The Artist Vs. The Viewer

Jeff Wall "Picture for Women" 1979

The more openings and artist talks I attend, the more I’ve come to realize that there are two distinct approaches to presenting one’s work to viewers. On one side, there are artists that talk at length about the meaning of their work and why they made it. On the other, are artists that hold back and avoid telling the viewer the meaning behind the work. In a sense, they ask the viewer to assign their own meaning to the work. While both methods can be effective, it is good to think about how you present your work. How much you reveal or hold back creates a very different experience for the viewer.

Jeff Wall "Picture for Women" 1979

When the Artist Gives Work Meaning

I definitely fall into this camp, while my work is documentary in nature it has many conceptual undertones that I try to convey to the viewer (either by talking to them or through an artist statement). In this sense the viewer takes on the role of an audience and the artist that of a preacher. The idea is that the artist wants the viewer to see and think about the work on the artist’s terms and from their perspective. The artist wants full control over how work is perceived, the work has one meaning.

When the Viewer Gives Work Meaning

On the flip side, the artist doesn’t present work with a specific meaning, the viewer must bring meaning to the work. This way the viewer must complete the piece with their own experiences and biases, the work isn’t finished until it is viewed. In this context, a single piece will have as many meanings as there are viewers. The artist and the work they create is just a spark or jumping off point for a personal experience for the viewer.

How Do You Want Your Work Perceived?

Regardless of your efforts, the viewer will always bring a bit of themselves to interpreting your work. However, you must ask yourself how much of the back story to reveal. Is your work very strongly tied to a subject or idea that you are trying to convey? Or is the purpose of your work to create new experiences for the viewer? Knowing how much to give the viewer is important to how your work and even your “image” as an artist is received. It is also important to know when to fight the viewer and when to let them find themselves in the work.

What side do you fall on? Do you try to control how your work is viewed or do you usually let the viewer come to their own conclusions? Please let us know in the comments as well as why you favour one approach over another.

Image: Jeff Wall “Picture for Women” 1979 

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1 Comment

  1. The viewer is a big subject in art because the fact that art is to be viewed. An artist without a viewer is an artist living in a vacuum, which at that point are they even an artist? Though lately I have been thinking how the viewer does lay down some constraint upon the artist. By this I mean most viewers look for what they typically understand as art. If it lacks asthetic value the viewer crucifies the artist or if there is no “wow” factor the same occurs. A typical viewer lacks the general ability to see all art as art, while a viewer that is a critic will understand that idea (all art is art), but may not favor it because of their individual tastes.

    What I’m trying to hint at is a lot of viewers will not consider an artist an artist if they do not portray some preconception of what art is which is typically somewhere based in skill. If you showed any person a hyper realistic portrait of a person and then show them a abstract expressionist portrait of the same person, they will most likely identify the artist that did the hyper realistic portrait as being an artist or the better artist. While the other would either be discredited or downplayed in the most used phrased, “kids can do that painting”.

    That is where constraint exist when it comes to viewers.

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