Arne Haselbach (1995)

Artists and their Public
On relations and their making *

»Caminante no hay camino
se hace camino al andar«

Antonio Machado

As professionals in their fields artists are deeply involved in creating (what they want to express), in choosing (from the moulds of experience and context), in shaping (the material they have chosen to work with), in moulding the non-yet-existing, the unique, the unrepeatable product, their work of art.

But artist also wake and sleep, eat and breathe, love and hate, have friends from different quarters, go out, discuss taking stands on all sorts of issues, are invited to participate in this or that, travel, in short, they are also people as everbody else.

Our theme >Artists facing society<, therefore, involves the artists' professional worlds and lives as well as their other worlds and lives. It challenges us to direct our attention, on the one hand, on how artists, their products, and their actions influence people and society at large and, on the other hand, on how they themselves are, in turn, influenced by what exists, by what is enacted, and by what happens within their ranges around them. Our theme, therefore, implies a focus on relations and on their effects.

Approaching as an outsider

Whenever I participate in discussions as an outsider - not being an artist myself - I do not like to come with a preconceived structure of thinking cast in a prepared paper. Rather, I try to open up to the thoughts insiders express and to the ways in which you - as the artists - structure your worlds in your discourse. Only then do I try and develop my thoughts in relation to impressions

I had when listening. It is my way of trying to prevent monologue, to come a bit closer to your worlds, and - hopefully - to contribute to and participate in dialogue. - Should I fail in that effort, I ask your indulgence.


What struck me

During our deliberations references were made - both implicitly and explicitly - to relations between artists and society. Society was overwhelmingly seen as the public of works of art, i.e. as the public of artists in their capacity as artists. I shall, therefore, also concentrate on those aspects of our theme.

A notion transpired in these discussions that a direct relation between artists and the readers or viewers of their works existed. This notion - while remaining implicit most of the time - was dominant. It had the strength of the obvious, the self-evident, the unquestioned.

But my reaction was a feeling of uneasiness, of dissonance.

Thus, I shall try to develop my thoughts by focussing on these relations.1 Let us, therefore, look both at this assumption and at what we find in the real world.

A direct relation via the work of art ?

What is this assumption? Since it is not my assumption I try to reconstruct it.

It seems to me that what is at the core of this assumption is that there is an uninterrupted flow of something through an uninterrupted connection between the artists and their public. What is connected is the artist and any member of her/his public, where the relationship is supposed to be mediated by the artist's work.

A metaphor that would fit that assumption is a bridge carrying a(n) - uninterrupted - road or pipe with a pillar in the middle, a pillar that is needed because the river is to wide to be crossed without it.

At issue is the notion that this is one uninterrupted relationship. This is the assumption I want to challenge.

What relations do exist

What I can see when approaching the subject from afar are two separate relationships:

a) a relation between the creator and the created, between the artist and his product, and
b) a relation between the reader or the beholder of a work of art and that work of art.

If someone looks at a picture or reads a poem or book, the artist is not there (let alone his intention). As a consequence one cannot establish a relation to her or him. One cannot see her or talk to him. The relation established is a relation with the book, the poem or the picture.

However much I search, I can find nothing that would make one relation out of the two. Thus, these two relationships are strictly independent of each other.2

Beauty, in the eyes of the beholder, is not contingent on a creator.3

Thus, my first conclusion is that there is no direct relation between the artist, the creator of a work of art, and people who are actively or passively exposed to their products that is established merely by getting acquainted with the work of art.

Whatever relations exist between artists and their public are established otherwise.

What makes us believe in a direct relation mediated by the work of art ?

At this point it may be useful to ask ourselves why - despite the rather trivial observations4

just made - the assumption that I am discussing appears to be self-evident.

I suggest that what makes us believe in such a direct relation is that both artists and their public prefer a more encompassing relationship. Intentions as well as behaviour on both sides aim at establishing a wider, more complex, relationship.

