Priming the Viewer (1967–69)

1. The Work of Art and the Viewer

The intensity of an aesthetic perception is a function of the work involved and also of the viewer.

The history of art is nothing other than an inventory of objects with information about the makers of art, and artistic education is nothing other than a practical course in the making of art.

Artists deal with a few square or cubic meters, working in the isolation of their studio, and then they release these “works” that subsequently appear pell-mell before the public in the most varied places (galleries, museums, books, Louis XV salons, etc.). Out of this mass of works, and according to certain obscure circumstances, some of them will be found pleasing for a time.

The preparation of the work takes complete precedence over the preparation of the viewer.

This preparation or priming of the viewer is, however, the sine qua non of art. Its aim is to try to make the viewer capable of reacting maximally to a given aesthetic situation.

Until now artists have studied the relativity of colors and forms only within the context of individual works. But each work is itself a function of the works surrounding it in time and space.

The succession of works, however, is only one of the factors that condition the viewer’s approval or rejection.

We shall not bring up here the conditioning that comes from education, social milieu, or the historical period, in short everything that might have conditioned the viewer before his entry into the space prepared for him. We know that these conditions are very important and that by modifying them it is possible to make anything we choose be considered beautiful or edifying.

Since we are unable to influence these conditions, we must content ourselves with conditioning the viewer’s perception in the short period of time reserved for an experience of art.

The conditioning of the viewer must take into account, among other things, the following:

the force of the light

the temperature of the place

the noises

the smells

the nature of the ground

the path of perambulation to be followed

(straight, curved, broken, etc.).

Certainly, we do not want to reinvent the total spectacle or the synthesis of the arts.

The total spectacle seeks to aesthetically affect each sense separately and equally.

Consider the ballet performance. The décor, the music, and the choreography are the work of a painter, a musician, and a choreographer, and these are each respected within their own art.

In contrast, the silence, the darkness, and the padding of the seats in a concert hall are not considered to be supplementary aesthetic parts juxtaposed to the music.

We reject the total spectacle, but we can no longer accept the total ignorance of the artist who creates with no regard for the conditions in which his work will be perceived by the viewer.

Take the Mona Lisa: it occupies, on average, only 30 percent of the field of vision of the typical visitor to the Louvre standing at the usual distance from the painting. You will object that the privileged part of the viewing is precisely within this 30 percent. Yes, but can a normal eye remain fixed on an object for any length of time while all around it other forms are moving about?

The attractions of these “accidents” are much stronger in terms of colors, noises, and smells, not to mention the inevitable sexual attractions felt by any normally constituted individual in a typical museum.

If the senses other than vision could be temporarily neutralized in the appreciation of a work of art, then there would be no other problem but to make vision as effective as possible (a very significant problem of conditioning in itself). But the other senses do exist, and sensitivity to noises, smells, touch, and heat remains as acute as elsewhere. It is not possible to eliminate them.

The influence of the sensation of heat on an aesthetic perception has never really been studied. But we know through experience, if the temperature of a given room is 10 degrees above or below the external temperature, the red of a wall will appear more or less bright. Because if it is true that a red environment gives an impression of heat, it is also the case that a strong heat increases the impression of red.

A great many experiments will obviously be needed in order for us to reach a perfect priming of a given viewer in regard to a given visual motif.

2. Arts of Directed Time

Music has an advantage with regard to partial priming: time.

The repetition of a rhythmic motif in time creates an impression that is quite different from the repetition of a motif in space.

In a Greek frieze, repetitions create rhythm. But here, the repetitions are immediately visible and can be taken in as a whole. If there is a temporal influence, it is in the going from whole to part or, vice versa, in going from one part to another. The path that the eye takes, however, remains practically unpredictable.

The situation changes, however, in the performance arts such as dance and cinema, where time is directed by the creative artists and not by the viewer.

It is quite arbitrary to divide the arts into arts of time and arts of space. We should rather say “arts exclusively of time” and “arts of time and space,” or, better still, we should distinguish between arts of directed time and arts of free time, the traditional visual arts (excepting dance and cinema) being in this latter category.

Priming necessarily requires directed time.

As we have seen, visual arts with directed time, such as dance and cinema, do already exist.

These arts, however, have one great weakness. They do not call for any active participation on the part of the viewer, and thus the danger exists that a dispersion of attention will give way to daydreaming and dozing.

If we want the viewer to react fully and intensely to aesthetic propositions, then it seems that the art of tomorrow must require priming and directed time. This is certainly true if we are going to try to reach a viewing public other than the restricted group of cultivated and refined aesthetes who have up to now formed the majority of our viewing public.

Translated by Nicholas Huckle. © Dia Art Foundation. English translation originally published in Béatrice Gross with Stephen Hoban, eds., François Morellet (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2019), p. 196-197. The first part of this essay was published as “Mise en condition du spectateur,” in Lumière et mouvement (Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1967). It was expanded in Morellet (Gelsenkirchen, West Germany: Galerie Halmannshof, 1969), n.p.