Once I would have been called an “art groupie.” From creating art as a kid to following in the footsteps of my favorite masters–both in technique and training–I allowed art to rule my life. At least for a time, before the hard knocks of reality took hold.
But I never totally gave up on art's capacity to provide an almost Zen-like escape from daily banality. To provide clarity among the chaos of the late 20th century, to uplift my spirit and point my heart toward a more authentic way of seeing . . . and being. For a while, such an intense relationship with works of art seemed a private, almost “guilty,” pleasure. But now it seems, for better or worse, the world has caught up.
So why can't I simply be pleased with all the company? It seems my relationship with art nowadays can best be described by that popular Facebook status update: “It's complicated.”
Sometimes I miss the old days–if they ever actually existed–when making art was mostly about esthetics (as in creating a work of visual beauty), the medium (discovering new ways to manipulate sculptural forms and media, from photography to paint), or even about shock value (using graffiti, urine, urban detritus as one's palate). Today's art is all about THE MESSAGE. In capital letters because it never seems to be a perfectly acceptable small message anymore.
Today's artist doesn't paint a pretty flower; she reveals the depth of nature's perfection. A serene beach scene doesn't reflect one special place, but rather exists as a tribute to celestial harmony. Sculptures shed light not only upon themselves but also on the oneness of humanity, and collages and woven tapestries are meant to encourage links to the brotherhood of mankind.
There's so much stretching and yearning within the art world for “meaning”– both within and without. It's not that I'm complaining, exactly. Artists, be they painters, writers or composers, have always served a dual-role as prophets and visionaries of their times. Our civilization would be far poorer without the contributions of the likes of Mozart, Moliere, and Michelangelo. Most everyone would agree that a few, great creative types through the centuries actually changed the way we all think and see.
But did the more humble potter, portrait painter or residential muralist see his role as changing the world? I don't think so.
And yet many, if not most, of today's working artists see their mission as just that. My own, local monthly art fair at F.A.T. Village–a repurposed warehouse district in what used to be the seedier side of Fort Lauderdale's downtown–has hosted numerous philanthropic shows among their generally quirky and outsized, site-specific installations. At “Art Heart for Rwanda,” for example, 25 artists and musicians donated their talents to help raise money for Rwanda's orphans.
F.A.T. Village curators haven't neglected the inner lives of fair attendees either. Leah Brown's “Borderland” is a breathtaking manifestation of the artist's haunting dream-visions of towering, part-human/part-animal creatures. The exhibit, which made full use of the district's massive “Projects” space, encouraged viewers to examine the messages and landscapes of their own unconscious.
On a smaller scale, at least physically, there's ArtServe: an artist incubator and exhibition gallery located within a public library. The active non-profit runs an ongoing Eco Art and Art Therapy program in addition to popular annual shows with themes such as “Art as Healing Therapy.” A recent “Inside/Out” exhibition proclaimed: “Whether working through pain, loss, illness or disability, art is a bridge that helps heal, soothe and support.” Displaying work by leading area artists and non-profits in response to specific life challenges, the show was designed to serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration.
And for when hope is as simple as a sandwich? Lew Lutin's photography retrospective, “Hunger At Home,” donated 100% of its proceeds to LifeNet4Families, a local food and housing assistance program. A new show entitled “Art=Antidote to Hate” was specifically curated to “celebrate equality and diversity . . . and promote change.”
I may first have noticed this spiraling trend toward art philanthropy and a “higher purpose” in my hometown, but it's far from a uniquely South Florida phenomenon. Tampa-based painter Arrachme, whose work has been touring the East Coast and internationally, intends her colorful seascapes to transport viewers to the ultimate “happy, peaceful place in life.” One series, named “Balancing Act,” specifically speaks to our generation's yearning for balance in life. She also sees her art as a window to harmony among peoples (“we are all one”) and hope (“I paint the silver lining beneath the surface”). If only one could purchase a painting in lieu of paying for years of psychotherapy.
American artists appear to be holding fast to their New Age-like dedication to deeper meanings, both personal and universal, often with little regard to practical realities or even common sense. And they are not alone. Reaching-for-the-stars through art has been on the rise in the global art scene for some time as well. The act of painting as personal savior and beacon of world peace is the implicit and explicit message of French-born collagist Dominique Boutaud, who, like many of her contemporaries, describes her creative process thus: “When I let myself be guided by my soul, I reach deep inside myself and access my true world — a world of peace, happiness and well-being. A world where life shines in its brightest colors.”
She credits painting for “saving her” during a painful divorce and states her current artistic goal as nothing less than “to protect human rights and bring peace, happiness and hope to mankind.”
