One doesn't experience it very often, but when it happens, a rush, a feeling of excitement, is intoxicating. No, I am not talking about sex, though vulnerability and intimacy definitely play an important role in what I witnessed last weekend in a summer camp in the San Jacinto Mountains 6,000 feet above the desert of Palm Springs. A group of likeminded adults from around the country applied for the chance to spend two weeks working side by side, honing their professional skills, talking into the wee hours of the night about their life's major passion. OK, enough mystery. Men and women, whom I joined for two days only, came to Idyllwild to attend the renowned Arts Summer Program. Musicians, poets, ceramicists have been coming to the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts since 1946. Since the mid-80s, it has reinvented itself into the Idyllwild Art Academy, the first boarding school for the arts in the western U.S.
This summer, for the first time, a group of professional painters gathered to participate in a new two-week workshop, aptly named "Painting's Edge." The well-known artist Roland Reiss, who is the coordinator of the program, invited a group of distinguished painters and critics to come to Idyllwild to lecture, to show their work, but more importantly, to observe how other artists work. Each participant has a chance to show a portfolio of actual works or slides. It requires a lot of courage to show one's work to strangers. What pages of intimate diaries are for writers, drawings and paintings are for artists. There, on paper or canvas, one's hopes and inspirations, failures and inadequacies, revealed to all, to be seen and judged.
To find the right words to help students see problems without crushing their egos takes a special talent. Each morning the whole group gathers for a freewheeling discussion. The one I attended was about art and money, an inevitable clash of idealism and reality. I found myself defending the positive influence of the market which forces artists to connect with reality and tests their ability to respond to the public without betraying their talent. There are no recipes for that, but real talents prevail. As so many artists attest, what is sorely missing in their professional life is stimulating interaction with peers. Even upon achieving a modicum of success, many artists still feel as if they work in a vacuum, lacking sincere assessments of their achievements and weaknesses. At least dancers and singers have daily routines with their coaches; painters are usually left to their own devices. Adding to the problem is the prevailing notion in the art world in the last 20 years that conceptual and installation art, along with video, are the only meaningful forms of art.
As a result, the artists, who were still in love with the old fashioned art of painting, felt shunned. Of course, it is nonsense to say that the art of painting is obsolete. You remember the silly pronouncement 50 years ago that, with the advancement of T.V., the art of cinema is over. Doomsayers used to say the same about the end of the novel as a literary genre and about the opera being near extinction.
Last weekend in Idyllwild was a wonderful reminder that the ancient art of painting is alive and well. Rumors about its death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, were very much exaggerated.