Art vs. Fame

Audience response is good for any artist. Too much or too little may be problematic.

The name of this article may be way off base. The two title concepts are definitely interconnected, but whether the relationship is a war or an arrangement of mutual benefit is arguable.

The problem is that fame has a specific effect on the way an artist performs his or her art. Not that there’s anything wrong with this. In essence, art is communication, and audience feedback is an important part of the process. If you get the right kind of feedback.

The complication that we are dealing with in this article is the fact that different types of people choose different arts. Which is as it should be, but it does affect how fame influences them and their art.

Acting, Especially in Films

Performance tends to be chosen by people who thrive on immediate audience response. In fact, the live theatre performance is often described as a collaborative emotional experience, where the actor sends the emotion across the footlights, the audience responds, and the actor responds in turn. This is what makes a stage performance so exciting. Watching an actor deliver the same joke 40 nights in a row, and listening to how the audience response develops as the actor hones his craft, gives a great demonstration of how this two-way communication works to the advantage of everyone.

The film industry contains a grossly distorted version of this interplay. The emotion of the actor is filtered through the complex post-production process, with many other artists using their own talents to bolster and refine it before it reaches the audience. In the best results, this intensifies and refines the emotion. The downside is that the artistic communication of the emotion is one-way. Audience members are thrown into a completely passive situation and leave the cinema with a pent-up need to react personally to someone, some way. The actor on his part must postpone receiving the audience response until after the film is presented, usually months from his performance for the cameras.

The problem with this gap is that the response the actor receives down the road is no longer directed towards his performance; it is towards the performer as a person. This is not healthy for the ego involved, because there is no artistic filter for the emotions.

The mature audience member is aware that the character being performed is not the actor himself. The balanced stage actor realizes that the audience is responding to the play and the role, not to himself as a person. He can step backstage, take off his makeup, and state with pride, “Boy, they sure hated me tonight!”

However, the film actor receiving the adulation of his fan base is receiving a complex combination of approval for the art, the artist, and mostly the person. As we are constantly being reminded by their behaviour, film stars are just normal people who placed in an abnormal situation who don’t always handle it with aplomb and maturity. So the worst effect of fame on movie stars is on the personal lives of the actors themselves. The true artistic feedback which affects the decision-making part of the artistic process is received more by the directors and producers than by the performers. Not a great method for actor development. The actor can’t act for his audience; he must act for the cameras, which is impossible, and for the director, who gives him the only real artistic feedback he gets. Bottom line: he really needs that post-production help, and often he becomes stuck in the same successful rut for years.

Painters (and Sculptors as well)

Painting takes us to exactly the opposite end of the fame spectrum. Painters don’t expect fame from their work. In fact, painters traditionally have to wait so long to receive the accolades they deserve that often it’s too late to enjoy them. Thus a different type of person takes up painting as an art. Painters are much more self-contained than actors, and depend much less on public approval for artistic and personal validation. However realistic these people may be about the fleeting nature of fame, this is not necessarily an asset to their art.

The artist works in a critical vacuum. He may paint many works in any specific series before he shows any of them to anyone. He works for himself. He takes his artistic genius in the direction that appeals to himself alone. This can result in wonderful creativity, but can also result in a complete disconnect with most of the rest of the human race.

Here’s how it goes: if an artist is aware of his audience and paints to please them, he is likely to paint works like those that have proven successful in the past. He is thus a follower, a copier of styles. However, with skill and salesmanship, he can reach a lot of people and make a reasonable amount of money at it. Sort of like a film actor.

If he is more individualistic, he moves in his own direction, creating new styles and ideas. In this case, only the audience that can understand what he is trying to do will appreciate his work, and his sales numbers will drop, although his prices may rise. If the artist moves, as many of them do, further and further into the realm of his own individual expression, the number of people who can follow and understand him becomes smaller and smaller, until finally he may be working for himself alone, and very few people will be able to enjoy his work.


This is the same movement that leads to the charge of “ivory towerism” in academics; as the topics of their research become more and more esoteric, the people who can understand what they are talking about become fewer and fewer and their connection to the reality of the rest of humanity disappears. Same with any scientific pursuit. Human knowledge about some topics (particle physics, for example) is so deep that it requires a university degree to be able to read the texts, let alone understand their ideas.


Symphony orchestra conductors are torn by this difference. Their audience wants to hear Bach, Beethoven and Strauss, while their musicians are terminally bored by the stuff they’ve been playing since they were twelve years old, and want something more challenging and interesting. The result is a season filled with the same old same old (ticket receipts pay the bills, after all), spiced with just enough “modern” music to keep the musicians from open rebellion, and persuade the patrons that they are being progressive.

So we see that film actors sometimes achieve fame and die because of it, while painters rarely experience fame, and often have to die in order to achieve it. By the same token, film actors play to the largest audience they can reach, which keeps them firmly within the safe boundaries of their art, while painters ignore the boundaries, but often reach no audience at all.

And then there’s the viewing public, who might be forgiven for finding this whole situation ludicrous. Reactions to movie stars range from, “I don’t care what the movie is about. It’s got Justin Timberlake in it,” through, “OMG, it’s Adam Sandler playing Adam Sandler again, all the way to “How did that idiot become a famous actor?”  Reactions to art range from, “My kid could have painted that,” (which means “I don’t understand it at all,”) through, “I don’t understand modern art, but I know what I like,” (which means, “I don’t understand it at all, but the colours will go nicely with my new sofa,”) all the way to, “Don’t you like the way he has achieved a balance of space and form, with the contrasting unbalanced seasonal motifs and such an enticing palette!” (which means, “I don’t understand it at all, but I know all the buzzwords.”)

Look on the bright side, folks. Think how boring life would be if everyone strove for moderation.