Photo by michale
Conventional marketing wisdom says you should be ‘customer focused’ and do your best to satisfy consumers’ wants and needs. But it’s a different story when it comes to creative work. Many of the most successful artists achieved fame by provoking and offending public taste.
These days the Impressionists are safe choices for coffee table books and coasters, but in 1863 they had to resort to an ‘Exhibition of Rejects’ after their works were consistently refused by the major galleries in Paris. The exhibition attracted much scorn and ridicule, but gradually the public was won over and took the works to its heart.
In 1913, the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring ended in a riot. The ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’ rhythms of the music and dance shocked an audience used to a more sedate evening’s entertainment. Stravinsky left the theatre in tears – but the ballet’s impresario, Diaghilev, said the riot was “just what I wanted”.
In 1915 T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published in the American magazine Poetry, its bold departures from the conventions of literary verse provoking outrage as well as delight. Eliot later observed that a writer must create the taste by which he is received – and proceeded to do just that in The Criterion, the literary magazine he founded and edited.
In 1985 the Jesus and Mary Chain played the North London Polytechnic. They stood with their backs to the audience and played a very short set, consisting mostly of loud guitars and piercing feedback. The inevitable riot ensued, earning them massive coverage in the music press, to the delight of their manager Alan McGhee, who had invited journalists to the gig.
All these artists show that sometimes the way to please an audience is to outrage it, gaining attention, notoriety and – later on – respect and admiration for following their own vision. On the other hand, artists (like some pop acts or Hollywood films) who are perceived as having been ‘manufactured’ to target a niche audience often fade away after an initial rush of success, as tastes move on. Audiences can show little respect for those who are too eager to please.
Audience v Artist
If we imagine a spectrum of taste, with the audience at one end and the artist at the other, we can see that the Impressionists, Stravinsky, Eliot and the Jesus and Mary Chain were firmly positioned at the ‘artist’ end of the spectrum, while Boyzone and Independence Day are nearer the ‘audience’ end.
Where you stand on this spectrum is partly a matter of instinct and partly of the creative and commercial context of your work. Playing a rock gig is very different to presenting an advertisement to a corporate client – usually, the rock stars are closer to the ‘artist’ end of the spectrum, and the ad agency is closer to the ‘audience’ end. Yet sometimes the advertising client needs to be challenged, and bands are often happy to run through old favourites to please the crowd.
When I’m writing this blog I’m fairly close to the ‘audience’ end of the spectrum – I have a fairly clear idea of the audience I’m writing for, and I don’t hit the ‘publish’ button unless I think they will find a post interesting, entertaining or useful. But when I’m writing poetry, I often take a different approach – playing a game with the reader, leaving clues and hints, to invite them to engage with the writing in a different way and come and meet me further towards the ‘artist’ end of the spectrum.
How about you?
Where do you feel you are on this spectrum? What effect does this have on the way you create and deliver your work?