My memory is fuzzy on this but I remember that it featured a ball of string, several bottle caps, and an artificial rose stapled to a plastic banana. A friend was taking me on a tour of several small Springfield art galleries and since this particular gallery featured an artist who was also a radio talk show host who promoted one of my CD’s I thought I’d drop in for a visit. He was a very large and very happy guy; he sat there overflowing his smallish canvas chair, making friendly conversation with everyone who passed his exhibit of “found art.” The guy had a laugh that absolutely shook the paintings on the wall and although he had hair down past his shoulders, wore pajama bottoms and no socks in freezing weather he seemed an otherwise normal sort of fellow. I really did like him.
So then I found myself standing in front of a friendly friend who was exhibiting art that night that made absolutely no sense to me. What do you say in a situation like that? The guy was perceptive as he looked at me and knew exactly what was in my mind. He said, “You know, you don’t have to understand art to appreciate it.” I nodded as if to agree with him, but frankly I was rolling the idea over in my mind. Is that really true? Can you appreciate art, or anything, that you don’t understand? I guess I could say that about brain surgery or satellite transmission to GPS systems, but shouldn’t a piece of art be at least a little bit self-explanatory? I’ve been known to write plays. Can I write a script that no one understands and still call it good art? When I write a newspaper column and it makes no sense to most readers is it good journalism? I once posed this sort of question to my good friend and prime art expert, Dana Ryan, one of Jacksonville’s most knowledgeable artists and a really cool lady, she said, “Well, some of it is just silly. Even other artists think so.” Okay Dana, that didn’t help me much.
Our town is truly blessed to have an official art gallery plus a few others that keep springing up on a more informal basis here and there, and I try to attend openings at the Strawn Gallery whenever I’m in town. Although the Strawn has regular hours I prefer to attend the official openings since very often the artist him/herself is there to give what’s called a gallery talk. … fifteen minutes of the artist talking about her/his work. Okay, forgive me for a bit of unfair generalization, but in general artists don’t much care to talk about their work, preferring I assume to let the art speak for itself. The problem comes when (at least in my mind) the art doesn’t do much talking. Most artists at these talks will chat a bit about what methods and mediums they use, but they tend to avoid the topic of what they’re trying to say with their art. Between you and I, I’m not much fascinated with talk of acrylic versus oil versus water and where to buy the finest parchment. I want to know what the heck this guy/gal was thinking when he/she painted/sculpted/fired/sketched this thing.
Morley Safer of Sixty Minutes fame once got in a great deal of hot water by proclaiming all modern art to be a severe case of the Emperor having no clothes. I don’t subscribe to that theory since people much more knowledgeable than me tell us otherwise and of course not all art displayed at the Strawn or elsewhere is abstract. In fact, I actually purchased a piece of art at a Strawn show. It was an exhibit by local artist Bob Veness, a rather large watercolor of a country grain elevator with a storm approaching. I really liked the thing so I looked at the price tag and just as I was examining it a lady behind me said, “My God, they’ve got that priced way too low. I’m going to go home to get my checkbook.” So when she left the room I bought the painting that eventually ended up in the boardroom of the Franklin State Bank at the hands of my little brother Keith. I still have visiting rights. All of which is to say that I really do appreciate what art can do for our society and ourselves. Okay, I still wonder if Bob had planted that lady in the gallery that night, but I do like the painting.
I’m glad we have the Strawn as well as the galleries at I.C., Mac, and elsewhere, and I’m glad that I don’t have to understand the why’s behind every piece displayed. My old neighbor on Ivywood once saw a painting I’d done and asked if I’d do something similar to display in her house. I gladly obliged and years later saw my still life hanging her bathroom. Now that’s an artistic comment that I can understand.