“A Modest Art Essay”
By Kurt von Behrmann
Phoenician art is not unfamiliar with negative criticisms. From the art to the people that show it, the fine art world of Phoenix is littered with frustrations, failures and fruitless efforts to find patrons. Fractious is the most appropriate adjective to describe a community ripped apart by assorted self-interests and enough pretentiousness to cover all of the west coast in one big dust storm of despair.
Affecting importance out of proportion with the scant talent showcased, the egoism in some venues is literally palpable. Insipid to the point of toxicity, vapid work passes for achievement. The audience has evaporated faster than the paint drying on the art work. Artists’ creations are greeted by one collective yawn.
Even when work rises above the fracas, indifference shows up to scoff at imagination. Tragedy reaches no worse depths than when the genuinely gifted receive the same greeting as the profoundly maladroit. The low acceptable bar infects everything it encounters. Intellect is reduced a cacophony of lesser minds.
Well intended have tried to leave an impression. Their efforts often met with indifference by a public unsure of what to make of it all, they keep trying. They put out work that falters. The venues for art struggle and they are to be commended.
With good reason some art deserved to be ignored.
The biggest offense to art are the many camps populated by dilettantes who sincerely believe they have talent. Minus training, discipline or a vision that is not compromised by years of exposure to a pop culture drained of any originality, they walk blinded by their own inability to see beyond the sycophants that surrounded them.
Young people, the hope of art, for the large part have just given up the challenge. When they should be challenging the status quo, they have just embraced it. Rather than break ground, too many are preferring to break wind. A.S.U. apparently is not doing anyone any favors. It could be affordable education that forces gifted artists to do other things for a living. What fills in the void is inconsequential.
Sometimes idiots make art and frequently the moronic buy it
The insular nature of the clans and cliques that dominate the visual arts are an exclusive enclave that rejoices in its own exclusivity. Seemingly existing for no more reason than to exist, the incestuous nature of the art community has produced a breed of art that is incomprehensible to anyone except its members. Obscurity of expression would not be so horrid if the journey to comprehension had a payoff.
Instead of being treated to the inner workings of working minds that are restless and inquisitive, we have work with nothing to say. The inbreeding has culminated in infertile ground incapable of sustaining any life at all.
Launched into this Robrt Pela, a well-known arts writer and curator in the Valley, has taken a drastic, even dramatic, move. He opened an art gallery. On the surface that may not appear to be subversive. Here it is a radical act.
Rather than squat in the land of the dazed, unfocused and confused, Pela has a distinct vision. It has served him well. It separates him from the herd. Unlike too many in the local arts community, he is not consumed with wasted attempts to pacify plebian sensibilities. His presence has elevated the playing field.
More outward looking than reclusively removed, Pela has an open view of art. In a more international setting, his approach is not far removed from the critical sensibilities of the East and West Coasts. In a larger context, his selection process would be full appreciated. In different settings such views are erroneously perceived as “elitist.” It is common place for mediocre minds to label intellectual pursuits the domain of the privileged. Reality tells a very different story.
“As a side note, I find it interesting that art is seen as elite. The enclave of a gifted few is how art is often viewed. In a supposedly “class free” nation, or supposedly a classless society, there are elites everywhere. No one accuses the N.F.L. for being exclusive when it comes to selecting players or MVPs. The members of the military, even the far right media, are filled with elites. The Rushs and Ann Coulters of the world live in a rarefied world of privilege. Even street gangs have hierarches. Somehow those things are overlooked. Look at any office and you will find a pecking order.
It is the responsibility of artists, curators and art pundits to elevate the bench mark of visual art. It is not their responsibility to appease everyone. The ultimate duty of art is to provide the world with vision, insight and wisdom. In all art there is an underlying morality to art when it is working at full speed.
Art holds up a mirror to the world. It is a reflection of more than one person’s vision. It is an articulation of what may be felt, but not understood by society. The very best artists mine deeply. What their excavations uncover becomes the raw material for work that communicates an individual voice as well as a collective one. Art becomes a moral compass that points to a brighter tomorrow. Even when art delves into the layers of unconscious thought, or confronts the darker side of the human experience, it does so with the notion of providing more, not less.
When art examines the bright, the dark and the indifferent, what it witnesses fuels powerful expressions. Raw, sometimes difficult to digest, art is most in tune when it speaks to universal truths. Work like this only comes with maturity, training and a well-educated mind. Idiots do not make great art. Sadly it has not prevented morons from buying it.
Appeasing audiences or passing off frauds as geniuses is nothing new. The situation is more apparent, and more destructive, when the art community is in an embryonic state. Posturing, posing and passing are common place. Here in the Valley they have reached such a fevered pitch even the art audience looks like a fraud of sorts.
People attend openings, drink wine and give the art a passing glance. Everyone comes to be seen looking deep. Being viewed with art elevates you by proximity. Stand around a painting, good or indifferent, and it magically confers upon you intelligence, “hipness” and ultimately a veneer of “class.” Money has become class, class has become money, and all are elites. As long as everyone is honest, all of this is easier tolerate. When it becomes fake, it just induces nausea.
Identity and integrity are positives. Knowing who you are helps. One of the huge hidden problems with so many art venues in Phoenix is that they are not sure what they are. As if uncertain what to do, many galleries fall into the trap of art doesn’t sell so they become a little bit of this and a little of that. Many just do not believe selling art can pay the overhead. They believe the line of art not selling so much it undermines their own efforts.
As a means to ensure there is no failure, they back up efforts with nick nacks and peripheral art works. What emerges is not a gallery but a hodge podge of this and that.
Most galleries in Phoenix are trying. The problem is that there is a missing identity. There also seems to be a lack of a business plan. Media budgets and cultivating patrons often is missing from the gallery equation. Like some form of naiveté, gallery owners open shop and hope for the best. Minus excellent networking, a sense of what a gallery is and the inability to curate well, art spaces flop in the breeze.
The gallery business has never been easy. They require vision, investors and an exhibition space able to showcase the work effectively in order to work. Having all the parts does not guarantee success. Having parts missing can certainly guarantee failure.
The problems most new venues face is legitimacy and decent wall space. Throwing up a gallery in a dilapidated space and pricing the work at $ 20,000 is not going to work. When your audience only makes $ 30,000 a year on average, expect work in the $ 200 to $ 500 range to move. If you have a decent space, some media savvy and solid work, expect more.
What Pela has done for Phoenix is provide a space that addresses the need for serious venues for art. That is not to denigrate those who have tried or struggling. They are doing the best they can do.
It would certainly help some artists and gallery owners to take a lesson from Pela. His template places a premium on white walls, the art and nothing to distract from the work. Free of this and that, there is no confusion that this is a fine arts space.
Opening a gallery is a difficult proposition. No one should take it lightly. Often the failure of art to sell rests on the shoulder of artists to some point. Gallery owners have to take some of the responsibly as well. It rarely occurs that just maybe presentation, lack of a comprehensive business plan and a good presentation are the reason no one buys. Stability also counts. No one wants to buy work from a space that is here today and gone tomorrow. When art spaces come and go, the assumption is that art will go south as well.
The key ingredients are solid curatorial skills, space, networking, advertising and knowing what you are selling. Having a specific identity is critical. No one space can show everything made. It just makes a mixture of disconnected parts. Viewers are left to pick up the good from the bad.
Pela has started from the premise that he is showing challenging contemporary art first and foremost. It is an example worth emulating.