by Michael A Stusser
I personally dont know a color wheel from a hole in the ground. My formal arts training consists of throwing food against the canvas of our kitchen wallpaper as a toddler, making those damn lanyards at day-camp, and Playdough (which was eaten, and thus Fluxus by nature). Even my stick-figures suck. In fact, I find most art baffling; the majority of sculpture seems unintentionally humorous, photography appears less a skill than a hobby, watercolors are - not-surprisingly - washed out and watered-down, and a lot of pieces simply piss me off. (Poor execution, I believe is the proper term.) Though I love nudes, abstracts, masks and oils (hopefully applied at the same time), my own evaluation process usually comes down to whether or not Id want it above my fireplace, not if it makes me ponder the human condition.
Gazing at the artist known as Meerans painting on a gallery wall, I cant make heads or tails of the thing. Is that a cloud or a sheep? Maybe the figure is counting sheep, or perhaps the artist has some sick fascination with the furry creatures. Maybe its a commentary on those of us who blindly follow. Hell if I know, but Im damn sure not going to shell out my hard earned cash for further study (thatll go to my therapist to rid me of these floating visions of a bestiality). And thats exactly what I told the woman standing next to me at a the gallery. How was I supposed to know she was the artist?
Arts subjective, though everyones a critic: Picasso was a genius; Pollack was not. (Put them in a cell and force them to sketch the jailer, 100 times out of 100 the wardens picking Pablos piece - and Caravaggio over the both of them.) Different paint strokes for different folks. Success is one part luck, one part madman, ten parts hard work and one session on the posing couch. (The unfortunate aspect of the art world is that, while one genius gets a gig at the Guggenheim and lives the good life, another equally talented artisan toils in absurdity and undiagnosed apparitions, never getting her masterpiece out of the garage.)
For many of us, we just dont know how to "be" around art. Bulls in a china shop, were scared of the "You break it you take it" principle (especially should a Dale Chihuly bobble hit the deck), and are more comfortable rock-climbing than art-walking. Galleries feel part mausoleum, part New Age rave; were unsure whats allowed and whos on display. The best defense being good offense, I typically bull ahead with wild abandon, immersing myself in artsy enrapture.
A lot of what youll see while cruising artists receptions is crap. Thats not my opinion its a fact. Still, critiquing the artists work is half the fun. Not only can you pop off to friends and strangers, theres often the opportunity to share your own stoned interpretations with the actual artiste or gallery owner. My favorite activity is to find the fussiest curator on hand and pepper her with as many inane questions as possible: Do you have anything by the artist thats bigger, or in mauve? You sure that things not upside down? Could I sit for a self-portrait, buck nekid? Do you have anything in your liquor cabinet stiffer than the swill merlot youve been serving?
One of the attractions of art-collecting is the Michelangelo Lotto Principle: Theres a slim but possible chance that youll buy an artists painting in a gallery for a couple hundred bucks, and he/she will become the next Warhol. You cant win if you dont play. (And it always helps if they die while the piece is still in your possession.)
Of course purchasing art is not about whether an artist is famous or a pauper, gifted or deranged (or both), but if the work moves you. Will the piece bring joy or tranquility to your personal domain? Can the subtleties evoke memories and conversation among friends? Could you have done the work yourself with two tons of candle wax, unlimited free time and a drill press sitting around the house?
Sadly, as a percentage of the cashola we spend per annum, art falls somewhere between Knicks tickets and farmed salmon. Like meditation,
arts a nice concept, but practically speaking, we dont have a place for it in our everyday lives (even in the garage). Part of that is because were unsophisticated dolts addicted to sports teams and
reality TV, and part of it is that due to lack of exposure - we dont realize that great art is affordable. While a "museum quality" Guy Anderson painting may sell for $60,000 (Grandmothers House, Edmonds, c. 1935), in the room next-door, brilliant upstart James Matteis work goes for eight hundo a pop (Sideviews/satellite, c. 2002). Is Andersons art worth it? Hell yes if youve got the dough! Thats not the point: skip one latte a day for a year and youve got a Mattei masterpiece on your living room wall.
"If an easel falls in a gallery and no ones there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Ultimately, exhibits, openings and wine-laden "Gallery Walks" have very little to do with selling art on impulse or moving merchandise its about building an audience of believers. Walking the walk is a community gathering, a party, a free museum tour, a celebration, a chance to reflect on culture and ourselveseven if we dont like what we see. By giving amateur enthusiasts a taste of fine art (and Costco appetizers) individuals eyes may be opened to art everywhere (and perhaps the idea of replacing the faded Monet print in a guest room with something more contemporary).
To wit, at last months Gallery Walk I overheard the following conversation between a tattooed beefcake and his waif X-er galpal from
Queens: "Do you think he meant to leave that part of the canvas bare?" "Well, its hard to say." Maybe we should ask the guy. "Yeah, you think hes here? "I dont know. Want to go to the Brewery?" "No, lets look at the next one."
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and probably beyond me for the moment. Still, I like hanging around the scene, keeping my eye out for that great piece that wont escape me - the picture-perfect stunner with fine lines, great curves, impeccable movement, and gorgeous color, the one that turns my head and changes my outlook, attracts me like a moth to the flame, inspires me to see a future, and makes the decision to open up my wallet and shell out the big bucks a no-brainer. I am talking about art, by the way. Go see some.
Michael A. Stusser is a contributing writer to mental_floss and Law
& Politics magazine.
He is co-author of the Doonesbury Game (with Gary Trudeau) and Hear Me Out.