Artists' dialogues with viewers / by Jeannine Cook

Defining yourself as an artist is really only one side of the equation in art. The other side is what each viewer brings to your art by way of life experiences which will influence that act of viewing. That mix of experience will complete the dialogue the artist started by creating a piece of art. Viewer and artist, the inseparable pair. And every dialogue will be different, which makes the whole process endlessly fascinating.

Ideally, an artist's vision will afford meanings and evocations of aspects of life far beyond the mere life-like rendering of whatever subject matter. But since each viewer's experience of life is individual, he or she will interpret the artist's work slightly differently. Often, when there is a great enough consensus about a piece of art, then it will be recognised as good art. However, as with everything else, each generation has a somewhat different set of criteria for art, based on that time, and so there are often revisions and fashions in esteem for art. As Sir Michael Levey, the late Director of Britain's National Gallery, was quoted in ArtNews (March 2009) as once remarking about the National Gallery's version of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, "It stands like a beacon of yellow fire, reminding us that outside the museum, art is always evolving... we only have to look" (my italics). Artists and viewers alike have to remember that those vital dialogues are endlessly changing and evolving as the years go by.

On a personal basis, I have found it totally fascinating to work with other artists and see the diversity in the resultant art, even when using the same subject matter. The most obvious example is when a group shares a model for life drawing: each person's drawing will be utterly different. Similar diversities will occur when those drawings are viewed, for each viewer will dialogue with each drawing in an individual fashion. Each viewer may respond to the artist's intensity, vitality and power to evoke beyond the merely descriptive, but there will be a very personal resonance for each person. And yet, even within the narrow confines of life drawing as one aspect of art, there is an implicit message. For any art to endure, it must be true to the spirit of its own age. Today, that art needs to be able to sustain a dialogue with viewers who are saturated with vivid imagery from so many sources, digital or otherwise, and whose life experiences are vastly different from those of even the previous generation. Artists, implicitly, need to dig deeper and work harder than ever before to sustain a rich dialogue with viewers. Quite a challenge!