Who Is Your Art For?

One winter night my friends and I were walking through our little borough of West Chester. Salt lay on the brick sidewalks and smokers were stamping under the bare trees. The restaurants and bars were packed to the windows with people warming their hands over drinks. We stopped in a place called The Social Lounge for music and a drink.

Inside was close and dark. The band squalled in that small space; we had to shout into each other’s ears and push to find standing room. My friend Macarena (I like to call her “Chica”) squeezed between elbows and arms to the front of the stage where she began to dance. She caught the attention of the saxophone player. He stepped off the low stage and planted his legs in front of her, and ignoring everyone else, addressed his notes to her alone.

Until then he may have been playing for himself, or maybe for the nameless, chatting crowd. Now he was playing for one person only. Maca smiled and kept dancing. People stopped their conversations and put down their drinks. Now they were listening.

I’ve written before that if you’re a gifted artist, you should take your craft seriously because someone needs your art. Of course this raises the question: who? Given the often subjective and personal nature of art, I think that, like the saxophone player, we artists should think less about the audience and more about the person we want to make art for.

Getting Personal

Now, I realize some people may disagree here. Like J. K. Rowling, for example.

J. K. Rowling may write Harry Potter novels for herself, and that’s okay. It’s important that you love the work and everything about it. Love is an essential ingredient to good art. Love, even amusement, sustains craft. But when it comes to readers, Annie Dillard offers a slightly different perspective in The Writing Life:

I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.

In other words, why spend your life making art for people who will never appreciate it? Instead, make it for the people who will. John Steinbeck gets even more specific:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

In summary: having someone in mind when you’re making art is important—and powerful. Robert Bruce writes for one person, though he will never reveal who that person is. Steinbeck wrote East of Eden for his two sons.

This doesn’t just go for the writers of prose, however. The same principle applies to wannabe screenwriters and filmmakers. In his screenwriting guide Save the Cat! Blake Snyder encourages aspiring screenwriters to make sure their film idea includes a “built-in sense of who it’s for and what it’s going to cost.” After all, it’s one of the first things producers will want to know is because it helps them to determine a variety of important factors, including budget, marketing, even casting.

If this “single audience” principle applies to writers and filmmakers, then chances are it applies to painters, sculptors, musicians, and dancers, too.

Who are you making art for? If you don’t have a specific person in mind, what if you were to write up a persona or character profile of that person? To flesh her out more as you learn her fears, her questions, her dreams, her hopes? To find out where she lives and how she spends her time?

I think that art is intensely personal, not only for the artist, but also for one who experiences it. We never experience art as a homogenous collective. Art almost always affects us uniquely and individually. So it seems plausible that the most effective artists are the ones who create for someone.

If you try to address a blank crowd, you may discover you’re speaking to an empty room. If, like the saxophone player, you make art for one person, you may find that you are more capable of touching many others.

What do you think? Does making art for one person apply to other forms besides writing? Let me know in the comments—I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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