Masters of the Unnecessary, Part II
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A couple weeks ago, the Urban Man joined thousands of his fellow Angelenos on the Culver City Art Walk. No kidding, thousands. They came four-abreast, 20- and 30-something, in carefully-chosen clothes. At the peak, we were jostling each other off the sidewalks of Washington Boulevard.
Me, I have to admit I spent most of my time looking not at the walls of hip galleries, but deep into the faces of other art walkers as they moved rapidly from picture to picture, exhibit to exhibit, with a look of unsatisfied hunger.
It was like...everyone really needed more art. Lots more art.
I wanted to stop people and ask, "Why do I see such grand expectation in your eyes? Are you seeking truth or beauty? Something to inspire hope, honor, religion, or love? Then surely, you'll be….disappointed. I mean, our best artists rarely traffic in grand meanings anymore. Lately, they offer only an exquisite irony, a slight unease, a geometric nuance, or a brief, but pleasant darkness of the soul."
Still, these small moments seemed enough to satisfy the crowd--as long as the moments came in, you know, a high enough volume.
In fact, I wondered if my fellow art walkers secretly recalled the words of 19th Century critic, Walter Pater.
You remember Pater. He coined the term "art for art's sake," and said, "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass."
He claimed that because our moments are so few, the point of life is to move as swiftly as possible from one intense moment to the next. His most famous line was: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
That line got him a lot of flak in the 19th century, but it inspired millions. And of course, now that we've all dedicated ourselves to nonstop stimulation, it's not surprising that we should require more and more art, and pay more and more for it. And it's not surprising that art itself should turn to mundane things--coffee cans, tangled yarn, and toy balloons--just to, you know, keep up with the demand.
My own father was a landscape painter, but he considered himself part of a straight line from Walter Pater to the present day. In fact, he went farther than Pater and claimed that art had become increasingly valuable because in an age of little faith, only artf offers immortality.
That's why, he said, prices keep soaring. Why we open so many new galleries and cathedral-like museums. Why these days everyone wants to be an artist, and why our best artists have become the true prophets of our time.
I remember he said this when I was about twelve and the whole family was sitting around the living room. "It's not the quality of the work or its values," he said, "but the way it preserves the moment. Art is the only thing that outlives the individual."
My mother broke into tears at this pagan speech, saying, "Well, what about the rest of us?" And when she fled the room, the 12-year-old me demanded: "What about love, honor, loyalty, sacrifice? Aren't those immortal?"
"Maybe," replied my father. "But art is a safer bet."
Now that I'm a grown Urban Man strolling Washington Boulevard, I try to find joy in the slightest hint of ecstasy and smallest gem-like flame in the eyes of fellow art walkers. And yes, like them, I find myself moving, as Pater advised, ever more swiftly from picture to picture, and gallery to gallery.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. This piece dedicated to that lover of art, my friend Shaike Pelzig.
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