Does the size of your audience indicate that the art you make is relevant, or is it merely confirmation of its irrelevance? Consider that the acclaim of the masses is so easily manipulated by concerted marketing campaigns. Does that make Justin Bierber’s music relevant art, or successful marketing? By the same measure, is an obscure artist, creating art that confronts audiences with uncomfortable truths about themselves, which exhorts them to change, a relevant artist or an irrelevant one, when nobody is listening or looking?
As an artist, you can devote a lot of time, care, sweat and effort into creating your art and you hope that people will respond to it. You hope it makes a change and a difference. For it to have purpose and, by extension, for your artistic pursuit to have meaning and purpose, it has to be at least noticed by people. They may taste your work, turn their noses up and back away from it, but at least you made contact with them and obtained some traction. We live in such a deliberately distracted world, however, that the more genuinely controversial your art is, the less it seems to be cared about by anybody.
Imagine that you noticed how disjointed people’s ideas and actions were. They say one thing but act in an entirely contradictory way. For example, they say they want to eat healthily, but realising that this will require the dismantling of a vast edifice of corrupted food production and distribution, designed piece by piece, over a period of centuries, by people whose main interest was self-enrichment and profit, rather than your nutrition and well-being, they instead go to the supermarket and endorse the current system of providing sub-standard, less healthy food. They do this because they are programmed to follow orders and because the scale of the effort required to really make a change toward healthy eating, which would mean growing their own food locally, for example, is far greater than simply buying a box of food, produced in opaque ways, from unknown ingredients, bought from the cheapest supplier. Maintaining unhealthy eating is the softer option.
Getting back to the thread of my argument, imagine that, as an artist, you are bubbling with these sorts of insights and many more ideas for how to effect the changes needed, piece by piece, over a period of centuries, but with better outcomes in mind than personal profit. How would you feel if you begin to delineate these ideas, through your art, but your art meets with rejection? It is ignored. Your audience figures are steady, but unimpressive, exhibiting hardly any growth and maybe even a long-term decline. Nobody buys your work, or even cares to notice it. Suppose that you feel like all the effort and heart you put into your art returns only indifference, rejection, scorn and avoidance. Suppose that people that do experience your art turn away from you, as a human being. Would you feel like a relevant artist, or an irrelevant one?
It is very easy to lose heart and grind to a halt, in your art making. Why go to all the trouble, if the art goes nowhere, is noticed by no one and effects no change in anybody? What’s the point of struggling to express your ideas in a lucid way, when nobody cares what you think or how to break out of their current “not joined up” ways of thinking and living? Why not leave them all to it and go back to quietly living your own life as best you can?
Some artists respond to this rejection by making art that is more popular. In doing so, they often have to jettison their original message and stop explaining to people, through their art, what it is that first motivated them to say something. They have to suppress their insights and make something more entertaining, which will attract distracted and shallow audiences, but who will pay the artist’s bills. Is this what all the artistic struggle is really for? Is feeling relevant worth the cost of giving up on your essential ideas and producing something altogether more palatable to people who would rather not know what you really think?
Other artists, unable to give up on their insights, because they are undeniable and unarguable, but who have lost heart, due to the lack of interest in their art, retreat, but burn with the truth of their ideas, which would change things for the better, but which can no longer be expressed in any sort of tangible way. The ideas become internalised and slowly torment the artist. They no longer have the heart to try to present them to people that don’t care to know, but they can’t pretend the ideas never occurred to them or that there wasn’t some essential, unavoidable truth to them, which cannot be suppressed by simply ignoring those notions. Making no art, the artist is now, by definition, irrelevant, but the ideas he keeps in his mind might be highly relevant.
Relevance and popularity are different things. An idea might be widely ignored and rejected, when expressed via a work or art, but it might be exactly what humanity needs to hear and to heed. It might hold the seeds of a much better future and is, therefore, highly relevant to a great many people. The problem is that it’s never noticed.
They say you can market anything, but I doubt that’s true. I think you can only market the easy things, which people can take on board painlessly and with little effort. All that is typically attempted, in truth, is marketing the facile. Selling radical, challenging ideas is much more difficult. It’s the reason so few politicians attempt it and if they do, the reason why they so seldom follow through and deliver on their promises. I don’t know of many occasions when marketing an unpopular, but ultimately better-for-humanity idea, succeeded. At least, none spring immediately to mind. Selling wars, which appeal to remoteness, chauvinism, bigotry and violence – characteristics that have been, sadly, all too abundant among the human population – is a much easier task. Selfishness is also easier to sell. Telling humanity, through your art, that it must significantly change its behaviour and the ideas it holds as articles of faith, at an individual, personal level, is an almost impossible marketing exercise. People are reluctant to change their ways or revise their bad ideas. They resist entertaining better ideas or making personal changes to their comfortable, learned, habitual behaviours. Consequently, they turn away from artists delivering such messages.
Does that make artists that try irrelevant?