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Is art for audiences or the artist?

Alec Guinness, who died last week, has attained video immortality: He will forever fight the Dark Side as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight. And his fans can find him at the video store in other memorable roles.

Yet his acclaimed acting at London's Old Vic in the 1930s - he played 30 roles in 20 plays in a three-year span, according to one tribute - belongs only to him and the audiences who were there. However curious we are, we can't see those performances.

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Charlotte Salomon painted nearly 800 remarkable opaque watercolors in 1940-42 until she was shipped off to Auschwitz and executed by the Nazis. She managed to hand her work to a trusted friend saying, "take good care of it; it is my whole life." Incredibly, the paintings survived. Now a large audience is seeing them in an exhibition, "Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and traveling elsewhere.

But what if they had never been seen again? Does art need viewers to be valid? Is making it enough? In his book, "Critical Entertainments" (Harvard University Press, 2000), pianist and commentator Charles Rosen offers a perspective on artists and their audiences.

"[M]usic is based not so much on those who want to listen, but on those who want to play and sing," he writes. "Musicians need and want an audience from time to time, but the public concert is only a small part of the making of music, not the whole of it: Playing for a few friends, playing with other musicians, and even playing for oneself still provide the foundation of musical life."

Or the life of any artist, one might add.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society