This is a quote from Arnold Schoenberg, one of my compositional heroes. I think about this idea of his a great deal. As a composer of "post-classical 21st century avant-garde art" music, I am always trying to find the path between composing the music that is the truest expression of who I am as a composer and composing music that will engage and speak to listeners, musicians and lay people alike. On one hand, I am not interested in creating art "for the people", but on the other hand, I would like to widen my listener circle a bit.
To me, art is any creative endeavor that has originality and is richly multilayered. I don't believe that art can happen when one is creating for The Audience. The Audience is made up of a multitude of individuals with countless different tastes and preferences. Trying to create art that this multitude will "like" results in lowest common denominator banality, and I believe that this is what Schoenberg is talking about. Better is to strive towards creating work that has depth, originality and richness. Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin says "Giving the people what they want isn't nearly as powerful as teaching them what they need."
The question is not how do we create art that people will like, but rather how do we get people to like the art we create? First, I would propose replacing the word "like" with the word "value". Second, I would replace the word "get" with the word "invite". How do we invite people to value art? That's the question. Liking or not liking something is almost immaterial. Some of my most treasured artistic experiences have been when I wasn't sure what my emotional response to something was, I only knew that I was having a profound experience that was deeply valuable to me. This is not a production issue, this is an issue of marketing and education. How can the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for example, educate their audience members about valuing the experience of hearing something new and unfamiliar?
Olivia Zorn, a high school senior at Boston Latin, did research on this topic as it relates to visual art for her Capstone Project. (you can watch her TEDTalk here: http://ozcapstonebls.weebly.com/tedx-talk.html). She went to the MFA and timed how long museum visitors looked at representational art versus abstract art. Amongst other things, she discovered that people tended to linger longer at the things with which they were most familiar. Olivia suggests that the first step towards engaging observers is to encourage them to spend time looking at the unfamiliar; not just seeing, but involved looking and observing. Second, she would encourage people to describe the basic building blocks used in a work of art, and to describe how those building blocks are used similarly or differently in something that is unfamiliar. Third, she suggests that the observer be encouraged to react, to take part in the experience, to try to define what exactly it is he/she is feeling or thinking when approaching something new.
Because music travels through time, listeners don't have the luxury of taking time to observe. But one can certainly try to pay careful attention to what one is hearing- to really listen rather than to hear. My wish is that people would love the experience of not understanding what they are hearing at first. Why are some people so afraid of this?
I don't have answers. I do know that when I have been asked to give talks on my music prior to performances, the audience is much more predisposed to listening carefully to my music, to valuing the experience of hearing something new. But the marketing and education needs to happen before people decide to go or not to go to a concert. Somehow, the experience of hearing (or seeing, or reading, etc.) something new and unfamiliar needs to be given a context of excitement and worth- the act of original creativity is, after all, one of the things that makes us human, that makes life thrilling.