That viewers often want to know more about the artist and her/his work becomes immediately clear when, for example, they leave the normal distance of viewing a picture and almost creep into the wall in order to be able to read the title of a picture, or when listeners to a piece of music start the group game of guessing who the composer was, or when readers search for and read the >about the author< on the jacket of a book, etc.

Turning to the artist's side, consider the following example. As participants in this meeting we have all had the priviledge of seeing an exhibition of photos by one of our fellow participants, Jiri Hanak, in Kloostri Ait which is part of the Art Centre Hereditas (which, by the way, is a very good example of the enormous efforts undertaken in Estonia to safeguard the national cultural heritage - often stimulated by or with an intensive involvement of the Estonian National Commission for Unesco). What we saw was a very interesting and impressive collection. You will recall the separate frame informing the viewers about the artist. It contained a photograph of the artist and excerpts from his curriculum.

The information >about the artist< whether on the jacket of the book or in a separate frame of the exhibition are cases that fall into the category >information (by) other (means) than the work of art itself<. That artists, publishers, or organizers usually present and viewers or readers usually look for such information seems to confirm my assertion of a quest for a more encompassing relationship on both sides.

By interweaving such information, i.e. information by other means than the work of art itself, with the information we capture when exposed to the artist's product in the process of recreating what the work of art is to us, we create the felt-like fabric that leads us to assume that a direct relation exists.

Information about the artists comes in many ways

Let me now pick out a few among the many different ways in which indirect relations between the public and artists are established.

The photo exhibition just mentioned was staged at a tavern, a place where people go to meet friends, to have a cup of coffee or a beer, i.e. for other reasons than to look at an exhibition. In looking at the photos of the landscapes they may have had no prior information about an exhibition taking place or about the artist.

Take the other case where people go to see an exhibition staged at a place where it stands alone. They have - as a minimum - heard or read that such an exhibition was on show, they may also have read something about the exhibition or about the artist (whether or not they had seen some of his works on earlier occasions). Before they go there they have already built an indirect relation.

With this second example we have entered the largest group of relations which consists of all those cases where a relationship between an artist and members of their public is established independently of the work of art itself.

A relation belonging to this group may be very indirect. It may be established by reading something about the artist, by hearing someone talk about the artist or about one or the other of her or his works. It may be praise or rejection. But whatever the valuation, each and every one of these processes establishes some information about the artist or his work totally independently of whether or not that person has had any exposure to any of the artist's products.

The overwhelming number of relations thus established are relations of some information to the artist as a name, to the artist as a static picture (a photo, a cartoon), to the artist as a moving two-dimensional picture (in a newsreel or on TV) possibly accompanied by sound, and hardly any to the artist as a living person acting in three-dimensional space and accessible to impressions by the variety of our senses.

Finally, there is a group of experiences I would like to call >interactive relations< which are based on person to person relations, where one meets, shakes hands, discusses a variety of matters which may or may not include discussing one or the other of her/his works. Between artists and their public they are - statistically speaking - extremely rare.

Thus, after analysis, I have to add two additional types of relations between a member of the public and the artist

c) indirect relations based on a variety of information - other than works of art - mediated by name or images of the artist, and
d) interactive relations.

But these additional kinds of relations do not change the conclusion that there is no direct relation between the artist and their public via the work of art. Both of them fall into the category of relations established by >information other than the work of art itself<.


If one is saying that there is no direct relationship between an artist and his public and if one assumes - based on experience - that there is an influence of artists on society one has to show how that influence works.

In confronting this issue I shall try and sketch how the components of the wider relational web, the relations, and the wider web itself develop and, thereby, try and show what such relations >are<.

Relations between works of art and their beholders/readers - I think - do not differ fundamentally from relations established by other experiences conveyed by the senses.

>influence it exerts<

In considering the influence of a work of art one must draw a clear distinction between the influence a work of art exerts and the influence it actually has.

The influence a work of art exerts is what actually reaches us or, more precisely, what our senses are able to pick up.

