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) 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.