Bums on Seats

It’s a saying in the wings of theatres across these islands: “Bums on seats, dear: bums on seats.”

And in that theatrical overblown phrase is a world of meaning.

It’s like this: theatre and the world of words, it’s an art: but even artists have to make a living.

They can write words straight from the mouths of the Gods: but if it doesn’t sell, one ends up on the street without a roof over one’s head.

Yes, create, by all means create, it intimates. But part of creation is an audience, a hard-edged, fee paying audience. Bums on seats, love.

Look at Shakespeare: the perfect marriage of sublime talents and a paying audience in the stalls(or in the pit) ; or Mozart, who alongside his high falluting operas composed stuff the bawdy man in the street could appreciate.

Art must appeal, the philosophy goes. To everyone.

Three years before the dawn of the eighteenth century, a hapless Latin teacher and textbook writer, and his wife, had a son.

The little chap grew strong and well, and became an apprentice in a trade which was down-to-earth: it was an earner. He would never be short of a moderate income. He went to work for Ellis Gamble, an engraver in Leicester Fields. Gamble ran a great line in trade cards.

Anything but art for art’s sake, these were the forerunner to business cards: often intricately detailed, they advertised a business’s strength. They might have a slogan, and they would invariably have a picture to advertise their wares. Businesses needed them to spread the word: and so they were a steady money-spinner.

The young man in question was a William Hogarth, and he possessed talent way beyond the engraver’s plate. In his spare time, he wandered out into the streets of London to sketch what he saw.

What he found – and what he portrayed – are immortal, these days. Not universally loved, but immortal. He found his feet as an engraver in his own right, and began to sell satirical cartoons. They are anything but beautiful.Hogarth knew far too much about human nature for that, and chose to make his knowledge explicit rather than denying it to himself and others.

He obtained his artist’s education, joining the St Martin’s Lane Academy in 1720 and befriending many fellow artists.

He had a bent for political stuff. A cartoon satirizing the crash of the South Sea Bubble proved that his wit could sell.

He began to paint and engrave prolifically: always his subjects were in a searingly real situation, warts and all.Four Times of the Day (1736)Β shows four London scenes: each with a member of the middle classes making their way through much poorer people than themselves: a spinster going to church in Covent Garden; a dyer’s family returning from Sadler’s Wells; an inebriated freemason returning home.

Always the poor are there: warming themselves at makeshift fires, children playing or crying, mothers attempting to make a living, selling pies or themselves.

Hogarth’s work is searing. But his paintings never shy away from saying what needs to be said.

They also made him a lot of money.

In 1740 he donated a painting of the London Foundling Hospital’s founder, Sir Thomas Coram. His involvement with the hospital for orphans would span the next 25 years.

Because both as artist and philanthropist, he stood by it. He used his connections to create a collection of contemporary art of the time for it; he was a governor, designed the children’s’ uniforms, and was an inspector of wet-nurses for the hospital.

The Foundling Hospital was far from perfect: but it was better, he knew, than the street. That yawning chasm where humanity could so often find its worst side.

He never failed to fund his art. He went out and found his audience.

Phil read this: and we have become embroiled in raging debate. He says art should not have to pay. I think an audience – and the money they bring – is part of the creation itself. Thus, Hogarth is a hero of mine. I believe every great artist puts bums on seats.

“Well, what about Van Gogh?” Phil rejoined. “Where does he fit in?”

We sat in silence for a minute, to consider one of the greatest artists of all time, who never made a great deal of money from his work. He only began to attract attention in the late 1880s, just a couple of years before his death. These days his works fetch tens of millions of dollars.

My words slipped out before I could correct them. “Van Gogh found his audience all right,” I answered. “It’s just that he was too dead to appreciate it.”

Recognition takes time.

And we have only one lifetime to put bums on seats.



45 thoughts on “Bums on Seats

  1. Haha – what a pain being too dead! A lot of artists are looking on from above or below, lamenting their lack of funds in life, but would they have changed a thing – probably not πŸ™‚

    1. I think it’s possible to spend one’s life working towards an audience, Gabrielle…all us writers work busily towards them, sending off to publishers an so on. Blogging is a rather wonderful development: even though these little arenas of ours do not pay, it’s such fun to share work with others.

  2. I think all art is created for posterity in one way or another, Kate. If recognition is attained during the artist’s lifetime then he is lucky. If not, well posterity will be the judge.

      1. He did, Nancy, but not because he had not found an audience, and not because people did not choose to pay for what he wrote and performed. He was appointed Emperor Joseph’s chamber composer. His lavish lifestyle meant the huge sums he had made in concerts disappeared and he did die with debts: but after he died his wife Constanze got a pension from the emperor and then held concerts of Mozart’s music and published his work- thus making her comfortable for life. Mozart never failed to put bums on seats. What he did with the box office proceeds, now: that’s another matter.

  3. different art forms find their audiences over different timespans. Performance art used to be ephemeral (until the advent of recording sound and sight), back then immediate “bums on seats dear”, was vital to keep earning to keep doing. Now it’s ipod earphones in ears, dvd’s in players as well as bums on seats.

