Kristy Edmunds, an artist and curator, is executive and artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA and was visiting artist at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2014–15.
Spectator (L fr. spectatus/to watch). Selected dictionary definition: one who looks on. Onlooker.
I don’t hear the word spectator in art circles very often, but I do read it on occasion in art-related journals. To my thinking spectator best refers to those in attendance at widely diverse forms of cultural event: the onlookers at competitions, parades, marches, protests, celebrations or public assemblies. Spectator also connotes an individual watching almost any spontaneous activity where their involvement is not particularly active beyond momentary curiosity. It could apply to gawking at the aftermath of a car wreck, gazing up at the window cleaners along the exterior of a skyscraper, or watching an argument outside of a pub. Spectators can be found clustered around buskers on a tourist-laden boardwalk or staring up at the progression of images on a digital video billboard. Even the secretive stare while someone cleans up after their dog in a park might qualify.
Spectator implies bearing witness to an occurring action or event, where passive engagement is the rule. This is not to dismiss the impassioned spectatorship of sports fans—a whole other subset of robust and diligently planned engagement. Sports fans are impassioned spectators of the game at hand but however wildly participatory in emotive gesticulation or verbal insertion, they remain on the sidelines. Again, onlooker is useful here.
More frequently the term viewer is used with regard to visual art, and the term audience with regard to live performances and cinema. Both suggest an enhanced degree of conscious engagement—the use of multiple senses, or the overlay of memory—which is enlisted into a process of perceiving. Perhaps it is the involvement of one’s perceptual faculties that distinguishes both terms from spectator.
In radio programming, the term used is listener or listenership, and broadening out, the term becomes audience. So too in literature, readers or readership broaden out to audience. But viewer, audience, and spectator are not interchangeable.
A viewer is consciously involving their gaze and presumably other activated senses in the act of relating to a work of art. A viewer of craft for example may feel the need to pick up and touch the object in order to fully “see” it; a viewer of a painting or sculpture may get up close, then move further back, etc., and the viewer will decide how much time is needed to feel sated in having experienced the work (which is far less than that invested by the maker).
In contrast, an audience commits to participating in a work of art that involves the passage of time proscribed in the work of art itself. Whether it be a live or recorded performance, projected cinematic work, or a literary work, the passage of time is a part of the experience from the outset. Though you can stagger your engagement with a book across different periods, it isn’t fully experienced until you have read the whole thing. The whole thing—in performance, cinema, and literature—is determined by the artist; by being an audience we commit to its full duration.
Audience, like viewer, connotes conscious, sensorial involvement; spectator expresses that our curiosity and interest is piqued by something going on around us—planned or unplanned. Perhaps my point can be best conveyed this way: if we are a spectator of art, we offer a brief and statistical presence, but as a viewer of and/or an audience for works of art we offer our commitment as fellow journeymen in the artist’s invitation to perceive.