Art: A Spectrum Theory

As I often say, Art exists along a spectrum between Expression and Communication: the Artist expresses, and the Audience understands.


(Dark Side of the moon REMAKE2, by Norman Bates.) 

In what I call “the Spectrum Theory of Art,” artistic creativity runs along a triangular spectrum. At the origin – the narrowest  point – the Artist Expresses inspiration. At the point of broadest dispersal – the broadest extreme of the spectrum – that inspiration becomes mere information or sensation, with little or no personal connection to the Artist.

Along the way, hopefully, Art hits a “sweet spot” where the Artist’s intended audience says “Yeah – I GET IT!” They understand what the Artist is trying to convey, and it expresses something for them as well, in ways that they could not express (and perhaps did not even realize they felt) until the work of Art hits that sweet spot and the Audience responds with genuine emotion.

In that sweet spot, expression becomes communion.

At the furthest extremes of Expression and Communication, Art loses its power to inspire. “Art” with little honest Expression becomes bland (like a velvet Elvis), banal (like a Michael Bay movie), and then simply informative (a cereal box design). “Art” that is utterly unconcerned with Communication becomes masturbation; it may be great for the artist, but it doesn’t do a damn thing for anyone else. 

Ideally, an artist feels inspiration and then conveys it through her chosen medium; an audience, witnessing the artwork, goes “Ah, yeah! I can relate to that!” 


(The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai)

The degree of accessibility and “success” involved in that work of art depend upon the Audience that our Artist hopes to reach. Popular art (like a Stephen Spielberg movie – and yes, I’ll argue Spielberg’s place in the annals of Art any day) is intended to reach a vast audience. Abstract or radical art, by definition, defies popular acceptance because the Artist is aiming for the select audience that “gets it”; anyone who doesn’t “get it” is SOL, as far as the artist is concerned. (See Chris Burden, among others.) 

Since at least the early 1900s, an argument has been raging that “art” is the expression of either: 1: any act that conveys meaning of the human condition; 2: any act by someone calling himself an “artist”; or; 3: both. This, I feel, is too broad a definition of Art – one that’s been responsible for tons of self-conscious masturbation. I maintain that Art is – at the very least – an intentional assertion of Expression that’s meant to provoke, inspire or demand a reaction from an audience. Art does not occur in a vaccum. Without the Audience, an Artist is just jacking off. The Artist and Audience might not agree on the “meaning” behind a piece, but without some degree of witnessing, an act is simply meaning-less. 

The art that endures for the ages is art that reaches many people across spectrums of time and culture: Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the Easter Island statues, Citizen Kane. Such art reaches deep places in the human heart and resonates far beyond the artist’s existence, and possibly beyond her intentions as well. 

(Transverse Lines, by Vassily Vassilyevich Kandinsky)

The art often called “fine art” is meant for a small, elite and often snobbishly exclusive audience. “The mainstream” isn’t supposed to understand it, even if it tickles some hidden part of their consciousness… often pissing them off in the process. Fine art artists often leave the “meaning” of a piece up to the Audience, refusing to spoon-feed a meaning to their witnesses. This is the realm of avant-garde art: Vassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Diamanda Galas, Kenneth Anger, Karen Finley. The intended audience goes “AH! YES!” Most other people go “What the FUCK is that?” Even in that latter reaction, though, there’s still Communication involved.

Funny thing, though – fine art that holds deep inspiration often becomes mainstream, or at least influences it, in ways its artists never intended. Artists like Salvador Dali, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith and Robert Crumb began in the avant-garde and then seeped into popular consciousness because the power of their work resonates deeply in the human condition even though it was not originally intended for popular consumption.

So yeah – short summation of a long post: Art occurs when Artist and Audience communicate. There’s a spectrum of specifics, but the communion is what matters.


(Not Polite, by Robert Crumb.) 



About Satyr

Award-winning fantasy author, game-designer, and all 'round creative malcontent. Creator of a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the series Mage: The Ascension, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. Lives in Seattle. Hates shoes. Loves cats. Dances a lot.
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