Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send Driver an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If youíre at a halfway-civilized party and youíd like to either destroy it or turn it into a riot, just bring up the topic ďWhat is art?Ē
Many of the guests will head for the door; they either donít know what art is or donít really care. The other half will launch into discourses about the great artists, which one is more creative than the others, and so on. Arguments will turn into insults, then fist fights, and soon the hostís home will look like a cross between a Picasso and a Jackson Pollock when both men were drunk. Moral: Donít ever pretend to know more about art than the next guy does.
Unless youíre speaking to me. I know (and care) so little about the visual arts I should be banned from every art museum on earth. I have visited several of the better ones, and enjoyed my time there. I respect and admire skillful painters. But I canít pretend to be more than mildly conversant with what makes one painting better than another. I believe that any Van Gogh is superior to the eye candy churned out by Thomas Kinkade, but my judgment stops there.
Manís instinct to produce art goes back thousands of years. Some of the earliest known paintings, found on the walls of caves in France and Spain, are believed to be at least 40,000 years old. The cave paintings show horses, bison, deer and sketches of Elizabeth Taylorís sixth wedding. (Only kidding there, of course. Just trying to liven up an essentially dry topic.)
No one knows why early artists painted. Or even why modern artists do. Thereís the old saying: ďThem what canít do, teach. Them what canít teach, paint. Them what canít paint, write nasty things about art and the artist.Ē
What makes it hard to comment on art is that thereís so much to know. That includes the vocabulary of art. For example, post-modernism. For 30 years Iíve been trying to learn what post-modernism means (in painting, music, writing and used-car sales), and I still donít know.
I once attended a showing by an artist I knew, and he asked me what I thought of his work. I was dumbstruck; I simply lacked the words to tell him, even though I thought his stuff was pretty good. He threw me out of the gallery, and I canít blame him.
I had the same experience the first time I visited the Salvador Dali museum in St. Pete. As I viewed Daliís paintings I was rendered speechless by their kooky, outlandish qualities. I felt stupid because I could not see the meaning of the art. I finally realized that Daliís art is not meant to be understood, but enjoyed and laughed at, as you would an outrageous, drunken dream. It was a liberating breakthrough.
Appreciating art is made difficult by the amount of scamming that goes on in the industry. The art world is filled with fraud, exaggeration and mind games. One day you may admire an old master (valued at $11 million) and then learn, a week later, that the painting is a forgery. A young unknown painter produces several distinctive works and is soon labeled a comer, a hot ticket whose paintings weíd better scoop up right now because six months from now their price will be out of sight. Who says so? The art magazine critic who (it turns out) is married to the painterís sister. The truly wise art shopper steps carefully before he buys, and then waits even a few months longer. (Or so Iím told.)
Itís not uncommon to hear of a single painting being auctioned off for millions of dollars. The irony of such news is that only a few artists Ė an estimated 1 percent of them Ė are able to live on what their artistic output brings them. From this we must assume that most artists work out of love.
I think that escape is another motivation. Someone trying to paint, compose music, or write a memorable story leaves his or her immediate surroundings and steps into a fabled world that has been waiting for the artist to make real. If the artist succeeds in doing that, then he/she will have created a doorway for all of us to walk through and thereby escape into a new universe. It would be wonderful if, instead of resorting to alcohol or drugs, world-weary people would take refuge in art. Iím sure millions of persons already do that.
In closing: How do you know if youíre an artist? You qualify if your brush and easel cost more than your car, or if you ask your wife to get undressed and the only thing you take out is your brush.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at email@example.com.