Is Everyone Really an Artist?


The different arts communities in Philadelphia---theater, painting, poetry and literature--are like individual fish bowls arranged along a wall. Each community is its own enclave. Actors hang with other actors; visual artists keep company with other visual artists, and poets and writers keep to their own circles unless they jump bowls and write about actors or visual artists. This arrangement is parochial, and limiting. It's also a Philadelphia thing because, at least according to a poet friend of mine, the various arts communities in New York behave in a different fashion: they mingle freely with one another.

Perhaps we should ask: what is art? I pose the question because many people today believe that art can be anything you want it to be. A fashion model, for instance, will refer to her walk down the runway or her pose before a magazine photographer as "art." Actors call their work in the theater "art" although there was a time when talented actors used to be referred to as good technicians capable of memorizing lines. While this may or may not be true, expressing yourself emotionally on stage is a talent many do not possess. One thing most will agree on is this: actors are the most visible of all the arts communities. They are really the talking heads of the arts world, comparable to "talking head" (broadcast) journalists.

Art in our time has come to mean anything, from the way colorful tattoos blend into human epidermis to fancy food production in hot urban kitchens where The Chef is almost artist. Chefs started to become "artists" sometime in the mid-1990s but the sad fact is, 'art' is the most abused word in the English language.

The abuse of the word 'art' may start in progressive schools where children are taught that "everybody is an artist," meaning, of course, that anybody can be trained to be an artist. In such schools any sort of hierarchy of talent is seen as elitist. I wince when I hear dilettantes say things like, "I'm going home to make art." You are--really? How do you know that what you are about to make will become art? But that's not the point, really. The point is that because the maker declares that what he/she makes is art then it is art. It becomes art because I say it is art. End of discussion.

The dribble down effect of this kind of thinking has changed the work presented in many of Philadelphia's art galleries.

The art in these galleries is not only overpriced, it is incomprehensible and just plain bad, leading many people to conclude that much of modern art is a fraud. At one Center City gallery opening recently, I went to check out the work of two modern artists. I watched as one of the artists entered the gallery with her small entourage. Dressed to the nines in a pair of patent leather New York stilettos, the artist surveyed her "art" which was displayed in the front of the gallery closest to the door. Her paintings were a mesh of pastel colored brush strokes evoking Victoria's Secret lingerie or long squiggly lines rising upwards like swimming spermatozoa, priced around $8,000 a piece. As the evening wore on, and it became obvious that nobody was buying (or would buy) any of her work, she left the gallery in a huff. This was long before the reception was over. The squiggly spermatozoa would now have to swim downward and be packed up and sent back to her New York sperm bank.

I've witnessed similar scenarios at other galleries. One Old City gallery, for instance, seems to specialize in the work of young, hot "girl" artists. At opening receptions at this gallery one can see the artists lined up like Playboy escort bunnies, all of them in heavy makeup and heels and of course killer ringlet hair cascading down their shoulders and framing exposed cleavage. Every time I go to this gallery I think I'm attending another chic Nicole Cashman party.

I may be stereotyping, but when I imagine women artists I immediately think of peasant head scarves, big bracelets, flannel shirts, or dangling Georgia O'Keefe earrings. The glamorous Hollywood celebrity look is new and raises the question: Are these women really the bored wives of wealthy hedge fund husbands, as somebody in the art world once suggested? This hedge fund art really has no distinction yet what comes to mind is the (wallpaper patterned) "art" that real estate agents plaster on the walls of rehabbed homes and offices before they hold an open house.

"In art," as Picasso once wrote, "the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales.... But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term....I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times..."

What an admission! And yet the narcissism of our times gives untoward courage to scores of anonymous Picasso wannabes who have no trouble calling themselves artists.

All of which leads me to the philistine question: Can there ever be too much art?

There is so much new art in the world now there could never be a museum large enough to contain it all. How can we save all this stuff? How do we catalogue it? Art is being produced everyday, every hour at amazing speeds. And it is coming straight at us from every strata of society, even the sidewalks of Center City where one can see street artists sitting curbside with their exhibitions lined up along Chestnut or Walnut Street. "Art for Sale," their signs say. At $5 a piece the pieces are relatively cheap. Buy now, because you never know when the maker of these street absurdities and puzzles may hit the Picasso jackpot. (It's better than playing the slot machines at Sugar House).

Yes, art is everywhere, even in hair salon shops where the owner/manager displays his art, beautifully framed because of the expensive prices of his cuts. Or: go into a doctor's office and see the doctor's new hobby. It's drawing or painting and he's turned the walls of his waiting room into a small gallery. He's an artist and--surprise! -- His pieces are beautifully framed because of his high patient prices.

There's flea market art; there's also the grassroots art of the city's many small artistic clubs like The Sketch Club and the Plastic Club, where members have monthly exhibits. These exhibits have a dual purpose; they present the work of new or lesser known artists, and they serve as ad hoc community centers because these gatherings are also parties with food, wine, and sweets. Art parties are always a good thing, even if they attract more non-artists than artists and bring in the city's whacko reception addicts who track down all the free food and drink events in the city with the determination of a house detective.

As for who is really an artist, I'll defer to Scott Berkun, who said, "An Artist will risk many things, wealth, convenience, popularity, fame or even friends and family to protect the integrity of their ideas. If you're not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you're probably not an artist. "

So much for those Hedge Fund ladies...