    The more permanent art forms sometimes are only recognisable as art in a timeframe other than when they were created. pretty hard financially for the artist though ;-(

    Some interesting thoughts though. Phil is being too much the purist maybe?

    1. Yup, it brings back the artist-starving-in-garrett picture, Sidey.
      Phil is indeed a purist: he becomes frustrated by those who pander to commercialism. He cites Paul McCartney, who writes commercial hit after commercial hit, and Lennon, whose melodies could be seen as not just saleable, but profound genius.
      Phil and I were thinking: is it possible that great works of art exist, done by complete unknowns, and have never seen the light of day? I’m generalising in this post by saying the great art will always find its way out. Look at Anne Frank. But imagine a great novel was written and buried in rubble during WWII during the raids along with its creator. If it’s not perceived by an audience, yet is still a masterpiece, how important is the perception in the very work of art itself? Those beautifully crafted words only ever enriched one life: its creator. To me it seems that masterpiece had less than a half-life.

  4. Style conflicts with subject matter. Much too baroque for underclass porteayals and they don’t look so underclass. When I think of the common people, yes that demands Van Gogh’s style and Diego ??Rivera comes to mind as we.Thanks for art history lesson.

    1. πŸ˜€ Hogarth has always perplexed people because of that very conflict, Carl.His greatest strength was not his classical style but his social comment. His paintings do not ‘look’ rough and honest and poor. In truth, rich people would not have bought them had they been so. Style, along with much else for this man, was a matter of catering for the audience. Your work reminds me of the satire of some of the 18th century London cartoonists.

  5. Great post, Kate, and much to ponder as I sit here, with my bum on a non-paying seat. It is interesting to read about Hogarth, of whom I knew little about excepting his name, which makes me think of Hogwarts.

    1. His stuff is quite grotesque, Penny. He came to mind because tomorrow, with Maddie, I’m off to his Foundling Hospital to meet a lady author who has captured the hearts of teenage girls with her portrayal of Hetty Feather, a foundling from his hospital: the author’s name is Jacqueline Wilson. Hetty would have benefitted from his hard-nosed attitude to keeping well away from those London streets.

      I would not say, though, that those of us who love to write with small audiences should not do so: I adore blogging, even though the seats are not paying, and I get so much pleasure from the fellowship here. Rather, I feel that the truly great usually makes its way and finds its audience: even Thoreau, with his humble beginnings, is known across the globe now. Art will out, because audience is part of the deal. It may not get those bums on seats in a life time: but Thoreau’s quest to write from his heart found an international, enduring audience.

      1. Amen to that, Kate. I forget that Thoreau’s influence goes beyond the US’s borders. There is a fellowship in blogging and it has opened my world up to people and books and ideas and history beyond my wildest dreams a few years ago. Take care, dear Kate.

  6. Kate, this is very interesting, and I LOVE the expression ‘bums on seats’….

    Be sure to read Andra’s post today. As I said to her, it’s very interesting that you and she would both write on the same day, on the same subject, yet from such different approaches. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Karen, I hotfooted it over there straight away. I just adore her exuberant style and the way she experiments with form. The road runner felled me yesterday πŸ˜€ I’ve left a long and weighty comment. Her take on the stars is brilliant.

  7. I think I fall somewhere between you and Phil. Like him, I think plenty of gifted people create and are never ‘discovered’ – because they weren’t in the right place at the right time, because they didn’t care about that part of it, because they went about it all wrong, because they never found that one person or group who validated their work. That whole process requires no small bit of luck.

    Take, for instance, my book. I don’t write about it much on my blog, but will outline it here. I have queried twenty-five or so agents, asking them to represent me. (Yes, I know I could self-publish, but I want the validation of someone investing in my book.) About ten rejections (one especially heart-breaking), four reading. But, it’s all so subjective. I have to be lucky enough to query enough times to find the person who LOVES my story, who can see what it could really be. The woman who wrote The Help (which I didn’t care for) had to do this 60 times to find that person, her bit of luck. Many writers give up well before then – even though they may have good stories that people would read.

    Like you, I also believe the gaining of that following – the butts in seats part – requires savvy, drive, and a desire to have it. And, still more luck. People believe what they hear from others about a thing. More often than not, they will believe what another person says about it rather than esperiencing it for themselves. That is THE BASIS of social media these days, and it makes me sad. Some of the most transporting things I’ve ever seen or read were things that weren’t commercially successful. But, it is essential to have butts in seats to keep moving forward.

