Is It Art?

I know I’m a bit slow on posting this, since it’s about my trip to Arts in the Park at the start of May, but I took time to think about whether it was worth posting or not. (Plus life sometimes gets in the way of a blog post!)

Every year I look forward to Arts in the Park, at Dogwood Dell and the Carillon (which is a local city park with a monument to World War I). The grounds are covered with tent after tent, each with a different artist displaying his or her work, in hopes that those of us wandering by will decide to buy something. Some artists are back year after year and, of course, every year there are new artists as well.

But even though I always enjoy the show, I find that it always challenges my ideas about individuality and creativity — and not in the way you’d think or in a good way.

I’m a romantic, or, really, a Romantic. I’m not a twenty-something anymore and ought to have more sense than to have a lot of the Romantic notions in my head than I do. I don’t mean boy-girl romance, but Romance as in the Romantics, meaning the poets and writers and artists. I’ve always had this idea that we are all unique and we all have our own individual voice and our own special take on life that we bring to this world — and that it is the mix of all these different ethnicities, religions, and views of the world that make humanity so special.

Back when I was in college there was a man who only went by “Ron” who would come by for a week each year and set up a spot in the student union. For that week he’d stand there, 8 hours or so a day, and paint. He had canvases, I think probably about 8″ x 20″ and he’d put one up for us to see, then slap paint across the bottom and the middle, pull out a knife and whip it through the paint to create what looked like sea oats and use a similar technique to make what looked like seagulls. In about 5 minutes he had a “painting” of the seaside at sunset or something like it.

I was fascinated with this process. He charged $15 per item and a lot of people were buying them. In about five minutes he’d produce a work he could sell for $15. The sign above him said, “Ron Art,” and he signed his paintings just “Ron.” He never talked with students, other than about money. My roommate called what he was doing masturbation. I can’t say I disagree. He had a skill. Not a talent, but a skill. He knew what images would strike a chord with people and he was producing somewhere from ten to twelve of those images in a single hour.

It’s a skill I admire, but it’s not a talent and it’s not creative. And it certainly is NOT art.

Which brings me to Arts in the Park. There are several hundred artists there and some not-artists with interesting wares to sell. The Twin Oaks commune is always there with hammocks and chairs everyone loves. There’s another group there with carnivorous plants.

But what always challenges my beliefs in individualism is that, every year, I see at least five people with what looks like the same watercolor style. Even down to the choice of their subject matter. And, by now, I am pretty sure there is an alley in Southern France or Spain, with all the clay buildings, that has a small bridge from the second or third floor of one building, across the alley, to another. This alley must have signs pointing to it from hundreds of miles away and I suspect if you are an American photographer, you are required by international law to take a picture of this alleyway.

I’ve seen that shot on display for so many photographers that I can’t think of any other reason every one of them would have the same photo. And it continues. This is Richmond and our “get away” beach is the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Which means every photographer, every sketch artist, and every painter has countless pictures of the Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Ocracoke Island lighthouses. It’s not just the styles, it’s also the subject matter. It’s the same from tent to tent to tent.

In my Romantic set of ideals, artists are people with a creative urge and they can either create or suffer. Yet what I see isn’t creative. It’s duplicative, and there are times I go from tent to tent and see as little difference between one artist’s work and the next as I do from one Ron Art painting to the next. And I see it over time, as well. There are artists there with unique ideas, but the paintings they are selling this year are almost indistinguishable from the ones they were selling a decade ago. For all I know, they might still be trying to sell some of the same paintings.

I chatted with a few artists I know, in different fields about this. Each said they fight the tendency to fall into repetition. One pointed out that when you find the work is getting easy, you’re copying either yourself or someone else. That’s a lesson I learned in writing years ago: If it’s that easy, you’re probably copying someone else. But they all talked about the struggle and need to keep their work fresh compared to what they have done and compared to other artists.

But none of us could explain why so many artists are doing the same work they were doing ten years ago or why so many of them are the same.

My thought is that many people call themselves artists but are really well disciplined craftsmen, turning out something they know will sell. Once they’ve found the formula for what works, they continue to produce the same kind of work. That is a skill to admire, but it’s not art.

On the other hand, there was a woman with whimsical clay garden figures who told me they didn’t do photos of their work on their website because they were all so wildly different from each other that there was no point in photographing one style. There were others who did work that I, and others really admire. There’s the wood worker who has done amazing mosaics of cut wood that leave me amazed every time I walk by his tent. I keep thinking of buying one, but then I wonder if it would be safe in my house, or if I’d drop and break it even before I ever hung it up.

The last artist I’m going to mention is one of my favorites. He has photos of the Amish community near where he lives. I have a number of his pictures, including some with shadow boxes with tools that match the ones being used in the photos he’s taken. He’s done a fine job of capturing the lifestyle of a community that is suspicious of outsiders and allows few photographs to be taken.

So there are some wonderful artists and works at Arts in the Park. I just find it amazing that so many that call themselves artists have not made the effort to find a style that is uniquely theirs or to challenge themselves to grow and evolve over time. But, more and more, I learn to just ignore them so I have more time to look at the original and unique artists and their works.

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