>influence it actually has<

The influence a work of art actually has is what our non-conscious and - in a much more limited way - our conscious mental processes make of the stimulus configurations we were able to pick up by transforming them and embedding the results. We see or read something and interpret it - in an intertwining, interweaving, criss-crossing process. Whatever we receive is (re-)formed, is (re-)shaped, is moulded by us.

The process of re-creating the work of art in ourselves and - later - the work of art as recreated by us constitute the influence a work of art has. It is reception that matters.

>Taking as<

What I am referring to here is the notion >seeing as< discussed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, a notion which refers to the fact that we see and interpret what we see >uno actu<.5

Wittgenstein's example is seeing a triangle and interpreting it in a number of ways. »Take as an example the aspects of a triangle. This triangle can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as geometrical drawing; as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer, as an overturned object which is meant to stand on the shorter side of the right angle, as a half parallelogram, and as various other things.«6

And as much as there are processes that he called >seeing as< there are also phenomena of >hearing as<, >smelling as< and so forth. More generally, one can talk of a group of phenomena one can label >taking as<.

In the verbal world and in the world of reasoning >taking as< often takes the form of alleging that this (e.g. the triangle) is really that (e.g. a mountain), a mode of reasoning which amounts to substituting something by something else.7

>Seeing how<

In the visual arts there is evidence of an additional mode of >taking as<, a mode which I have chosen to label >seeing how<. I am referring to phenomena, taking place in the earliest phases of shaping our present visual worlds, that are additional to - while being partly prior to and partly interwoven with - the phenomena of >taking as<.

Since it is impossible to point directly to what goes on within ourselves, let us take, as indirect examples, the styles of rendering images employed by Georges Seurat and Georges Rouault. One moulds one's world by seeing everything as minispots of colour or by seeing everything as being framed by dark, heavy contours, or by seeing it in any of a multitude of other ways.

Of course, one could call these phenomena >interpreting< as well. However, I prefer to use a different word, since interpreting something as a mountain leaves it wide open whether one sees that mountain as made of minispots of colour or as framed by dark contours.


Let me try and explain in a very dense sketch and on the example of the constitution of ensembles how I assume that the processes of >taking as<, of >seeing how<, but also processes of establishing relations to works of art and between artists and their public develop when we are dealing with the world and with ourselves.

When we see a landscape or any other scene our eyes do not move systematically across a landscape or picture; we do not scan all the spots within the area in focus like a TV camera. Our eyes jump from portion to portion (in jumps known as saccades). That is what research on vision tells us. As Cézanne already said »I see. In patches.«8

In jumping, our eyes follow the attraction of certain outstanding features. In addition, they jump in very small steps (called microsaccades) and oscillate with high frequency (known as tremor). Also, our eyelids close regularly and the retina has a blind spot.

Yet, despite all this - interruptions, lacunae and jumping around - what we get is images of uninterrupted scenes. It follows that a landscape or other scene is constituted in our minds neither in the way nor in the sequence in which our eyes move when we look at it. The order(ing) is not that of the sequence followed.

Likewise, when we read a poem or a novel - usually sequentially built since they are created in the medium of language - we constitute impressions of static or moving scenes, of people, of emotions. Here, as in the case of a landscape, the order of those scenes created in a reader's mind is not that of the sequence of the words.

Physical time - perceptual time

The way our cultures have hammered out our dealing with sequences one can - No! One must! - say that there is physical time which orders all aspects of life.

But what I just said about the constitution of visual images and the understanding of verbal or written text shows that perception does not behave like that, it does not follow that construct. Thus, the question arises, whether our usual interpretation of sequences in real physical time, which we construe as a gradient, a graded sequence divided into seconds, minutes, and hours, which are necessarily of equal duration and which necessarily follow each other, is as all embracing, as universal, a fact as we use to think.

The lesson I draw from those facts is that we have to accept that there is not just one real time.

Apparent motion

Let us, therefore, see whether there is any scientific evidence that supports such a statement.

