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On the Art of Reception

by Abhimanyu Kumar

“ . . . For levelling to function properly, there needs to be a phantom, a pure abstraction. It is the public. There was no public in antiquity, not in passionate times (then it was the nation, parties and so on, i.e. full-bodied individual associations of active people). The public is a creation of the press when the latter alone is to be active in a passionate age. . . . (When an energetic people level it is no empty abstraction.)” – Soren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals: A Selection

Danish philosopher Kierkegaard was no lover of what is generally termed public opinion, as the above-mentioned excerpt from his journals clearly shows. But what stands out more than his disregard for public or majority opinion is his assertion that the Public itself is a mythical beast, a chimera, which has been wholly created by the modern press, to give credence and weight to its own opinions. In our times, where art and artists are being declared as non-essential by the Public [1], politicians are asking artists to look for other jobs. [2] We need to make sure that good art does not lose its value through excessive reliance on mass acceptance or the sole approval of the Public. But for that, it is equally necessary to understand how the construct of the Public first entered public discourse and how that has shaped the reception of art since antiquity. The work of Kierkegaard is invaluable in this aspect, as he remains perhaps the only philosopher to deconstruct the notion of the Public itself.

Certainly, in the absence of mass education, and lack of voting rights in particular, no Public existed before modern times, except perhaps in Greece as has been recorded in history. Kierkegaard also acknowledges this by calling Socrates the First Martyr of the Ballot elsewhere in his journals. This is indeed true because Socrates was condemned to death only after the Public voted in favour of his execution.

Kierkegaard did have a personal grudge against the Danish press, in particular against a tabloid with which he picked up a quarrel with and the latter went after Kierkegaard in typical tabloid style, making the fight personal. This led to a situation where children would comment on Kierkegaard’s sartorial style – even the make of his trousers – in the streets and cafes he frequented, to his great chagrin.

But to reduce everything to only his personal pique with the Danish popular press would be doing him a disservice as his overarching theory about the role of the single individual in society versus the abstract notion of the Public remains valid.

For Kierkegaard, the majority was a bully, which rarely possessed the truth, as he wrote in his other works on the subject. The majority, by dint of its superior social clout oppressed the single individual, Kierkegaard believed, depriving him or her from realizing his or her full potential and the ability to shape society. The truth, he wrote, was always with the minority or the single individual and the majority simply latched on to it as and when the need arose.

It can be argued, as Kierkegaard does, that this idea of a Public really originated after the end of the feudal system of rule, wherein the polity was divided into elites and serfs – consisting of artisans, and farmers. The serfs had no power or privileges. They were tied from birth to their traditional professions, and merely subsisted on their meagre earnings without ever realizing what it meant to be an autonomous being with choices when it came to their rulers or even their own bodies and spirit. It was only with democracy that the autonomous individual came into being, with rights over his or her own person and choices when it came to governance, particularly the right to vote. With education and enlightenment came greater awareness of being an individual – literally an entity that cannot be divided into any further units; and when many individuals were put together, that of the Public.

So far so good. But for Kierkegaard, the relationship between the individual and the Public became skewed thereafter. The Public took over, bolstered by the modern press, which claimed to speak on its behalf. The single individual was reduced to the role of a contrarian in the case of being a dissenter to majority opinion – tolerated as an oddity or as homage to the principle of freedom of speech – but not really paid serious attention to.

But what interests us here is to apply Kierkegaard’s views to art and then analyse how the Public reception of the arts affects the process of making art.

Before the mythical Public came into being, artists were not dependent on pleasing it with their output. Kings and the nobility were the patrons of arts and this remained the situation till modern times and the advent of democracy. Writers, poets, and musicians would compose their works for the king or a noble, to whom they often dedicated the fruits of their labour.

But liberal democracy changed that. The reception of the arts became the responsibility of the Public with the fall of feudalism – in itself a welcome thing.

The role of Capital inextricably tied to the rise of liberal democracy must also be considered. Marx and Engels were clear in their writings on arts and literature that capitalism was ‘hostile’ to certain branches of ‘spiritual production’, especially poetry, [3] as I observed in “Leaving Behind the Stardust: Inder Salim and a life sacrificed to art”.[4] Capital is only interested in commodities, and not all art can be reduced to such a status, which explains the disinterest capital shows in them.

This eco-system, where the Public and Capital dominate the reception of the arts in our times, with neither the training nor the appreciation required for the purpose present in any a priori manner, is severely detrimental to an artist and his work. It is this that gives rise to the curious phenomenon of an artist being ahead of his times or even the stereotype of the Starving Artist, like Van Gogh; one could say the artist is always of his times but it is the Public which takes time to catch up. Closer home, nothing else explains why the marvellous films of a bonafide auteur like Guru Dutt flopped, only to be later hailed as classics (Pyasa and Kagaz ke Phool). Such examples are legion. At the same time, we also know that an excessive reliance on this mythical public opinion is placed in Communist regimes, where the Public sometimes becomes a ruse for the Party to oppress artists if they do not fit in or follow the dogma.

Where then does the artist go from here? I believe the only way out is for the artist to also become a campaigner and a critic and mould sensibilities as they produce their art. Only this way can an alternate eco-system be created, not dominated by Capital and its interests, and without the excessive reliance on Public and its fickle tastes. It is only through expanding their artistic practice – by including the manner of reception of their art and actively creating a self-aware audience for it –that artists can hope to be acknowledged for what they do. In practical terms it would mean speaking about their artistic practice more often, and to create ways – groups on social media, mailing lists ,etc. – to make sure their art reaches those who are genuinely interested. Simply creating art and hoping the Public will take to it on its own is no more an idea that works, and perhaps never really did in the first place.

Notes and References

1. “Are art workers non-essential?” Opinion News & Top Stories, The Straits Times. 18 June 2020

2. "Liam Gallagher, Ian Rankin, Sue Perkins and more condemn Rishi Sunak for appearing to suggest art workers 'find other jobs' '', The Independent, 6 October 2020

3. “For instance, capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry.” Marx and Engels, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I.

4. "Leaving Behind the Stardust: Inder Salim and a life sacrificed to art", Abhimanyu Kumar, thechakkar blog, 17 November 2020.

(Book cover image courtesy of Abhimanyu Kumar.)


Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist. He writes on politics and culture for several publications. He edits the online literary journal sunflowercollective.

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