Who are we?

March 16, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

I was speaking yesterday with the Bay Area artist and illustrator, Owen Smith (who’s showing at my gallery starting this week). He mentioned that he was a twin, and that his twin is also an artist who teaches at an art school in Southern California. This touched a nerve in me about something I think about a lot: where do artists come from? Owen’s parents are both professionals: a surgeon and a teacher. I know of another pair of brothers, Bob and Bill Morrison, who both became artists. There were no artists in their middle class family, growing up in Fresno. I grew up in a working-class family in NY; neither of my parents went to college nor had any connection to the arts. My one sibling is a CPA and tax attorney. I have spent almost every day of my life for the past 30+ years looking at, thinking about, or writing about art. How did I get in this fix? I know that my mother was obsessed with language, and that she passed that love on to me, and that my entry into the arts was as a writer, so maybe it’s as simple as that.

I often wonder why so many people’s attitudes range from disinterested in to alienated from to actively hostile to the arts. When a controversy erupts, as in public art, the vehemence of the public’s anger can be staggering. Some seem to react viscerally to art more than many arts professionals, but the passion can be suspicious, sarcastic, even hostile. I assume that this is some form of superheated class antagonism that erupts under pressure. Yet artists are not a breed apart, we’re middle class people by and large. And the profession of artist (read critic/professor/writer) is hardly unattainable; it’s part of a spectrum of work via aesthetics that probably includes a solid plurality of people who work for a living.

My dad was a used car dealer. His word for a perfect used car was “a cream puff.” He could look down the side of a car and instantly tell from the subtleties of the paint job if it had ever been in an accident. He had a deep appreciation for the way a car looked. This was a visual expertise that always amazed me and made me proud of him. I think this is so applicable to so many careers that I’m amazed that people can’t make the leap to see how what they do every day is parallel to what an artist does. There are professions that are so close to fine art that I don’t need to make a case for them: movie makers, designers, architects, fashion designers. But there’s also a range of jobs that use aesthetics to approach visual perfection: housepainters, carpenters, antique dealers, sales people who need to articulate a visual argument: clothing, shoes, furniture.

If we push the idea a little further, we can think about all the professions–teachers? speakers? business writers–whose success turns on striving not to settle for okay, but to find the perfect turn of phrase, rhetorical note, pedagogical trick, that cinches a solution to a problem, that for me, is also the essence of art. Or the athlete who practices a move over and over until what was at first clumsy is now mastered. Or a scientist who pursues a line of thinking that can be seen as trivial or absurd (Swimming Bat) but who comes up with a new way to understand the world in some small way, is practicing the same discipline as an artist.

I am not a pollyana; I know much art is difficult and the life of the mind is degraded in our culture. Yet throughout my career I have found artists who, if they find an audience, inspire delight: Trimpin, Tom Friedman, Charles LeDray, Devorah Sperber, Tim Hawkinson, ad infinitum.

I don’t know how the public and the arts have developed such a chasm, given the natural bridges among who we are and what so many of us do.

3 Comments

  1. Vance Maverick Says:

    Art certainly partakes in the aesthetic of polish, perfection, mastery, etc. But I don’t think there’s much modern art that does so straightforwardly — that approaches an accepted task in an accepted way and satisfies the viewer by doing it well. For better or worse, modernism has been a repeated challenge to such notions of quality. Some artists have gone so far as to reject them, and certainly many viewers have taken modernism as a rejection of traditional criteria. And even if we take a Martin Puryear, who builds (so to speak) on the aesthetics of craftsmanship in construction, we have to move beyond mere “quality” to get what he’s doing: if you judge his work solely as cabinetry, it fails in the end, obviously, because it doesn’t actually hold cups. (Plus, it mostly isn’t shiny.)

    By the way, lots of broken links on this blog lately.

  2. Renny Pritikin Says:

    Sorry for the bad links Vance. I think they’re fixed now. Don’t know what happened.
    I agree that art, especially contemporary, partakes of many of these values indirectly, or obliquely. I’m not equating art and craft, but pointing to the shared values.

  3. Tessa DeCarlo Says:

    “Social” questions have been trumping class politics for a long time, and mobilizing the angry masses against the cosmopolite elites has become a reflex. So it’s not surprising that the arts are readily seen as one more example of decadent know-it-all “Thems” who are ruining things for the “real American” “Us,” even though (as in so much of current politics) “Them” and “Us” are pretty much the same in most important respects.

    At the same time, the professionalization of art (the idea that you need a degree to be an artist, the importance of theory and exclusionary jargon) and the art world’s continued adherence to difficulty, transgressiveness, and epateing the bourgeoisie certainly make it easy to demonize. I am continually surprised by how puzzled and threatened even well-educated, museum-going people sometimes are by art that’s hardly cutting edge. I’m not sure if that’s a failure of education or something intrinsic to contemporary art’s vision of itself. Maybe all us middle-class kids stlll, on some level, need to feel that we’re shocking Aunt Gladys.

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