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Omphaloskepsis Blog

The respectful conversation: Viewer intention and responsibility in the art experience

Sep 28, 2011


Dart Accident, Latex on Canvas, 2011, 63" x 50. Thomas and I have begun work again, and we've begun sessions of RadioLab listening, and fits of laughter. By the way, Jad Abumrad just won a MacArthur!

The conversation keeps going around and around. Intention, experience, responsibility. Kolya say's - who cares about the artist's intention? It doesn't matter in respect to the experience of the viewer. The viewer will have an experience unrelated to the intention of the artist. Yes, I agree. And, are these things not interconnected?

What about the viewer's intention? What about the viewer's experience and the viewer's responsibility? All that depends on who you are, where you are, and when you are there. For example, if you are an artist-viewer in an art gallery at an opening, your intention will not be to absorb the art and have an experience from it, it will be to hobnob with the other artists, curators, press, gallerists, and intelligentsia. Networking. (there are some good tips on my blog post here)


Wow! This just shouldn't happen! Thomas set this up ingeniously using slivers of cork taped to his skin under his wifebeater. When he was done the effect was so real looking, I turned around, it took me off guard. My brain went into hyperdrive. I knew it wasn't real, but it looked so authentic and fell into paroxysms of laughter!

However, that's not quite the arena I had in mind. That venue is neither about making nor viewing art. I'm strictly speaking about viewing art. Are you in a museum, a gallery, a fair, an artist's studio--where are you? Are you there to kill time, learn something about history, see something beautiful, get some quiet, be entertained, fall in love, why are you there? Are you an artist, art critic or curator, art historian, art lover, curious, dragged there by a friend, a dog walker, a fisherman, a business person, a shopper, who are you? How are you coming at this? What do you want to get out of your art viewing experience?


Spear Fishing Accident, Latex on Canvas, 2011, 61" x 50. In conducting research for this I watched a self-made video by a spear fisherman who loaded his equipment carelessly and upon firing, the spear shot backward and into him!

Here in Seattle, over and over, I bang up against the idea of why an artist makes art. It reminds me of Gilda Radner’s skit of the school girl throwing herself up against the wall over and over again, bam bam bam. It's an energetic discussion. I’ve observed an air of defensiveness in the "I make art for me" crowd. What really surprises me is the "they don't get me and I'm so offended" statement (which is different from the “I make art for me,” but occasionally follows). Of course this is because of my own philosophy on art-making.

Why do I make art? Why do I make art? Why do I make art? I really thought it was the same for all artists. But it's not. Although, I derrive pleasure from making discoveries and learning, the greatest pleasure I get is in sharing my work. The work I create is not a painting its an experience, even if the physical form manifests as a painting.

Painting has been getting some flack in the Northwest lately. Which is baffling to me. It's relevant now. Those art critics and historians who think it's not are missing a huge part of the picture.

We are all human beings having a human experience. We are all made up of the same material–the same material as all the other molecules in the world, exchanging energy. When you stand in front of a painting–there is the painting, there is you, and there is the physical space charged with energy between you and the painting that would not be there were both the unique conditions of you AND the painting not met. If the painting is a strong painting, and if you give yourself over to the INTENTION of having an experience, then you will know which paintings are successful. You'll know because they embody energy that leaps out into the space between you and the painting, into your body, and surrounds you-envelops you. They sizzle and crackle with life that is not of them, not of you, but a collaboration between you which creates a third something.

In my not-so-humble opinion, that's what great painting, and great art, accomplishes. And in doing so, as Robert Hughes said, it teaches us something about the world we live in.


I make my work to share, and that gives me pleasure. It could never be the other way around. That would quell the flow entirely. Through my work I share my joy, my fun, my humor, my intellect, my emotion, my sensitivity and the example that we are all completely free. What you as a viewer get from my work has also to do with what your own life experiences are, what your own stereotypes are, your thoughts, memories, feelings. It may be completely different from what I brought to the making of the work. But when I create it with intensity, focus, and intention of experience, it's success depends on you and more than just barely a ripple of experience, but rather a monsoon of experiences.

For example, ONE of the major things the Non-ordinary Reality (water) series enlists is neuro- research, the paintings trigger auditory receptors in the visual cortex. According to unsolicited feedback, it works. The Accident Paintings, on the other hand, use humor to disarm a viewer and make her more receptive to other things the painting has to offer.

Creation of Melancholy Fate by Supreme Being

I’m in a conversation with the viewer, a very complex conversation, one that functions on visceral, emotional, instinctual, visual, spiritual, neurological and intellectual levels. How awesome is that?! And as if that weren’t already too much awesomeness to take, I get to have this conversation with any medium or combination I choose, and often do!- installation, painting, performance, sound, food, sculpture, curating, writing.

The true work of art, Kandinsky observed, detaches itself from the artist and takes on its own life, becoming an independent being animated with spiritual breath. In my work I do not so much accede to this as seek it. How can it be any other way? Art connects us. It tells us we’re human, we’re like each other, we feel. That’s my mission as a human and my job as an artist to bring about situations through art where this can happen. If art must teach us something about the world we live in, it teaches us that we must reach out to others, that to dig deeper reaps rewards, and that we share the human condition.

And because we share this condition, or affliction as some might say, Kolya seems dead on. My intention, all the prose above, who cares. It doesn't matter once the product is on display for public consumption. The responsibility then lies in the hands of the viewer. The greater the participation and emotional investment in a piece, the more responsibility the viewer must take for their own experience, according to Olafur Eliasson. As a viewer, what's your intention when you look at art? Are you even aware of having one? And how might being aware change your viewing experience?

Category: Philosophy

Please add a comment

Posted by Deborah Freng on
Kate, I strongly concur with your comments regarding "the respectful conversation". I think of Art making and viewing as sensory engagement at every level. The viewer's backstory compounds visual tension. Your work engages from myriad and unexpected depths. I never tire of your imagery. Deb Freng
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