While meandering through the Westport Arts Festival this past Sunday, I walked past one of the artists whose work was on display and for sale just in time to hear him mutter, sotto voce and obviously in response to a question he had just been asked, something that at first made me laugh out loud but, upon further reflection, I realized was actually a pretty sorry commentary on some of the people who make art.
As local arts festivals go, this one was pretty typical. There were a lot of talented people represented, but it consisted for the most part of what I call “sofa art”; flimsy, inoffensive works–seascapes, landscapes, abstracts–with little or nothing to say other than “these colors would coordinate nicely with your sofa.” Most of them are done with enough professional proficiency that the artists have nothing to be embarrassed about, but they provoke nothing besides innocuous pleasure at the choice of palettes. I was able to stroll past almost all the more than one hundreds booths without encountering, more than a couple of times, anything that made me stop and take a second look.
The Friday before, I accompanied a friend to an opening at a gallery in Stamford. It was a photographic installation consisting of oversized negatives juxtaposed and overlapped and projected onto the white walls of the gallery. The negatives were all of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1950. My first thought was, “Well, I could do this!” And if I could do it, how could it be art? But my friend pointed out two salient facts that made me stop and reconsider: (1) I hadn’t done it, and (2) it was not likely that I ever would have thought to do it.
Art, I’ve always believed, should have intent. Intent doesn’t have to be deliberate; the artist even have to know what the intent is before or during the act of creation, but when it’s done and they’ve stepped back from the work, they–as well as we, the viewer–should be able to find and articulate it. We don’t have to all agree on what it is, but if a piece doesn’t provoke a reaction beyond “those colors would go great with my rug,” we should question its validity to the claim of “art.” In the case of the projected photographic images, closer examination of what was thrown up on the walls by a series of a dozen overhead projectors did in fact lead me to a reaction, if only to get me thinking about what it was I was actually seeing in the overlapping images.
At the same gallery, another artist had opened her studio so those attending the opening could browse her work. She created fluffy, ephemeral images, using paint, fabric, feathers, string, and beads. At first glance, it appeared interesting, but to look at it in any depth revealed it to be little more than gift shop art; the pieces she had printed on expensive papers as greeting cards only underscored this impression. That the artist also took great pains explaining the pieces in detail, pointing out the barely discernable faces and figures in the swirls of color and fabric which she insisted were not painted by her intentionally but appeared because of the “spirit” that moved her hand as she worked, left me with the feeling that this was someone desperate to have something, anything, to say.
I don’t lay any claim to “Art” myself, nor am I trying to tell anybody what I think they should think art is or isn’t; art is entirely a matter of personal taste and just because I think, say, Jackson Pollock’s drips on canvas are a load of hooey doesn’t mean you can’t find them to be the height of artistic expression. As the saying goes, “I may not know about art, but I know what I like.”
I have long described myself as a “retail writer.” I mostly write to order towards specific commercial purpose, from comic books to coloring books to short stories or novels based on licensed properties. But, I’ve also long said that I don’t write for the money even if I do turn in the manuscript for a check. When I’m writing, even a Penguins of Madagascar color and activity book, I really do try and make it a good Penguins of Madagascar color and activity book, the best one I can possibly write.
What did I overhear that Westport artist mutter that lead me down this road?
“My ‘motivation’ is not to have to cash in my 401k,” he said. And looking over his paintings, it showed. I just don’t want anybody to be able to say the same about what I do.