    1. Your 20,000 Twitter hurdle comes to mind, Andra. Heartbreaking to have had this experience. Like Fred Astaire would have felt when he read “Can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little”. It does make me think: I’m assuming here, but I’m pretty sure Hogarth was printing and distributing his own stuff. He took out the arrogant, untalented middle man – like Caxton, who re-wrote Malory- with one fell swoop. He had spent time around London and knew so many personally; he had networked with the artists he knew. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that standing at commuter stations with handbills is not such a bad idea…

  8. In your comment to Sidey, you said:

    Phil and I were thinking: is it possible that great works of art exist, done by complete unknowns, and have never seen the light of day? I’m generalising in this post by saying the great art will always find its way out. Look at Anne Frank. But imagine a great novel was written and buried in rubble during WWII during the raids along with its creator. If it’s not perceived by an audience, yet is still a masterpiece, how important is the perception in the very work of art itself? Those beautifully crafted words only ever enriched one life: its creator. To me it seems that masterpiece had less than a half-life.

    I expect that many works of extraordinary skill (i.e., masterpieces) have never seen the “light of day.” And I know, for sure, that many works of “rubbish” have received more than their fair share of attention. πŸ˜‰

    It is the job of the artist to create . . . bringing what’s inside to the surface.

    At that point, luck, chance, opportunity, right time/right place, fate, etc., hold sway and determine whether the art and the artist will see the light of day.

    1. As usual, you speak sense, Nancy. That which is notorious has often received attention-Damien Hirst, in my opinion, is one of those. But anyone who has something great-something momentous to offer must have audience in mind. We create, not just for some high ideal, a lofty lonliness, but because art is to be seen, or read, or heard. It’s intrinsic to what we create, this understanding of audience: here in the Uk writing for different audiences is taught as part of the national curriculum. We bring it to the surface, yes. But as artists we cannot stop there. We want an audience:and any aspiring writer will tell you they want publication:a paying audience.

  9. I can spend ages poring over really clever depictions of humanity like his. Giles does good ones in far less detail, but with similar appeal.

    I love your rejoinder! Really hope my audience finds me before I’m too dead, too!

  10. Art and truth will out.

    I like watching modern-day Hogarths who take seemingly arrogant and flamboyant strides to put themselves in the spotlight. There are many ways today..many different forms of handbills. If the art piece stands up under a few, hot spotlit seconds, the artist has a chance of keeping bum in chair.

    To have the opportunity to do what the soul dictates – whatever the consequences – is my kind of freedom. Oft times it’s earned by knowing how to switch bum to the food-fetching chair.

    Therein lies the secret of Hogarth.

    1. Souldipper, you just wrote it better than I ever could. I struggled to express why making writing pay is so intrinsic to my vision of a successful artist. You said it, just there. The Damien Hirsts of this world apart, our greatest artists have had to to incredibly brash things to get their art out into the open. I love your ‘hot, spotlit seconds’ which can change everything. They are part of a whole, imperfect struggle to win the opportunity of which you speak.
      Thank you πŸ™‚

  11. What a great piece, Kate. Put me in mind of Shakespeare and the new movie “Anonymous”. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Shakespeare’s works were all penned by someone else — it would have been discovered and confirmed long ago — but I think he was another artist who truly understood the concept of ‘bums in seats’ — and look how long he has held his audience in thrall.

    Hopefully, my NaNoWriMo experiment will result in something worthy of attention — even a small amount.

  12. This sparks amazing conversation, which would undoubtedly lead to debate. I can’t wait to bring your thesis forward with friends soon. A great debate indeed! I’m definitely with Phil and his McCarney/Lennon observation. And it does greatly concern me that so often celebrity trumps art–but that is perhaps an entirely different aspect of the creative story. What a delightfully thought-provoking post, Kate! Debra

    1. Celebrity trumps art: great observation, Debra. We’ve been skirting round the outside of this aspect all day- you might like to take a look at Andra’s site which has a post of a very similar subject but tackled it head-on.

  13. If you are born to create, that’s what you must do. There is untold frustration and agony in not being able to practice one’s art. I know that as a fact. Art will be produced regardless of the ‘bums’, but my goodness, once they start to come it’s all worthwhile. Yea to bums on seats

  14. I think an audience is a necessary part of the intention of art but I think art loses its way when the audience is the main intention and, particularly, when it’s a fee-paying audience. But, then, that depends on what we consider art πŸ˜‰ Great post, Kate

  15. My frame of reference for this goes to my experience in music. First, I think of the artists who understood that they needed to sell enough records in order to put themselves in a position that they could then enjoy the freedom to do as they please and engender the confidence required for folks to follow along. Business-concerned folks included. I also think of the times when bands get accused of breaking in due to catering to the current hip sound. More often than not, I found it was a case of these bands doing what they do all along, and agents looking for meat for the grinder that they could currently, fleetingly market. All that doesn’t really support any one side does it? I always admire those who speak truth to power as best they can, herd mentality be damned, but if one is determined to go their own way, don’t forget the day job if you want any sort of social/family stability. Balancing all the whirling plates is a constant fascination. If I make a move in this direction, must I also counterbalance? (Chewing…)

    1. Very good question and a wonderful analysis. One thing which has come out of this post is that middle men – managers, publishers, have a lot to answer for. Your meat grinding agents fit the bill perfectly. Cut out the middle men and we can sell it just the way it is, as it needs to be sold. We just have to find the right format. And be good at it πŸ˜€

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