State of the Art

From the quilt show at Oceanside Museum of Art

From the quilt show at Oceanside Museum of Art

I’m going to talk about art, because I don’t feel like talking about Amazon. This weekend we were in Oceanside and went to the Art Museum, which is a small venue featuring modern art with an emphasis on San Diego-area artists. They have a wonderful, almost eccentric feel; the last time we went, they had an exhibition of low-riders. This time their exhibits included winners of a quilt show and an installation called “Spitting in the Wind,” works by four local artists from the 1950s through 1970s.

Looking at the latter, I had a few reactions come up, a chain of thought I eventually had to dismiss. It seems that the history of modern art has been a response against the old way of doing things: you were apprenticed to a master who taught you the technical skills, and only once you were acceptably proficient were you allowed to become an artist in your own right. Modern artists, on the other hand, seem to reject the idea that they need to translate their ideas into representative figures and portray those figures with all the skill and accuracy they’ve been trained to use. If they have an inspiration, like this impression of a tree, they just want to put it on the canvas.

I also had the thought that there’s a parallel in the publishing industry. For years, writers needed to have the approval of gatekeepers – agents and editors – before they were able to get their books published. In recent years, many writers have rejected this idea in massive numbers, instead turning to Amazon and their loony argument about how ebooks cost absolutely nothing to produce (crap, I wasn’t going to talk about that!) self publishing, bypassing the gatekeepers, and occasionally bypassing the process of learning the skill of writing, for that matter. They have an inspiration, and they just want to put it on the page and click Publish.

Okay, I’ll let go of some of this snark. I did have a chain of thoughts, and this was only the start. Then I came to the piece “X Sign for a Crucifixion.” The label for this piece said it was highly controversial when it was first displayed. What struck me (in this more cynical and desensitized age) was the level of detail in the piece. Like many mixed-media pieces, it has many layers and components. I had to pause for a moment to see them all, the arrow on the right, the image on the left that alludes to a Sacred Heart Jesus image, how the doll has bits of black paint on it. I looked around at some of the pieces I’d passed by more quickly, and saw the same intense attention to detail in all of them, even the smallest and most simple.

Looking at the quilt exhibition, this observation became even more clear. The graphic at the top of this post comes nowhere close to doing the quilt justice, with its layers of fabric and stitching, and there were many more quilts that were even more intricate and detailed. This isn’t a simple art and there’s nothing lazy about it. It’s not just about being tired of drawing all those figures and landscapes and prospective exercises over and over until you master them. (Well, for me it was a matter of getting tired of them, since I dropped the one art class I took after getting a C at the midterm. I never got any further than still life, I’m sorry to say.) Modern art is about finding new ideas and techniques and devoting all your attention and skill to them.

Let’s all remember that as writers, okay? Let’s devote as much attention to detail as these artists do to their art, and not get lulled by the ease of clicking that Publish button.

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