is rushed, over-praised and immediately recycled as advertising (straight or comic), or else ghettoized. This is the value that society today places on art.

Innovations in artistic expression come from one of two sources - isolated geniuses or iconoclasts, and competitive ferment. The former is considered a tragedy, the latter, glory. Mass production, new media technologies and diminution of copyright may one day result in the eventual implosion of the comfort market. Check back in a decade or two and we'll see how this turns out.

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

A Musical Contrarian © 2001-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007