Preconceived Audiences or a Public that Cannot Be Known in Advance?

In reading Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art, I kept thinking back to Michael Warner and especially his argument that a public does not exist until discourse creates it: “A public sets its boundaries and its organization by its own discourse rather than by external frameworks only if it openly addresses people who are identified primarily through their participation in the discourse and who therefore cannot be known in advance” (56).

In contrast, Helguera writes, “Most curators and artists…have expressed wariness about the notion of a preconceived audience. To them, it sounds reductive and prone to mistakes…I usually turn the question the other way around: is it possible to not conceive of an audience for your work, to create an experience that is intended to be public without the slightest bias toward a particular kind of interlocutor?” (24).

I’m interested in this tension between preconceived audiences and publics that cannot be known in advance. While Warner’s work remains useful, I feel a stronger resonance with Helguera, perhaps because he more explicitly addresses what it means for a particular individual to organize or hail a public, and how this individual is part of the audience. He writes, “What is usually not questioned, however, is how one’s notion of one’s self is created. It is the construct of a vast collectivity of people who have influenced one’s thoughts and one’s values, and to speak to one’s self is more than a solipsistic exercise—it is rather, a silent way of speaking to the portion of civilization that is summarized in our minds” (24-25).

How do we, as cultural workers and members of publics, more honestly recognize how our selves are created and the ways in which our values overlap with audiences we work with?  At what point does the “civilization summarized in our minds” get replaced with actual individuals?

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