Friday, October 10, 2008

Hollihocks (sic)

This opinion appeared in the Townsman, October 2 edition

How sad the tale of the Florentine painter Masaccio, who in 1423 began his frescoes in the Brancacci chapel and was dead four years later at age 27. Killed by poverty. He was hardly moldering in the potters' field before the world suddenly awoke to his astonishing genius, and painters came to the chapel from all over the Italian peninsula to study his technique; Masaccio is now recognized as one of the earliest major contributors to that historic pageant we call the Renaissance. His is by no means the only woeful story of genius gone unrecognized during the life of the artist; who can study a Van Gogh and not interweave their impressions with a meditation on his unhappiness when he painted, and his world's indifference to him?

Don't you want to wag your finger at the ignorant contemporaries who had let Masaccio and Van Gogh suffer in such need and shout, "You dopes." And don't we shudder and hope we won't be judged for a similar level of ignorance? It's a smaller scale, but some of us might think about John Ernst in this context.

Well, there's nothing to be done about it now. What's done is done. Misfortune, like the rain, falls on the deserving as much as the undeserving. Masaccio and Van Gogh and John Ernst will not be the last artists caught without an umbrella.

This does not intend to be a sermon; I'm thinking about the art scene in Woodstock, and why some of our area's very deserving artists are struggling for recognition, in some cases just trying to secure a venue to exhibit their work. We do, after all, have institutions and galleries devoted to art; how come it ain't happening for our local talent?

Years ago in Woodstock lived a painter who had emigrated here from France. I was a lad then, but I knew of the Fall of France and the occupation that ensued, and not surprised by this painter's leftist politics, for after all he had suffered under the P├Ętain regime installed by the Nazis. Image my great surprise when I asked him one day what he thought was the best form of government, and he responded, "Monarchy." I had to have an explanation. "When kings and queens become great they need to decorate their palaces and build great edifices, and this is good for artists." Mind you, this painter did not surround his subjects with pucci or depict idylls or create satyrs with lyres; actually he was a surrealist, and I'm not sure what monarch he had in mind for a patron since the institution of powerful kings and queens was long gone before surrealism came about.

But his point, I believe, was that there is a nexus between wealth and art. There is a built in tension to this nexus.

The tension is primarily founded on the fact that wealth chooses. It's as simple and plain and awful as that. If moneybags likes your stuff, you're in. If he doesn't, you're home re-reading Letters To Theo. When I say "wealth" I refer also to tax funded organizations like the National Endowment For The Arts, who have elated and broken just as many artist hearts, I'm sure, as say Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

Rejection by wealth is particularly hard on the artist who may be used to hearing from the general public, "hey man, nice touch." The general public is seldom harsh in its artistic judgment; it doesn't need to be; it's not expected nor has the means to support nice touches. Occasionally, when tax dollars are spent to mount exhibitions of Madonna's created out of horse dung, the general public, at least a segment of it, will scruple loudly and bitterly, but as a matter of course popular criticism tends toward the "whatever makes you happy and so long as nobody gets hurt" school.

The artist finds himself either appreciated but not supported by the general public, or subject to the esthetic whim of the wealthy that will or will not sustain him. Not an enviable position.

I don't know of any way of avoiding this without Wal-Marting art. Do you?

Maybe recognizing the nexus or art and wealth is the best chance for our local struggling artists. It might be better to have a crapshoot than no shoot at all. There was no greater patron of the arts than the Medici. I'm sure the Medici said "no thanks" a thousand times more than they said "Honey, where's the checkbook?" It may have been sad for the poor artist to hear the former, but how sweet for the lucky artist to have heard the latter. How sad that many of Woodstock's art venues have become so stressed that the possibility for the latter has diminished, and may eventually be gone for many of our artists.

Some people will know what I'm talking about.

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