There is one well established phenomenon, called >apparent motion<, that points in this direction. Let me quote the description given by Nelson Goodman:

»The simplest and best-known phenomenon of apparent motion occurs when a spot against a contrasting background is exposed very briefly, followed after an interval of from 10 to 45 milliseconds by exposure of a like spot a short distance away. With a shorter time interval at the same distance, we see two spots as flashed simultaneously; with a longer interval we see the two spots flashed successively; but within the specified time-interval, we see one spot moving from the first position to the second.«9

In what we perceive the ordering is changed in relation to - what is conventionally considered as - real time. The sequence >first flash - second flash< is changed into the sequence >first flash - movement of the spot - second flash<, i.e. our reaction, which could start only after the second flash was registered, moves from following the second flash to preceding it.

It shows that perceptual time is not a gradient on which events necessarily follow each other as they do in physical time. Given that perceiving is the only way in which we can get a picture of the world both physical time and perceptual time are real time.

What we call >the present< is not a point in time

The next issue that must be introduced concerns our conception of >the present<. The present is not a point in time. It is a period in process.

Let us listen to what Auguste Rodin has to say on that issue in relation to movement in art, where he compares photography with other visual arts: After it was made clear that photographs of walking figures »never seem to advance« and »seem to rest motionless on one leg or to hop on one foot« Rodin says »it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the the artist succeeds in producing the impression of movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.«10

All experience, sensual or thinking, and - more generally - all life is sequence, is process, is motion.

Yet, much of our thinking is in terms of steady states, of scenes interpretated as unchanging, of processes interpreted as object-like. The artificial and abrupt suspension of time that Rodin rejects is the same way of thinking that Norbert Elias systematically criticizes when confronted with aspects of life reduced to steady states, a type of reduction abounding in scientific literature.11

The notion of the present as a point in time is tantamount to such an artificial suspension of time.

In what amounts, inter alia, to linking the jumping of our eyes with the rejection of any reduction of the richness of life to some one and only real, a young and influential art critic, Maurice Raynal, commented in 1912: »The futurist painters .. have tried, in their pictures, to render the real movement of various objects; however, the perception of a real movement presupposes that we know some fixed point in space which will serve as a point of reference for all other movements. But this point does not exist. The movement which the futurists have perceived is therefore only relative to our senses and is in no way absolute.«12

Not only is the individual not the point zero of his own system of coordinates13, there is no such system of coordinates in human perception that is reducible to a steady state.

Rodin on >movement in the motionless<

Rodin's answer when asked how sculptures of human beings »so evidently motionless can yet appear to act«, namely, »Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another«14

says, inter alia, exactly that.

He then explains what one could see as the opposite of reduction of processes to steady states, i.e. the embodiment of movement in a motionless sculpture:

»The sculptor compels, so to speak, the spectator to follow the development of an act in an individual .. the eyes are forced to travel .. and, in so doing, they find the different parts of the figure represented at successive instants, they have the illusion of beholding the movement performed.«15

Rodin takes the argument even further:

»You see, then, that an artist can, when he pleases, represent not only fleeting gestures, but a long action, to employ a term of dramatic art. In order to succeed, he needs only to place his personages in such a manner that the spectator shall first see those who begin this action, then those who continue it, and finally those who complete it.«16

That Rodin became one of the greates sculptors in the history of mankind is very much due to these insights and their successful application in his work.

The >short durée<

Let me try and summarize this overly dense argument.

The ways in which ensembles - landscapes, scenes, impressions communicated by novels or poems - are constituted in our brain differ importantly from received knowledge.

Their constitution becomes possible because our present is not a point in time, but a period.

This period, which I call >the short durée< is the period during which activated processes in our brain continue to be at work or are still accessible. In human information processing this period is said to last approximately three seconds.17

During three seconds there are usually somewhere between 10 and 20 rapid displacements of our eyes.18 The respective incoming clusters of visual information and the traces of earlier experiences activated by them are, thus, available for (re-)composition.19

During the short durée the constitution of ensembles is carried out by the processes in our brain that are or continue to remain activated. The ordering is based on fit and overlap as well as on information about the jumping of our eyes and about other ways we dealt with what was activated (the latter giving us the information where fit and overlap should be sought). Events that follow each other in real (physical) time can - and often do - appear in different sequence and in different order in the ensembles thus constituted.


