With You or Without You

There’s a perennially prickly relationship that persists between the artist who has an audience and the one who does not. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross returns to this theme many times as it played out between the giants of 20th century composing. Schoenberg “warned his colleagues against a futile chase after popularity,” and ended up devising a “new way of working—a ‘method of composing with twelve notes’ –that would protect the serious composer from vulgarity.” His long standing dispute with Kurt Weill hinged on this same issue, purportedly resulting from an article in which Weill contrasted composers who “filled with disdain for the public, work towards the solution of aesthetic problems as if behind closed doors” and those who “open up a connection with any kind of public.”

When Schoenberg protégé Alban Berg premiered his opera Wozzeck and was greeted by a standing ovation, he was upset by the response. According to Berg’s friend Theodor Adorno, “That a work…satisfying Berg’s own standards could please a first-night audience, was incomprehensible to him and struck him as an argument against the opera.” Adorno went on to say, “Schoenberg envied Berg his successes while Berg envied Schoenberg his failures.”

I found something of that dichotomy in an article about Julian Schnabel in the Sunday Times. Schnabel made a name for himself in the burgeoning art scene in Soho in the 1970s. He was a natural self promoter and played the high visibility game to perfection. I was never a fan of his work, but give him credit for having played his hand well at the fame game.

Later he refocused his ambitious energies into film, directing Basquiat and Before Night Falls, both worthy ventures that received a fair amount of critical acclaim. His latest film—and a bit of an unlikely choice–is based on the memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

So for all of Schnabel’s wealth and success, the following quote by him in Randy Kennedy’s article was noteworthy:

I’m a painter; that’s what I do,” he said in his Brooklyn studio, adding that a failure to acknowledge this properly was ultimately the result of ignorance.

I don’t think that people know too much about painting,” he said. “I don’t think that they really understand what it is. I mean, I don’t want to put anybody down. I just think more people understand the language of movies than of paintings.

The piece is wryly titled, Don’t Call Him a Filmmaker, at Least Not First.

This response could just be a case of ego, unchecked, seeking domination in every endeavor. Or perhaps this is Schnabel envying his own successes as well as his own (perceived or otherwise) failures.

As for the optimal artist/audience relationship, I’m going with e) all of the above.

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