Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Fair Hope of Art

August 29

There has been a lot said about the arts in the comment section of this blog lately. Now that we've begun to wax philosophical and profound, I think it is time to connect the “arts colony” reputation of Fairhope with the reality of art and its relation 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 were 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.


Isadora2 said...

I never appreciated Jackson Pollock's work although my husband, an artist and scene designer, was absolutely in love with it. Never could understand it, looking at prints in books. One time, when in NYC, he took me to the Gugenheim (sp)Museum and turned me loose in a room full of Pollock's works. They literally took my breath away. I felt as though I could dive in and drown in them; the layers were so deep and mystical. I was still young then and, fortunately, we were the only ones in that gallery as I started to dance from one canvas to another.

I couldn't stop myself. It was a true mystical experience for me, as
was seeing the real "Starry Night" for the first time at the
Metropolitan Museum. And I am sure that both Pollock and Van Gogh each
either destroyed or painted over canvases before they finished one that pleased them. That's the way of real artists isn't it?

Isadora Duncan wrote that all life, dance, creativity emanated from the
solar plexis. Many people believe that the soul is housed in that
area. I tend to agree with Isadora, but I won't call it "soul." Or
maybe I will... or call it self. If I "danced my soul" and I often
felt that I did, was it a religious or creative or emotive expression
or does it really matter? If I could look at what I had done with my third eye (my protective self) and find it pleasing as well as creative.

What does it matter? How many angels can DANCE on the head of a pin?

John Sweden said...

Hej Isadora2,

Nice piece. I imagine the reason that you as a dancer would get such feelings from Pollack’s work is that Pollack probably more than more than another painter was engaged in dancing. His works are pure unadulterated rhythms of movement.

He used a very sophisticated editing technique that allowed the works to develop as direct statements. Picasso used it and it is one of the reason’s he was so prolific as artist across virtually all mediums throughout his life. Picasso pointed out at one point in discussing art, “that you don’t have art until you have a mistake” Now there are two directions to take when editing the mistake and this is what begins to separate the painter from the artist.

One is, you actually remove the mistake either by painting over, erasing, starting over or pure destruction. (There’s a wonderful story involving Georgia O’Keefe painting and men on last method). This however invites issue and problem put forth by Mondrian as the principle of extension. Where your progress as an artist, because your are constantly revising by essentially starting over, tends to horizontal out and makes it hard to advance beyond the level of perceived mistakes. This also leads a kind of end editing that you described where one paints ten paintings, because he has to, and then chooses one that best represents what the painter believes rises to level of his art.

The other is much more advanced and it takes and develops a real a confidence in one’s self and their artistic process. Here the so-called mistake is incorporated in the work. You the edit its effects by creating competing elements, using the process you can literally make things disappear. In this fashion you create mange a set dynamic tension between intentional and unintentional elements that gives a life and depth to the work beyond the artist’s intent. Because of it’s intense focusing ability you do not need do so many to achieve a continous set of quality pieces leading beyond the forward edge of your art.

Here’s the genius of Pollack. By separating the brush from the canvas he creates a space of uncertainty between intention and results. So you feel the force of the control(the stroke) in chaos (the drip), which heightens the feeling motion and rhythm. This is actually the ultimate solution in terms of Not only Picasso’s mistake principle but also to the paradigm laid out by Duchamp that “once you conceive of it, it is already done” It’s the drip part that keeps the results of intention action from being conceived in advance (in essence a mistake unintended consequence). In terms of negation requirement he is the only artist to effectively challenge the paradigm of Reinhart’s “Black Squares”. He does this by creating an overall monotone of small intentions negated in the tension with chaos in which the individually of the artist is dissipated. Hence the often criticism in both cases by the viewer “that anyone can do this”. Reinhart’s answer to that observation was “Yes; but that would be their black squares.”

We’ll cover Van Gogh another day. I will say that your perception of his painting and editing process is not supported by the facts. I will however end with a quote from Vincent, my very personal muse on almost every level.

“I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Finding Fair Hope said...

Thomas Harrison, the Arts Editor of the Mobile Press-Register, wrote this among other chastising comments after the recent Nall exhibition in Mobile's FAMOS art gallery had elicited less appreciation of the arts than of the cocktails at the opening party: "An artist is not a decorator but a provocateur, a purveyor of sometimes sobering truths."

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.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Funny -- that didn't sound like you, John. I thought it came from Rothko.

Benedict S. said...

I agree, John. Philosophers are concerned with the structure of Being, whereas artists are more concerned with Being as it is manifest in the human soul. Just as physicists are concerned with the laws of physics and engineers with finding useful, and sometimes elegant ways to express those laws.

John Sweden said...

ff. Since there seems to be very little outside interest in your subject concerning of the real life concrete issue of the decline of Art, Culture and Soul in Fairhope I’d like to take the empty space and fill it with some insights on social reasons and causes for that perception, based on my own work and efforts on the subject here in Göteborg.

