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Guestwords: Too Much Art?

Wed, 02/28/2024 - 17:05
Barbara Thomas

I was at an arty dinner party not too long ago in Sag Harbor, and, surprise, we were talking about art. A woman (who was not an artist) suddenly announced to the table, “There’s just too much art!”

It’s hard to imagine there could be too much art. It sort of sounds like saying there’s too much love, or too much air, because, fortunately, it would seem the world thinks art is essential. If that belief ever comes to an end, we are in deep trouble.

As a lifelong art practitioner and longtime teacher of drawing, painting, art history, and art-making of all kinds, on the East End and beyond, I often tell my students, “If we can’t make art, civilization is finished, so don’t stop yourself. Stop telling yourself your art is not good enough, and dare to live your secret dream — if there’s one experimental adventure that won’t kill you, as opposed to skydiving or race car driving, it’s making some art.”

And this is great advice. However, it does create an awful lot of art.

Throughout art history, artists were considered special members of society who were able to do things others could not: draw like Leonardo da Vinci, paint like Rembrandt van Rijn, create like Pablo Picasso. Artists were in the cultural elite, and they didn’t just land there, they trained and worked hard, through apprenticeships, mentors, teachers — Michelangelo began training at age 13, Paul Cezanne began painting at 21. These artists created work until the very end of their lives and are among the many standard-bearers of art-making whom students of art have studied since the earliest days of classical training and through the mid-20th century.

And then, perhaps inspired by the expressionist movements of the modern art-making age, the idea of “expression” slowly but surely superseded hand skills, and classical training began to waft out the window. A democratization of creativity was born, with graffiti, with the advent of drawing, painting, and moviemaking apps on everyone’s phone or computer, with the ever-growing technology of art-making, from digital light shows to a Jeff Koons kind of vision requiring a huge factory of workers creating sculptures of balloon dogs made of stainless steel.

Out here on the East End, a hotbed of artists as early as the 1800s, there is a long timeline of hundreds and hundreds of artists; artists from history, to name a very few — Thomas Moran, William Merritt Chase — artists from modern history — Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler — and artists right now. Artists to whom the old saw “It’s the light” means absolutely nothing, because the age of the classical and modern representational landscape painters who captured the stunning landscape of the East End, basking in an extraordinary glow of light brought about by our rare proximity to the ocean and our wide-open spaces, is completely beside the point.

Today we will find art of all kinds: exploratory, politicized, ecology-inspired, culture-inspired, personal, ruminative abstractions and conceptualizations made by a new youth practicing a new art, in our new Hamptons. Art that is created in spaces where natural light might not even see, well, the light of day. The proliferation of galleries on the East End is legion, from Sotheby’s, the old-guard classic, to funky, creative homemade galleries popping up in private settings.

But there’s another movement at work here, generating this overpopulation of art. The East End, after the displacement of the native culture, has always been a place of exploratory discovery, from Bonackers settling here from old England to fish and hunt, fast-forward to city dwellers seeking a better life, living in the country, and now to young people, moving on from the traditional job route to living a life of more freedom on their own terms.

In the early 1980s I was one of these, moving from New York City to make a better life for my son, and, lo and behold, finally having enough space to begin painting my landscape work full time. Artists like Jane Freilicher, Esteban Vicente, and Sheridan Lord were still practicing their art here alongside the “moderns” — Alfonso Ossorio, Willem de Kooning — and they were my mentors and friends. I continued the landscape tradition until the early 1990s, when our fields and views became filled with McMansions, our vistas obliterated by hedgerows.

A lot of those who moved here in recent times come to take classes with me, and I think it’s because with pioneering comes a blue sky idea that one can make something different and better of themselves, more creative, more expressive, more free. “I think I’ll move to the country and become an artist” sounds a lot more stimulating than “I guess I’ll just work as an accountant in a small, expensive apartment until I retire.”

Hence, there’s a lot of art of all kinds out here.

Ah, and now we have to grapple with the classic aesthetic question of the ages: But is the art any good? The parameters of art have been in a revolution of change since the beginning of time, and so has this question. If artists are no longer a cultural elite but an enormous population of practitioners with varying levels of training, visions compromised by what classicists might think of as a disease of cultural emptiness, a style of naivete, or whatever naysayers of contemporary art forays may come up with, then maybe some of this huge overproliferation of art is not worthy of being called good.

Remember what Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Throughout history, socio-political movements have attempted to stifle creative drive. In 1863 the Impressionists were rejected at the Paris Salon, the Reich Chamber of Culture was established by Hitler in 1933 to control all non-classical art, deeming it “degenerate.”

And let’s not forget our culturally bereft former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, who attempted to close down the show “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, which included the work of the painter Chris Ofili, for his use of sacred African dung in his paintings of the Virgin Mary. And, frighteningly, contemporary literary censorship prevails.

As I say to my students, art-making is our last bastion of human freedom. That’s how important it really is. “Good” may be only one aspect of its importance. The ideal is that art continues to be alive and free, like the ideal we wish for humanity. Perhaps it is a blessed extra if it is good art — but the fact that it is art remains the essential social, cultural, and political imperative.

Barbara Thomas lives in Springs.

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