What are these relations ?

All along I have been talking of relations among artists and their public as if it were clear what such relations are. The way I used the expression >relations< was the way in which we generally use most so-called abstract notions.

We treat such notions as if they were given as objects, as unearthly, ethereal objects. We deal with such notions assuming counterparts in real life, assuming that they refer to something, but we do not care to specify or even circumscribe what we believe these counterparts to be.

I suggest it would be too easy to side-step that issue. We have to confront the question what these relations are, where we find what we have labelled >relations<.

Relations exist in minds of individuals

Relations of public to artists are similar to relations to other public figures, i.e. the relations are non-personal. The presence to which one relates is - in most cases - an indirect presence, which does not imply co-presence of the public figure and the member of the public in the same physical space. Such relations have their existence in the minds of individuals. As a consequence they may be involved in the behaviour of the individuals concerned.

The pivotal link is often the name

When talking earlier about the various types of relations of viewers or readers to artists

I mentioned one relation that gets established in the overwhelming number of cases, a relation that is mediated by the name of the artist. The name often plays a pivotal role, since it is with the help of the name that we keep together whatever information we get about an artist. Thus, a work seen or read is most often linked to the name; when one hears about an exhibition one hears the name; when art is discussed reference is made to the artists with their names; and so forth.

Relations are ensembles

Relations between artists and their public as well as relations of viewers or readers to a work of art are constituted as ensembles. They are within ourselves.

Ensembles are built by adding trace to trace

Such ensembles develop by cumulative addition20

of newly received information onto already existing traces of earlier experiences. If present in our conscious mind they are activated traces of memory in interaction with the ongoing processing of incoming stimuli.

An example. We stand together and someone says: »Look! Over there, that is Doris Kareva!« - By the mere mentioning of her name a gamut of traces of memory are activated in the listener.

And the reaction: »Ah! That's her!« is one of the ways in which relations-to-a-name, relations-to-works-of-art, relations-to-feelings-once-experienced, relations-to-valuations-by-others and other such relations are getting newly interwoven with a dimension hitherto non existing in the person speaking: relations-to-sequences-of-images-of-a-living-person are added to and double up the links hitherto forged by the name.

Ensembles can be accessed via most of these traces

The points of access to these ensembles are manifold.

In the case of authors, they may be their name, a line in a poem or book, the title of a novel or a figure developed therein, a picture in a newspaper, the gist of the critique of the latest book, etc.

In general, ensembles can be accessed via each and every one of the traces that were established and connected in processes of cumulative addition.

An ever developing fabric

These ensembles are portions among other portions of the ever developing fabric of interrelated and interacting traces of processes involved in shaping and organizing our sensual and thinking experience in dealing with the world, with others, and with ourselves.

Relations between artists and members of their public - in their making, unmaking and remaking - are part of that ever changing fabric in their respective minds.

A different metaphor

A metaphor that would come closer to what I have tried to describe is a small watercourse as one finds them in many a mountain valley. Often there are many stones lying around. Some of them stand out, are higher than the surface of the water. In crossing such a brook one steps from stone to stone, using stones within reach. By putting one foot on the first stone, the second on the next, one reaches - step by step - the other side.

There was no bridge. Nothing continuous, nothing uninterrupted. Only separate stones. Yet, by putting one foot before the other, zigzagging or strait, by using what was available, one has reached the other side.

Bridging needs no bridges.

Bridging takes place in trying

within our respective selves.

© Arne Haselbach 1995


* Arne Haselbach "Artists and their public" in: "Artists facing society", Estonian National Commission for UNESCO, Tallin 1996, pp. 66-80

1 I shall deal only with the literary and visual arts. Including the performing arts, where the presence of creating or recreating artists leads to a great variety of multiple and overlapping relations, would complicate the argument far beyond the space available.