The first of the two pieces below is the introduction to the protocols establishing the International Kultivara Kafé Society and the second comes from the societies “Most frequently asked Questions and Answers” brochure. In re-reading the first paragraph I see a real potential application and incorporation of Participatory/Kultur principles in your re-aligning of the Organic School as an Education for a Global Community.

“The International Kultivara Kafé Society originates in the immigrant community of Göteborg in Sweden. It grows out of, a recognition, that the future cultures of countries in Europe and the world are increasingly becoming multi-ethic cultures and that immigrants play an important and decisive role in creating those cultures. Immigrants can be seen as the agents of positive change in Europe, capable of breaking down the traditional ethnic and cultural barriers that separate us.

In order for mature, contemporary, multi-ethnic or human cultures to evolve, grow and flourish, new personal reality based cultural initiatives need to be developed. In reality, each individual can be seen as a totally unique expression of many evolving subtle cultural influences, from a wide variety of sources, rather than fixed historical cultural identities. These sources and influences are continuously evolving over a lifetime.

The true multi-ethnic human culture has at its core the philosophy and mechanisms that value and strives to give continuous artistic expression to every individual’s evolving cultural viewpoint. The International Kultivara Kafé Society sees both the immigrant community and the dominant culture as one totality, which forms a rich, positive, environment of unique individuals, each with a unique personal cultural history and influence, which needs to be nurtured, validated and expressed.

A multi-human Participatory/Kultur can only arise in the recognition of everyone’s natural, human and creative, expressive rights. The arts are the natural languages of human development, they are the languages used to express our deepest feelings and emotions, they are the primary methods for establishing a personal contact with the reality of our own being, they are what makes us human. They are a normal capacity and part of everyone’s unique human nature. No artist in the world can express the feelings and emotions of another. No artist can establish a contact with reality for another and certainly no artist can define for another person what means for them, to be human. To do so is to rob each of us our unique voice in the chorus of human development. It is the ultimate debasement of the arts to assume that a few professionals create the culture for all of us.

In order to fulfill its mission the International Kultivara Kafé Society recognizes individual cultural rights as the fundamental basis of all human rights. It supports the European Union’s position that “each…citizen must have the right of access to culture and to express his (or her*) creativity.”

In operation, that not only includes securing the right of access, as a contributing artist, to cultural institutions but the right to live in a supportive, non-hostile environment, which supports and ensures everyone’s capacity for artistic expression. The International Kultivara Kafé Society is committed to securing those rights for everyone by removing the barriers to participation in the arts and actively challenging ideas and concepts that limit, demean and distort the individual human expressive spirit.

Everyone is an artist, everyone is capable of contributing to the cultural development of their societies, and everyone is to be included. The International Kultivara Kafé Society is for you, your family, your business, your community and the human spirit.

We welcome your support.

John D. Vedilago

Central Facilitator
International Kultivara Kafé Society”

“It is our premise that, contrary to the nostalgic and often romantic beliefs that predominate the discussion of cultural affairs, we are not suffering from a lack of high quality, professionally produced cultural products, but rather drowning in a virtual sea of such products. We maintain that what is lacking, is not the products, but the process of cultural development. The over professionalizing of the arts, and the isolation of the artistic process within the arts community, has caused a major distortion in the perception of what constitutes a culture, its development and its connection to the lives of the people. More importantly, the removal, separation and isolation of the artistic process from the life processes of the people in our opinion leads to a breakdown of natural, normal and healthy cultural development, both on a personal level and a societal one. The current situation can best be described as entertainment trying to pass as culture and the artistic products of a few giving the illusion of a cultural development process for all.

The people and their lives are the culture. The more the artistic process is woven into their normal existence, as a natural way of living, the more profound, deep, broad-based, non-superficial and more social, cultural development becomes. This is why we are dedicated to taking the initiative for reweaving the artistic process into the lives of all the people. All of the International Kultivara Kafé Society’s initiatives and initiative continuums are mechanisms for fulfilling this singular purpose. We are totally committed to creating opportunities for the public to engage in the high quality processes of artistic practice, contemplation and activity. “

Finding Fair Hope said...

John, this is a unique, radical, and absolutely exquisite concept. Oddly, in Fairhope there is much concern that, because of its innate elitism (which it doesn't acknowledge), all the faces in all the cultural groups are white. The retirees who moved here found a "safe" community, and then when they got here wondered why there were no members of other ethnic groups in the upper echelons of any organization in town. We need a facilitator like you! And maybe I can get together some people, including those at the Organic School, to get some similar projects started here.

More on this in the near future -- and thank you for giving us the details of this idea!

Bert Bananas said...

Someday I hope to take myself this seriously.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Bananas, don't worry. I take you this seriously too.