Sunday, November 15, 2009

Participant or Spectator: Reflections on “Air Guitar” by Dave Hickey

by Sandra H. Martin

I recently heard an actor say how much he loved to hear that one guy in the audience who was still laughing after everyone else had stopped. That one guy was a participant who really got involved in the play and not just a spectator who was there because the Times said it was a must see and was sure to win a Tony. The spectator may have laughed because everyone else was laughing. The spectator may not have even understood what was funny, but that one guy really got it. And the fact that this one guy had this deep laugh that didn’t stop when everyone else’s did showed the actor that his art was really getting through on a human level to someone out there in the dark.

Americans are big believers in talent and big believers in smarts. Schoolchildren will believe that a classmate got that great grade simply because they are smart or that they made the school orchestra just because they are talented. And as Waylon Jennings observes they will hate that person. In America everyone is suppose to be equal, so it is not fair if someone has more “talent” than you do or is “smarter” than you are. They don’t see the time and hard work that goes into making the good grade or making the orchestra. And if they do see all the extra time and hard work they will still hate that person for making them look bad by comparison or for being a show-off. It’s un-American ‘cause we are all equal. They will be critical and wait for that person to fail. Americans will say, I’m not good at math or languages” and dismiss their own lack of effort or will to stick with something difficult.

Last week a student informed me that he had to have a C in order to transfer back to the out of state college he attended last year. I pointed out that though he made an effort to participate his participation showed no evidence of having studied the material as did his failing grades on tests. His reply was, “But I’m not good at languages!” I did not remind him that in September he had bragged that he got through high school without ever having to study because he was so smart.

When I was in college it never occurred to me to take any art course because no one had ever said that I had “talent.” My roommate was a descendant of Albrecht Durer and an art major. Every time I got the chance I was in the National Gallery in D.C. Other than my picture of a piñata party that my 6th grade teacher hung up above the blackboard I don’t ever remember painting or drawing in school. My parents did give me a course at the Houston Fine Arts Museum when I was about nine, which I loved, but I don’t remember being encouraged to continue with art. How many students in school today feel the same way?

A study of spectators in an art museum showed that much more time was devoted to reading the plaque on the wall describing the painting than actually looking at the work itself. Spectators go through the exhibition and read about and see every painting without really getting engaged with a single work. Participants are often mesmerized and completely blown away by one work in the whole show. I made seven trips to Spain and Mexico with students, but the experience I remember most was not being able to get one boy out of a beautiful room in the Alhambra Palace in Granada because he was so awed by the Arabic calligraphy carved into the alabaster walls everywhere he looked. The bus was leaving, everyone was there but him, yet he could not leave that room. He was part of that room, and I was the spectator.

Hickey says that “while spectators must be lured, participants just appear.” My son has a “wall” in front of his house in Ridgewood, N. J. that is interactive in that he puts out objects he has found interesting, and others who pass by can also add objects to the wall. Today he is having a “show “in his backyard of 150 photographs he has taken of his neighbors. They are all invited to the show. I will see who are the spectators and who are the participants by seeing who shows up and what their body language and conversations are like. It should be fun. Is this what Hickey means by “art as a social practice?”

What is the goal of young artists today? For whom are they making the art- Participants or Spectators? My guess is that the ones who really make interesting art are doing so because they cannot do otherwise.