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What’s Mine is Yours… except when it’s mine
Colin James Haslett
Art belongs to the audience. Period. End of discussion.

I am an artist. I’m an actor, a writer, a game designer, and I keep meaning to be a painter again if I can ever get myself to an art supply store. In addition to doing these things I’ve also studied them to various degrees. And I’ve studied and pondered and discussed the nature of art with other artists. So, while I’m no authority on the subject, I think I’m qualified to put forth my two cents as to who owns what.
But first I should point out that I am not a lawyer. My opinions have no more foundation in law than common sense and some simple ethics, so there’s probably no foundation at all. And I’m not talking about copyright or residuals or estates here. This isn’t about what lawyers for huge corporations say, or what supreme court justices far removed from the real world say, or what lawmakers in parliament and the back pockets of those same huge corporations say. It’s not even about what multi-millionaire rock stars and movie moguls say. This is about what one artist says. About art. And about who that art belongs to.

Art belongs to the audience. Period. End of discussion.

Well, almost the end of discussion because there are some ifs, ands, and buts.
IF an artist keeps his work a secret and never shows it to anybody else then it’s his. AND that’s about the only exception. BUT he is still an audience. Probably not the qualifiers that my artist friends were looking for, so I’d best explain myself. Art is, at it’s heart, a form of communication: the artist wants to say something, to convey some idea or feeling or principle with his art. A painting of a bowl of fruit, a photograph of someone’s mother, a poem to a lost love, a film about two guys in a car; no matter how simple or cliched or iconic a piece of art may seem the artist is trying to communicate with it. All communication can be broken down into two components, the symbol and the symbolized. A symbol is any device or artifice which represents something else and the symbolized is the something else. I really can’t give a better definition than that, not without sounding like one of my old university professors and using unnecessarily big words and esoteric arguments (and you thought I did that already). I could try to give some examples, but the problem would be using written words, which are symbols themselves, to explain the idea of the symbolized. Bear with me, I think this might work.

Trees Tree.
That’s a symbol. You know what it symbolizes, I hope, you’ve probably seen one in a park. Other common symbols for it include the spoken form of that word, various visual representations, including photos, paintings and carvings, and a very nice little poem by Joyce Kilmer. The difficulty, even in as simple a case as this one, is that the symbolized is different for each and every one of us.
Everyone who read that word had something pop into their head and no two of those things going pop were identical. Some of you thought of a pine tree, some a palm. Some of you thought of a tree in a forest in winter, some in your living rooms at Christmas. Some of you thought of a specific, particular tree from your memories, some of a generic amalgam of every tree and tree symbol you’ve ever seen. And none of you saw the tree that I saw in my mind’s eye when I typed that word, which is why the audience owns all art.

An artist is trying to communicate something with his art. He is using symbols to convey a symbolized that exists only in his head, heart, and soul to his audience, to the minds, hearts or souls of his audience. But the simple fact is that he can not ever completely succeed. If a simple four letter work like tree evokes a different response, a different image in the minds of everyone who reads it, imagine how impossible it is to evoke precisely the same response in an audience with a painting or a sonnet or a two hour play or an eight hundred page novel. To be fair, an artist is unlikely to use something as generic as the word tree as his art. But "tall, verdant, snow covered pine tree on a lonely outcrop of rock" won’t evoke the identical mental image or emotional response in any two readers either. Even a photograph of a particular tree won’t evoke the same response in an audience because no two of us see that photograph through the same frame of reference. Every person sees the present filtered through the lens of his own personal history and everyone’s personal history is unique. Even conjoined twins, linked at the hip, see the world from twelve inches apart. Although an audience might share a common language, a history, a culture, even a belief system the individual members of that audience nonetheless perceive the world, and any piece of art in it, in slightly different ways. But what’s most important is that the audience will see that art differently than what the artist was trying to convey.

An artist creates a symbol, but it is ultimately up to the audience what that symbol means, what the symbolized is. A skilled artist will create a symbol that means basically the same thing to his entire or intended audience as it does to him but it is not identical, it is impossible for it ever to be identical. The audience is the final arbiter of meaning because it is the audience that provides the final symbolized, their own. The audience owns the symbolized belonging to their individual frames of reference, therefore the audience owns the meaning in their minds and hearts and souls, and therefore the audience owns the art.

Unless the artist never gives his art to an audience. If he keeps it secret, for whatever reason, then its meaning is the meaning he meant for it, and it belongs to him, the artist. Over time, however, as his wealth of experience grows, as his own frame of reference changes, then his art will symbolize something new to him. He will have become an audience but he will still be the sole owner of his art. I am an artist, and my art belongs to my audience. But some of my stuff, I don’t show it to anyone else. Some of it is just too personal, and some of it is just too horrible, and some of it is just incomprehensible. And that stuff is mine.

© Colin James Haslett

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