Marketable art in town these days seems to come in four groups: sofa art (furniture store art that accessorizes living rooms, usually abstract), tourist art (palm trees, pelicans, etc.), schmaltz art (stormy skies or sunsets – visual counterparts to winning entries in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the bad-writing event that calls for a terrible opening sentence to an imaginary novel) and greeting card art (the pussycat-chasing-yarn-balls variety). It’s art of the fourth kind that may be the most objectionable. A quote from a gallery owner makes the point. “I like happy art.”
This gallery owner, like so many of his colleagues, is in the wrong business. Adolf Hitler had the same preference. He restricted art-making to romantic Arcadian rural settings uncontaminated by real life. “Art,” he said, “must be cleansed of all manifestations of our rotting world.”
Of course, we all have blind spots, but gallery owners can’t afford one about art. If they’re intent on “happy art,” they’re pushing pap. They’re legitimizing schlock.
Sarasota is said to have the highest concentration of art galleries in Florida. Of course, it’s a meaningless statistic. It’s not how many art galleries a city has that counts but rather the kind of art those galleries show. And while their stock looks like art, it’s without art’s soul.
I’m not even talking about copycat art, you know the vaguely familiar-looking abstracts, impressionist seascapes, realist street scenes that are nothing more than mindless knock-offs of the real thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for happiness. But it’s a complex state. Carl Sandburg made the point in his poem about August Rodin’s sculpture of a naked old male, “‘The Walking Man”: Legs hold a torso away from the earth/Power of bone and cord raise a belly and hip/You makes us proud of our legs, old man.'”
See? Rather than ruminate on the deterioration, evident in the sculpture’s missing head and arms, Sandburg took inspiration from the fact the old man was still ambulatory.
It’s not even a matter of happy or unhappy art. It’s just that we need more to look at than a pudgy cat, a bowl of fruit or an antiseptic nude. In a world conditioned by Hollywood, where life tries to copy movies, introspection is missing in all the action. In art, you don’t expect to see adopted positions – happy or otherwise.
Even Norman Rockwell tired of his idealizations at the end: “I was doing this best-possible-world, Santa-down-the-chimney, lovely-kids-adoring-their-kindly-grandparents sort of thing. And I liked it, but now I’m sick of it.” Probably because he knew life was bigger than he was picturing. Even though Sarasota is a resort town, it deserves the big picture, don’t you think?