Stephen Willats

Forming Models About Art, 1985

There are numerous ways by which people acquire their perception of events, though generally they can be considered to fall into two categories:

An external source transmits information to them which subsequently affects their perception, eg. A tells B about XThey experience the event directly, eg. B sees X

Although inevitably a person acquires information by a combination of both means.

Similarly in looking at perceptions of art practice as an activity within society two different viewpoints can be defined:

Perceptions that are formed through a direct experience of art either as an artist, audience, or in some other rolePerceptions that are formed about art via some intermediary body

Perceptions derived from direct experience result in what I have termed Intimate Models, and indirectly formed perceptions result in Distance Models. The term ‘model’ referring to interconnected mental orderings that a person has made about art practice.

If art is seen as fulfilling some direct function for a person, it is likely to form an Intimate Model. These functions can be just as diverse as Distance Models, but here in each case personal experience plays a paramount role in their fulfilment. A dependent condition for an Intimate Model is that there is an existing high priority for attending to art, on the other hand the more general low priority that art is given might be equated with a Distance Model.

While it certainly might be convenient to make a dividing line between people involved in the development of art, ie. the so-called avant-garde, and the general public in terms of Intimate and Distance Models, the situation in reality is much more complex. For example, a reason for involving oneself in art might be to meet like-minded persons, so a person joins an evening institute and within their class room environment they develop an Intimate Model of a particular way of considering and practising art, as amateurs, but as far as the professional avant-garde’s preoccupations are concerned they definitely retain a Distance Model. In this case a further definition of Intimate Model is required, and that is that a person is able to bring to bear on his understanding of a work the same references considered appropriate by the artist. However, Distance Models of art still have a function to the communities and individuals that hold them, for example, though a person might not have met a millionaire, his Distance Models of their life style might play an important part in determining his aspirations and motivations. In a similar way, though a person holds a Distance Model of a particular way of engaging with art, it can still have an important influence on his life.


Printed in Society Through Art, Stephen Willats, Haags Centrum voor Aktuele Kunst, Den Haag, 1990