Boutaud's sentiments, if not her creative style, are echoed by Grand Cayman Island painter, Gordon Solomon who claims he “comes from the heart with art.” His colorful depictions of the life and legacy of his native culture are meant to “evoke feelings and thoughts, to motivate and nourish the talents and spirits of others.” The regional artist is also deeply involved with his community, both in encouraging young talent and donating artwork for sale by local charities.
Looking further afield, I recently attended a Nova Southeastern University gallery exhibit and lecture on contemporary Pakistani art by Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan. The Lahore-based painter, best known for his striking renditions of native flora, fauna and natural landscapes, is also recognized internationally for five decades of social activism through his art. The messages embedded in his oil paintings cross all borders by appealing directly to mankind's conscience and humanity. At the lecture, it was almost as if he could not help but add moral teachings to his presentation, at one point explaining a political drawing of a man wearing a bird's nest on his head as a piercing attack on the stagnation endemic to his country's government officials.
This made me think of our own history of political cartoons and their rather sudden absence from public prominence — not the least due to the demise of popular magazines and newspapers from our daily lives. Perhaps working artists have inadvertently discovered this sad gap in what was once a thriving daily form of illustrated social and political commentary, and taken up the mantle.
Lecture attendees, too, seemed to be most moved by the few political (among Ijaz-ul-Hassan's generally bucolic paintings) which lined the gallery's walls. They directed their comments to a 9/11-inspired triptych portraying characters from Munch's The Scream opposite Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And to an oversized, sepia-toned painting of a newspaper photo of Benazir Bhutto's final moments after her assassination in 2007. It was interesting to hear the artist admit that in such cases he “purposely employed clichés” because they are images most people recognize and there are times when the message is paramount.
As an artist, he feels a personal responsibility to remind the public of the horrors of the past–in a sense to serve as the canary in the coalmine of the present.
While “the message” may be less obvious in his nature paintings, it remains his inspiration. As he's reflected in Pakistan's Art Now magazine: “I don't paint the servitude and wretchedness of people; instead I paint their inherent strength . . . Look at the agonized form of the keekar [acacia] tree that I paint. Nobody pampers the acacia; no one waters it. Look at its remarkable resilience. Where there's a branch today, there'd be a multitude tomorrow. To me acacia is a symbol of the agony and the ecstasy of the common man.”
Artistic tributes to the natural world have also been occurring for years on our own West Coast, where the 1960's “peace and love” movement continues to cast its glow on cities such as L.A., Portland and Seattle, a.k.a. incubation sites for our nation's conscience. The G2 Gallery in Venice, CA., a showcase for nature and wildlife photography, was specifically founded to “facilitate change by bringing attention to environmental issues through the persuasive power of photographic art.” Putting its money where its mouth is, all proceeds of art sales are donated to environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund.
G2's message is now reaching a far broader audience. Gallery director Jolene Hanson was tapped to curate The Environment Through Art pavilion at World Wide Art – Los Angeles, a large, international, contemporary art fair held in the fall. The show's director, Thomas Tunberg, proudly points to an additional consciousness-raising pavilion entitled Social Equality Through Art. Focusing on “what makes us brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnicity, race, sexuality and personal beliefs,” the exhibit showcases Braden Summers' “All Love is Equal” series of photographs of gay marriage throughout the world.
Also on show, was Touch Galleries of Australia's limited-edition lithographs created and signed by no less a humanitarian beacon than Nelson Mandela. “Artist” was added to Mandela's long list of accomplishments after he was tutored in the form in 2002 and encouraged to visually depict his life's struggles, including his incarceration at Robben Island. As would be expected, a percentage of profits from all Mandela art sales go to his Patron cause, Afrika Tikkun (Hebrew for repair or make better), a charity first founded by South Africa's late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and businessman/philanthropist Dr. Bertie Lubner to address the daily needs of impoverished children in South Africa townships. The international organization's holistic model currently provides a wide array of education, health and social services geared toward establishing a sustainable future for both South Africa's youth and their families.
From the challenges of poverty and hunger, to global warming, bigotry and the unceasing savagery of never-ending wars, the people of our planet have plenty to concern themselves with; literal and figurative oceans await our efforts for repair. Artists have often been the sensitive ones, more attuned to the external and internal environment, more desperate to share their visions and emotions with the world. Perhaps it is only right that in this age where most of us feel helpless and politically ineffectual, the artists are the ones to lead the way.
By creating works that serve as gateways to inner and outer peace, they are at least attempting “tikkun”–to make the world a better place. Perhaps, like “peace,” it is now time we “give painters a chance.”
So nowadays, you may still catch this art critic poking fun at the exaltedness of today's artists' aspirations, their naive-sounding overreach. But that isn't to say I'm not touched or even, at times, transported and inspired. Who's to say one artist's painting of a butterfly won't have a “butterfly effect”? Who better than an artist to save the world–one painting at a time?
© 2015 Mindy Leaf