Friday, February 23, 2007

Art in the Utopian Colony

February 23, 2007

Last August I posted on the topic "fair hope of art," dealing with the reputation our little town has enjoyed as an artists' colony. This is that post:

I think it is time to connect Fairhope's art colony cachet with the reality of art -- that of this town's in particular -- and the relationship of art to the very soul of mankind.

The little town of Fairhope used to enjoy a bohemian, arty reputation. When it was founded in 1894, the only access to the colony was by an hour-long boat trip from Mobile, and visitors could stay in any one of a few hostelries and inns along the bluff overlooking the bay. Around the turn of that century a lot of people in the country enjoyed music, dancing, and indulging in handcrafts. Fairhope was quite a hub of such activity, with its natural clay for pottery, its long-leaf pines for making baskets and homey objects, and the glorious sunsets to paint and rhapsodize about. There were a certain number of people inclined to the arts among the short-term visitors to the town. But most came for the life of the mind Fairhope offered, the Single Tax experiment which was going to change the world and make mankind better. This thinking was crystallized in 1907 when the visionary educator Marietta Johnson settled in Fairhope to start her radical school on the premise that to be truly educated, a child should be allowed to explore the avenues about which he personally was curious rather than be held to arbitrary standards provided by adults -- and that to discover these avenues he should be provided with a well-rounded curriculum including music, dancing, handwork and art along with traditional academic studies.

Artists of every stripe were attracted to Fairhope because of the school. If they had children, they wanted them to have the advantage of the education Mrs. Johnson offered. Many taught at the school. The population swelled because of Mrs. Johnson, who lectured on her educational theory around the world and in major cities in the U.S. The school was at the heart of what Fairhope became, but it didn't stay there.

When I grew up there was a few hobby artists around, and the sculptor Craig Sheldon kept the town amused with his acerbic, anti-establishment wit. Craig could not make a living with his art, and worked in construction and other occupations to keep his family fed. There was a group of women conducting art classes in the wooden building on the bay bluff known as the Red Cross Building, which they shared with not only that organization but also with the Unitarian fellowship that met there on Sunday mornings.

In the 1960's, a man named Perc Whiting donated money for a building for the arts. The potters Edith and Converse Harwell donated their land near the gully at the entrance of town, and the Art Association has been trying to figure out what to do with the kiln in their backyard ever since.

There was always some attempt at local drama -- onstage, I mean -- even before the 1920's when the Shakespearean scholar Sarah Willard Hiestand moved to Fairhope from Chicago and produced a Shakespeare festival using local actors in productions outdoors with the bluffs and gullies as backdrops. When my family moved to the Fairhope area in 1949 there was an active little theatre group, which went dormant for a few years and later emerged with the name Theatre 98, naming itself after the highway.

Lately the focus has been more on writing and writers than the visual and plastic arts. There is quite a posse of writers practicing here, particularly Sonny Brewer, who has organized them and helped many of them get published. Sonny himself has published two novels set in Fairhope. For some reason, even though I've written a book about Fairhope, I don't seem to have made the cut for that growing clique.

No matter how it likes to be seen -- and nowadays Fairhope enjoys its reputation as a haven for artists -- this town never was an arts colony, and with the direction its going has less and less chance to be one. Art cannot be art if it is a hobby for the uninformed rich. There are a few artists practicing in town, but I would say it is in spite of the attitude around them. For an artist, the need to produce art is visceral. As was quoted in a comment on my post "Fair Hope for Lost Souls" painter Mark Rothko wrote: "Artists and philosophers are concerned with different aspects of defining the human soul, and while their approaches are sometimes complimentary, they are almost never compatible.

"The ascendancy of reasonable, objective categorization, the resulting specialization of philosophy, and the philosopher’s separation from the poet, the philosopher still needed to synthesize an ultimate unity in which the reduction of all phenomena to the relevance of human conduct was essential. Therefore we may say that the philosopher today produces this unified worldview by making ethics the objective of all his researches, and instead of making sensuality his end he must now make it conform to the harmony of all other factors. Otherwise he remains simply a scientist in higher category. In that sense the rational man, the one to whom logic is still the only key to reality, can find guidance for his conduct in philosophy.

"The artist however - that is, the poet and the painter - has never lost his original function and establishes the unity by reducing all phenomena to the terms of the sensual. For sensuality is the one basic human quality necessary for the appreciation of all truth”. ("Particulars and Generalization” from “The Artist’s Reality Philosophies of Art”, by Mark Rothko)

This level of dedication and conceptualization is pretty much absent in Fairhope. A few years back, a world caliber artist, trained by Salvador Dali and living in France, decided to relocate to Fairhope. Known internationally as a surrealist, the artist known as Nall was born in Alabama and had a large collection of art by Alabama painters. When he heard that the old City Hall building had been replaced and would be torn down he asked the city to donate it to him as a gallery for his Alabama art collection. He wanted to have the building remodeled with apartments on the upper floor for aspiring young artists of his choice.

