Picture this - Your friend recommends his beloved pop star’s new single to you, all psyched up about it, you listen and realise that the song has really cringe-worthy lyrics and wonder what the hype is for. Everytime you recommend a new flick to a friend, the first question they pose is ‘who’s in it’? The connotation awarded to the creator comes off as more than the creation. But is this fair?
“What’s in a name?” - the Bard of Avon famously asked. As it turns out, a great deal, indeed.
“Who’s starring in it? Who’s the singer? Who’s the artist?” seem to be the first pieces of information people want to know to decide upon the kind of content they wish to consume. This tendency of the audience reflects not only in box-office numbers or the price at which an artwork is auctioned, but also, ultimately, the said artist’s popularity. As more and more people flock to the cinemas to watch the next upcoming Bollywood Biggie on the silver screen; and as the streams of Justin Bieber’s new single go on increasing, so does the artist’s reach : our ability to associate his name with a face. Thus, the artist, who once only sought to express himself through his movies, songs and paintings; turns into a celebrity.
A Star is Born
A celebrity has crowds of fans waiting at his window, oohing and aahing over a single glimpse of his appearance. Thousands of fan accounts on Instagram, with admins going gaga everytime they succeed in getting a like or a comment from the star they worship. He finds the paparazzi following him everywhere he goes, often to the point of annoyance.
What is wrong with people admiring their beloved stars, you ask? At this disposition of the audience, one cannot help but inquire whether; in the context of art, at least; the who of it, overpowers the what. Stardom being served to star kids on a proverbial nepotistic platter, as they inherit their parent’s fame way before making a debut, has us wondering whether art sells or the artist. It seems as if a bandwagon effect of sorts is at play, influencing the movie buff’s next watch, the art aficionado’s next buy and the music lover’s next listen.
The Art World is one that exemplifies the creator above content phenomenon with its ‘Winner Takes All’ mantra. In a 64 billion dollar global art market; a few famous artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama have their works being sold at astronomically high prices; whereas the rest of them struggle to even get an art gallery to represent them.
While new and upcoming, ‘living’ artists are struggling to sell their artwork; ‘Salvator Mundi’ a long lost œuvre at the Christie’s Art Gallery in London, rumoured to be credited to a long gone Leonardo Da Vinci was auctioned for a Whopping $450 Million (Cha-Ching!) making it the world’s most expensive work of art ever sold.
The Class vs. Mass divide
Parallel to the shimmer and sparkle of the world of celebrities, are artists who, in spite of being just as much or perhaps even more talented and skilled at their craft, are seldom given the chance to shine in the spotlight, resulting in art that is critically acclaimed; however, fails to strike a chord with the masses.
At the heart of the fan favourite vs. intellectual artist divide; lies a similar differentiation among the audience.While all mass audiences seem to care about is an entertainment fix, an escape from their mundane 9 to 5 jobs; the class audience is constantly on the lookout for new and innovative content, seeking intellectual stimulation. While the classes accuse the masses of suffering from a lack of taste, the latter dubs the former pretentious.
Now, this would have been a fair situation had there been a somewhat equal proportion of people on each side of the differentiation. However, that hardly is the case.
A side by side comparison between the box office collections of a big-ticket blockbuster movie and a critically acclaimed art film stands as a testimony to this. Big budget, star-studded Blockbuster movies (some of them ridden with really cringe-worthy plots and slapstick humour) make it to the 100, 200, 300 crore club. On the flip side, a movie like the 2012 arthouse film Ship of Theseus, despite being lauded by critics worldwide and winning the Best Feature Film National Award; does not see its success being reflected at the Box Office and does not even manage to recover its production cost with a domestic collection of ₹ 0.48 crores at the Indian Box Office.
What seems to be at the core of this phenomenon is our inclination towards hero worship. Whoever makes it to the Hall of Fame is not merely admired, they are worshipped, to the extent that fans would not think twice before constructing a temple dedicated to their beloved star.
However, there seems to be a paradoxical plot hole in the story. Every artist, however overly famous and celebrated he may now be, had his beginnings. There was a time when the now much revered star was a mere debutant in a low budget movie; when your favourite painter had his first exhibition before just a handful of art lovers and when your favourite singer’s first single merely gained a few thousand likes on YouTube. In spite of the artist not being a well-known name, the audience trusted him and gave him a chance to showcase his talent and prove his mettle, which contributed greatly to become the entity that he is today.
Does the audience put the artist on a pedestal; thereby undermining their art, which is the very substratum on which the artist stands? And can this tendency of ours, eventually lead to the artistic downfall of our favourite artist?
As the art world embraces commercialism with each passing day, creators and producers tend to play it safe, encouraging styles of art and artists that have worked in the past. Record labels, for instance, are more likely to produce remakes of popular old songs rather than giving new found talent a chance. Last year alone, the Indian music industry churned out around 50 rehashed numbers that sought to cash in on the recall value from the originals, many of them successfully managing to garner millions of views on YouTube. Also, as movie producers are aware of the fact that movies with a famous star on the posters are bound to break box office records, their prime focus becomes the lead of the movie and they become less concerned about the quality of the content. Moreover, as cases of an artist rising to fame are few and far between, one rethinks their decision of pursuing arts over and over. Even parents discourage their kids from doing the same, bearing in mind the limited success. When an artist talks about his art, he is regularly asked - ‘All that is fine, but what do you do for a living?’ The Arts have rebellion as their foundation with the artist having to both construct his path and walk it, all by himself.
Art is what transpires when an artist paints their emotions onto a canvas, a poet pours their heart out onto a piece of paper or a musician transforms their pain into a soulful melody. It acts as a mirror, a gaze into which, is a gaze into our deepest yearnings. Every piece of art is a manifestation of the artist’s dreams, desires, emotions and this is what makes art ‘art’. It’s high time we respect art for what it is and give content a chance because talented artists deserve our attention and we, as audiences, deserve quality content. The spectators have a huge role to play in not only the kind of content produced but also in determining who gets a mention in the Hall of Fame.
For in the World of Art, The Audience Maketh and The Audience Taketh Away....