Three easy ways to Wow! an art audience

The two British artists who most famously Wow!ed us in the past decade are undeniably Emin and Hirst. How did they achieve this? By exposing the weirdness within. If you’re an artist hoping to Wow! and you’re thinking of trying this approach – let me advise you against it. We are tired of the shock factor. We are bored of controversy. Different is not always interesting.

Instead, here are three simple ways you can impress in the current art climate:

Since Yayoi Kusama won our hearts with her beautiful retrospective at Tate Modern, we love obsessive art. Think Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds. If you are an illustrator – illustrate every word in the dictionary. If you are a painter – use a magnifying glass to cover your canvas with minute lines of paints. We have grudgingly come to accept that art does not have to be beautiful and artists don’t have to be skilled, but we’ll be damned if art doesn’t require effort to make. One of my favourite pieces at the Venice Biennale this year was an installation and accompanying video of an artist’s herculean effort to single-handedly move an area of forest into the middle of the sea, to look identical to the way it had in its original habitat. Yes, Duchamp did not physically make his urinal – and by no means do I think him any less of a hero – but that was 96 years ago now. Effort is back in style.

You have two choices here: make it big, or make it small. But today’s art critics are not judging by Goldilocks’ standards: do not make it just right. Like the Guerrilla Girls’ epic three-storey high chandelier made of 50,000 tampons, if you’re opting to supersize, make it bigger than you, or any other rational human being, could feel is necessary. Make your audience feel like the Smurfs. Let your artwork suggest the size of your manhood. Alternatively, swing the other way – make your artwork teeny tiny. Make it so small that only some of the audience even notice it. Those that do will feel special and different for having discovered it, and will rave about it to all as proof of their superior observation skills. The smaller it is, the closer your audience will approach it to get a good look. Abuse your power. Place your art object on the floor so they must kneel, nose to the ground, to get a proper view. Hang it on a shelf just above head height, so they have to jump up to catch a glimpse.

According to a noted statistics website, the average attention span in 2012 was eight seconds. That’s one second less than the attention span of a goldfish. For this reason, don’t expect your audience to look at your work for more than this amount of time, unless you have given them something concrete to do. If your work engages them in a challenge, or they change the artwork as a result of the activity, you are going to score some audience attention points. Interactivity flatters the audience, removing the grandiose relationship of artist conveying his wisdom to passive recipients. Also, most of us don’t get to play enough in our daily lives. We deny our basic human instinct to fiddle with things, be creative and muck around, and then wonder why we are feeling agitated and unsatisfied. The therapeutic value of experimentation is not to be underestimated. If your artwork enables an audience to play in an environment where they do not feel embarrassed to do so, they will leave happy.

A word of warning: DO NOT attempt all three of the above simultaneously. Large-scale interactive exhibits are likely to cause health and safety risks if set loose in the gallery space. Similarly, your unwitting audience may crush your small-scale participatory piece. If these works have taken you a staggering amount of effort to construct, you may have a meltdown.

Written by Hannah Kemp-Welch of

Illustrated by Ruth Stewart:

Ruth's Drawing This One


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