The comfortable Art Association, now housed it its own building, did not back him. Certain businessmen threatened to run a full-page ad in the Mobile Register condemning Nall's art as "homo-erotic" (which it wasn't) and the City Council ultimately refused to give Nall the space for his gallery. For some reason, the genial man, though highly insulted at the time, decided to buy a house here anyway and made the statement, "I guess Fairhope isn't the kind of town I thought it was." He divides his time between here and the South of France, and the old City Hall is expected to be turned into a museum for the City.

I've bitten off a lot this morning, and I don't think I can chew any more right now. But I have to say this. It takes a lot to understand art. It is not just pretty pictures or accidental swipes of paint on canvas. It is related to the soul of man and to the eternal soul (maybe it is the eternal soul.) I'll just bet some of you out there can enlighten me and the rest of us.


sinjap said...

art must be fed by tragedy, or at least strife...nowadays we are too pampered, too sheltered for any good art to come out of our repressed souls...sadly, i don't think there are any true artists' colonies left, maybe just little enclaves here and there in an otherwise bland landscape of strip malls and cookie-cutter houses

john sweden said...

"Artists and philosophers are concerned with different aspects of defining the human soul, and while their approaches are sometimes complimentary, they are almost never compatible." Just a correction -- Rothko didn't say that. I did. It is a summary of the ulitmate conclusion of the complete essay.

Angle wings said...

Anyone ever seen Denys Arcand's Decline of the American Empire?

If I remember it correctly, he explores the idea that artists' happiness quotient within a society is, historically, an indicator of that society's probable remaining lifespan. Once happiness among artists is achieved within a society, that society has fulfilled its function. The general populace, finally comfortable, now grows fat and weak, ripe for toppling by the next hungry society always clawing its way up the food chain.

Sound familiar?

Bert Bananas said...

Angle wings said:

"...The general populace, finally comfortable, now grows fat and weak, ripe for toppling by the next hungry society always clawing its way up the food chain.

Sound familiar?"

Yes it does, which is why I'm studying Spanish, so I can fit in after the second American Revolution.

Even-Handed Hope, I am particularly fond of Garfunkel art

Finding Fair Hope said...

Looks like we have a wide spectrum of views of art, as might be expected from my deep if not wide range of readers. I'm surprised the Officious Oaf himself has not yet weighed in.

As to the tragic nature of art, I'm not sure suffering is an absolute requisite for producing art, and I'm sure one the the real artists who reads this blog, John Sweden, will disagree heartily, but the the choice of words, "art must be fed by tragedy, or at least strife," covers those bases rather neatly. Pain is a component in the ability to produce art.

And I love this comment from angle wings, "Once happiness among artists is achieved within a society, that society has fulfilled its function."

Good thing the bananaman is mastering a new language while playing his old Art Garfunkel 33 1/3 rpm's.

John Sweden said...

Actually Wassirly Kandinski in his ground-breaking book ”Concerning the Spiritual in Art” used the term “inner-need” to describe the base of all art creation. While the words like “tragedy”, “strife” and “pain?” feed the Freudian, romantic, marketable, emotional mythology the “suffering artist” is not quite the inner need Kandinski had in mind. There is absolutely no evidence to support this view as a norm in the artistic process. Van Gogh, for example, shows no evidence in his work or in his letters documenting his working process of tragedy, strife or pain and he is the poster boy for all these psycho-babble theories of art.

In my opinion “empathy” is the human word are looking for when it comes to describing the basis of inner-need. The artists forms and empathic connection with reality this creates an inner-need to connect and explore their relationship with the truth of that reality. The reality of that empathy can be seen in Duchamp’s urinal, or Michealangelo’s Pietra, a Neil Simon comedy or the person beside or inside you.

In terms of a society’s decline because of the happiness of their artists. When’s the last time you spoke to an artist who is happy with any society. “All Art is Revolution” I believe was Gaugin’s statement on the artist’s proper relationship with society. So if you are are talking to people who are happy with society they are by his definition not "Artists".

And dat's a dat....

sinjap said...

i should have been more doesn't have to be your own tragedy or strife, but someone's...real artists constantly empathize with their fellow man's woes and can express that on canvas, on clay, or any medium...but i think the underlying problem with all art today is that it is not unique or special like it once that we have chinese mass-produced crap lining store shelves and knick-knack racks everywhere, what's the point anymore?

Bert said...

With the Baby Boomers ... booming, the emotional tragedy of erectile dysfunction should fuel a rebirth (refuel a birth?) of genuine, unhappy art.

The aye is in the art of the beholder.