Art Letter

August 2012 Archives

Cultural Bounce
My last ArtLetter included comments about the Ozarks, which offended some people there who read the article on Huffington Post. They felt that I denigrated their culture.   "Culture consists of the beliefs, behaviors, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group or society."  What some find soothing or stimulating others may find threatening.   I write these ArtLetters to promote visual art and to encourage folks to expand their horizons.  I try to follow my advice. 

Some culture is broad, deep and imposing.  Think large museums with homogenized aesthetics. And some culture is homegrown and organic.  Think of outlying regions or pockets within a larger culture.  The latter is what I experienced recently at the Slow & Low Lowrider Festival

These events feel inclusive to me.  Though Lowriders are predominantly Hispanic, they are not solely so, and there are lots of aspects to these vehicles that reach way across diverse groups to find common appreciation. 

By stepping outside our comfort zone we grow and experience aesthetics and values that question and honor our own.  

Beautiful machines, cars, hydraulics, fashion, and clothes reveal a personal style and statement that honors antiquities, preservation, modernization and culture.

L1060894.JPGI learned that these cars rarely get driven - especially the really nice ones. They are works of art that are trailered to shows.  They are not for everyday use.  And though they all have amazing hydraulics built in, with 4000 pounds of air-pressure to lift portions of the car off the ground - or to make them literally hop - they rarely do, because it would be like going over 2-foot speed bumps all day and destroy the vehicle.

L1060882.JPGThis isn't about practicality.  This is about heritage, respect and love, and embracing ones' counter-culture, but it's also something, that those of us who are not intrinsically or indigenously part of this culture can appreciate, and compare and contrast to our own.  And in so doing, we grow.

Thanks very much,
Paul Klein

Where Culture Goes to Die?

On our way to Bentonville, AR and the Crystal Bridges Museum my college-bound son and I spent an evening in Branson, Mo, where the enthusiastic and demonstrative conservatives go to celebrate their values.  



The next morning we arrived in Bentonville to see the new - acclaimed and equally chastised - Crystal Bridges Museum of American art, a gift from Alice Walton, built from Wal-Mart profits. As we were walking from the parking lot, my son proclaimed, "This is where culture goes to die." I'm not sure either of us agreed with that assessment, but I can see where it came from. We'd just driven through the core of Other American values, over-the-top patriotism and deep-fried everything.  Truly, neither of us had any idea what to expect.



The approach to the Crystal Bridges Museum, through a brand-new subdivision, to a lush, undulating woods, opened up to a clean, predominantly concrete, diminutive facade with a beautiful Roxy Paine metal tree standing proudly in front.  My first thought was of relief. "Great that they've got some contemporary art here."


Most of the museum buildings are lower than the entrance.  The architecture is immediately drop dead gorgeous, innovative and of the 21st century.  Greeters are everywhere, ready to hold your hand and facilitate your experience.  Admission to the permanent collection, which presents a chronology of American Art, is free, but you've still got to check in so your demographics can be reported.  Before you can enter the exhibition, you are instructed on how to behave and how to look at art; no flash photography, no gum, and always stay back at least 12 inches.




There is a ton of wonderful American Art to see.  Lots of favorites; Charles Wilson Peale, limners, Heade, Durand, Innes, Johnson, Chase, Cassat.  I didn't notice many omissions.



I was surprised by what we saw when we got to the 20th Century.  I didn't think the values I associate with Wal-Mart and the South would include as much non-mainstream art or artists as we saw; artists thought, or known, to be homosexuals (Hartley, Tooker), African-American (Bearden, Lawrence), female (Mitchell, Holzer) or a Communist (Kent).  Could it be that I'm more opinionated than those I criticize?


And then the 21st Century, where the challenge is to efficiently spend money to acquire exemplary art.  It is much easier to get great pre-1950's art for your money, than art made since.  Art by Johns and Rauschenberg is present, but doesn't shine.

L1060868.JPGL106086a9.JPG What does shine however is the last art in the chronology; wonderful works by (Chicagoans) Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall.


L1060875.JPGI don't have this all in context yet; predominantly the dichotomy between location and content.  Published criticism mostly addresses the folly of taking art to the hinterlands where the philistines will have no idea, to say nothing of appreciation, of what's going on.  That's not what I experienced. Yes, the audience was pasty white, and the teens on the elevator acted like it was their first time in one, and we felt we were at a convention for the Daughters of the American Revolution, but so what?


If we don't have the power of our conviction, the belief that good art can sway the masses, imbue the spirit and light the path, then maybe we are making, or looking at, the wrong art.  Art may not be for everyone, but everyone can appreciate art.  This is not where culture goes to die.  This is where it rises to new challenges.


Thank you,
Paul Klein

PS: With the day-old announcement that Crystal Bridges will assume co-ownership of Georgia O'Keefe's sizeable donation of American art to Fisk University, it's clear that Crystal Bridges' mission is not yet fulfilled, though its museum may be.