Friday, October 30, 2009

A Reflection on Art in Nashville

"The work of art must seize upon you,
wrap you up in itself and carry you away.
It is the current which the artist puts forth,
which sweeps you along in his passion."
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841 - 1919

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an opening reception at Richland Art Gallery (Green Hills) where three of Nashville's finest artists were displaying new works - all representational paintings rendered in what might be called the 'neo-impressionistic' style. Typically, after making a cursory walk-through of an art show, I can easily identify the best and worst paintings. After all, I have seen a lot of art in the last ten years and have developed a reliable sense of good and bad. There are too many good works in this show to single out any.

It was only a few years ago that I avoided the use of prejudicial words like 'good' and 'bad' when discussing art or music or literature. Taking the high-road in an aesthetic argument required that I speak with an analytical - not critical - voice. By constantly squelching my own opinion I cultivated a very keen ability to hear music empirically, look at a painting technically, and read the sub-text (even if there wasn't one) in almost any book. Often at an art opening I could hear the muffled cries of my inner, honest voice just wanting to shout "Bad painting!"

My practice of expressing no opinion had turned my artistic taste-buds off. Worse, I had become an aesthetic pluralist. It became too easy to stand at a party and strike up a conversation with almost anyone about almost any topic because I had mastered the art of talking without saying anything of substance. Older now, and somewhat less careful, I trust my inner-critic more. Good is good. Bad can be bad.

Admittedly, I am not much for small-talk at parties, but when I do find myself in a discussion about art, I champion a favorite theme: Nashville is home to an amazing group of very skilled and well-respected artists. With a shared sense of artistic direction they are producing beautiful new works. At the same time, I feel the local community is clueless to the wealth of talent in their midst.

I am referring to professional artists. There are hundreds of talented amateurs in our city, but they do not approach a canvas with the same intent as a professional. A working artist can not wait for the muse to inspire their work. Instead, they consciously make a rational decision, indeed, thousands of mental choices when creating a new work. That does not mean that the art is un-inspired. Quite the contrary. It means that professionals bring their best effort to each new project, pushed by their growing understanding of the medium, light, color, and the world around them. They are business owners too; constantly keeping inventory, framing, shipping, and marketing their product. Mostly, they are continually educating the rest of us as to the importance of art in our lives.

Like so many aspects of American life, public understanding of art has suffered from the commercial exploitation of what used to be a clearly-defined idea - in this case, the word 'artist.' There should be no ambiguity here. An artist is not a person on an assembly line who paints one part of a mass-produced 'original' and then passes the canvas to the next factory worker. Nor is an artist the person who uses a limited (although often virtuosic) set of technical tricks to create hundreds of identical 'original' pieces. Oh, (BTW) every singer/songwriter who comes to Nashville to be the next big country 'artist' is not an artist.

'Starving Artist' sales have eclipsed the sale of real art in our town. Galleries are struggling to survive, and today their walls are hung with better work than ever before. Visiting the Frist Center to view masterpieces is important, but to own a real original work of art and to enjoy it every day is a much more meaningful experience.

With that said, I propose that every Nashvillian re-think their attitude toward original art. Seek out local galleries that feature paintings by Dawn Whitelaw, Roger Brown, Kim Barrick, Anne Blair Brown, Paula Frizbe, Lori Putnam, and Pam Padgett (to name just a few). Ask yourself, "Does this artwork touch me emotionally? Does it transport me to another place or time?" Listen for your inner 'art critic' voice as you ask, "Is it really good?"

I also offer these bad reasons people buy original art: Because it matches their sofa. Because they like the frame. Because someone told them the artist would die and become famous one day.

My wife is a professional artist. Many (if not most) of our friends are artists. My older daughter is studying art, art history, and art criticism in university. These professionals (all of whom are much more well-informed about this than I am) will remind me that art is not simple. Whether you are the creator or the consumer, art is a complex, dynamic system that interweaves individuals with society, with history, technology, psychology, and now more than ever with economics. But they would all agree that there is only one reason to buy original art - because you can not live without it in your life.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I've had that same struggle: squelching the opinion. Though probably more with music, in my case. A relevant line is drawn when one makes the decision to take their art (or music) out of their home and into the world, to suffer the slings and arrows of critical analysis. Putting expensive paint on canvas with a really great brush doesn't necessarily make it art, much less 'good'. And putting together three chords and the truth may make it a song in some passable way, but doesn't make it good, either.

    On that, I've been bothered by what seems like the recent trend of giving kids accolades for nothing at all...that every child deserves an award for practically no actual achievement. Like we're starting them off early with this 'I did it so it must be good' theme. Even worse, the idea that there are no 'losers' anymore. There are actual winners and losers in life. And in art. Some people are just better at some things. Without connecting every dot, this all seems symptomatic of maybe the same underlying thought.

    Maybe what we need most is to lose at some things, to help us to find a thing that we can actually win at. And critical opinion is one way to get there.

    Sorry for the long post, but I always find your articles thought provoking. Hey, apparently you're good at that!