2 This statement suggests - contrary to widely shared belief - that, on the one hand, the intention to refer of a speaker or any presentator of symbols (including artists) is - by itself - of no direct relevance to the process of reference and that, on the other hand, symbols created (including works of art) and words spoken do not refer by themselves.

3 The processes that led to something appearing as beautiful are irrelevant to being beautiful. Something is beautiful (to someone), or it is not. The search for how something has come about is a mode of deferred interpretation, not a mode of instantaneous perceiving mediated by our senses.

4 What is trivial is the observation which is an everyday observation made time and again. Taking that observation seriously - not interpreting it away - has consequences that are anything but trivial.

5 Ludwig Wittgenstein, »Philosophical Investigations«, Part II, xi, passim, Oxford 1953. - As to how >uno actu< should be interpreted see my remarks on perceptual time and the >short durée< below.

6 Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit, Part II, xi, p. 200e.

7 »une explication du type: >Ceci, c'est en réalité seulement cela<.« in: Ludwig Wittgenstein, »Leçons sur l'Esthétique«, III, §22, in: »Leçons et conversations«, Textes établis par Cyril Barrett d'après les notes prises par Yarick Smithies, Rush Rhees and James Taylor, Gallimard, Paris 1971, p. 58

8 Paul Cézanne, »Über die Kunst«, Gepräche mit Gasquet, Briefe; Reinbek 1957, p. 13 /my translation

9 See Nelson Goodman, »Ways of Worldmaking«, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1978, where he refers to experiments undertaken by and reported in: Paul A. Kolers, »Aspects of Motion Perception«, Pergamon Press, Oxford 1972, p. 72-83

10 Auguste Rodin, »Rodin on Art and Artists«, Conversations with Paul Gsell, New York 1983, p. 34. The original publication: Rodin, »L'art«, Entretiens réunis par Paul Gsell, was published in Paris in 1911.

11 A way of thinking for which Norbert Elias uses the term >Zustandsreduktion<. See Norbert Elias, »Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation«, Frankfurt/M 1976, passim

12 Maurice Raynal, »Conception and Vision«, Gil Blas, 29 August 1912; reprinted (in English translation) in: Edward F. Fry, »Cubism«, London 1978, p. 95

13 This point has been developed largely following Elmar Holenstein's line of thought in: Arne Haselbach »On ways and patterns of thinking«, my contribution to the Ljubljana meeting on >Multiple identity: What is it? How does it work?<, Ljubljana 1995.

14 Auguste Rodin, op. cit, p. 32

15 Auguste Rodin, op. cit, p. 33

16 Auguste Rodin, op. cit, p. 35

17 See E. Pöppel, »Die Grenzen des Bewußtseins. Über Wirklichkeit und Welterfahrung«, Stuttgart 1985

18 See the chapter on >Motion< in: Nicholas J. Wade and Michael Swanston, »Visual Perception«, Routledge, London 1991, pp. 129-163

19 I am fully aware that this statement implies an enormous number of operations going on in our brain during any such period. I would like to remind anyone who challenges this assumption (e.g. on the basis of the well established fact that we can retain only a very limited number of unrelated data (5 to 7) in our immediate memory) that the number of receptors in our retina is in the order of 125 million, that the number of cells in the brain is in the order of 10 12 (a million million), and that the number of connections in the brain is in the order of 10 15 (a thousand million million). Mistaking conscious memory for total information processed, construing a single datum as one single unit of information, and accepting the normative notion of simplicity as a description of what goes on in our brain, are some of the fallacies involved in projecting a monstrously decapacitated human mind.

20 My notion >cumulative addition< should not be mistaken for the notion of addition as used in mathematics. Cumulative addition does not produce a sum total; rather it produces a plurality of similar or complementary traces of experience, traces that are interconnected, interwoven, and overlapping.