Cottonwood Art Festival

jim public painting leaning on tree 111002

It’s important not to rant on one’s blog. Still, sometimes it’s the stuff that’s wrong with the world that whips you up into a right state. I’ve mentioned before that some gallery nights in Dallas are disappointing, that most of what hangs on walls and perches on pedestals is not good art. But it’s helpful for one to keep things in perspective by seeing what’s going on in other sectors of the art world, or really, other art worlds.

Saturday the kids and I met some friends at the Cottonwood Art Festival in Richardson, TX, for an afternoon of looking at what these artists are up to, not to mention eating kettle corn and drinking $5 beers in small plastic cups. Mmmm, it tastes so good in that plastic cup. We all had a good time; it helps to have low expectations. I can’t expect to be amazed by the art at this kind of art-under-a-tent public event. But, as it turns out, I was amazed… amazed at the crushing terribleness of the wares on display.

The photo above of a Thomas Moran-esque romantic, bluebonnet-strewn landscape, framed and leaning against a tree, was the one photo that seemed to need taking. (It’s priced at five figures, and it’s leaning on a tree!) Not that I didn’t try to take other photos during our stroll; I figured there was no harm in snapping pics of artwork that’s already in direct outdoor sunlight, especially if I said that I wanted to put it on my blog. Hell, you can take photos at the Fort Worth Modern, so surely you can photograph the mannequin figures shellacked with magazine pages, right? Wrong. I was framing my photo of said display, really digging for anything redeeming about what I was seeing at the festival–in this tent, along with the actual papered mannequin sculptures, there were photos of the figures in various settings, and I like it when people make something then take pictures of it on location–when the artist emerged from behind me to interrupt the shot. I told him I did an art blog, and he said no photos please. “We have prints available, and that’s kinda what they’re for,” he says.

Yes, this guy was patronizing me. I was nonplussed. I thought artists craved attention and press, even if it’s in a piddly blog like this one. But, as he seemed to see it, I was taking a photo in lieu of purchasing a piece, as if a snapshot taken of artwork in a tent at an outdoor community festival were like an mp3 on an illegal file sharing site, and I was about to shaft him out of a legitimate, purchased download. If it was just a concern of flash exposure damaging the artwork, I’d be more sympathetic, though the persistent sunlight all weekend would seem to be the bigger threat. But, it was a proprietary move by the artist: if you like it, buy it, because photos hurt his livelihood.

Maybe he’s right; I don’t know how things work in his art world. But, as our browsing the tents made very clear, engaging with the contemporary world, pushing the limits of our expressive capacities, and trying to say something new about “what it’s like to be a fucking human being,” as David F. Wallace puts it, is not how things work there.

These encounters with sub-par art always get me trying to articulate what distinguishes good art from bad art. The whole issue is complex, though this festival art isn’t. There is no complexity to be found there. There is technique, there are nice frames, and I’m grasping for a third attribute to add, but I have nothing to say that not mean-spirited, so I’ll hush up.

Since I was a kid, utterly ignorant of modern art past Picasso, I remember attending these events, like Mayfest in Tulsa, strolling through the tents, looking closely at everything for clues about what art was and how I could do it better, and I was always underwhelmed. It was like someone who has vague dreams of becoming a U.S. senator but, for all he knows, there is only his rural city council to aspire to. “Well heck,” he says, “I want to be part of governing, so I guess I’ll go for Catoosa City Council when I’m old enough.” Seeing all this uninspired, uninspiring visual product as a kid didn’t change my mind about wanting to be an artist, but it did make me wonder if this was all I had to look forward to.

Luckily, when I moved to Denton, TX, to go to college with the future Mrs. Public I ran face-first into actual contemporary art, and as much as I sometimes question the value of going to college to be an artist, I sure learned that there is this whole other incredible realm where strange and brilliant people strive to make strange and brilliant objects, basically for their own sake.

So, I attend these fairs to have a good time with friends and family, to be out in the early autumn air, to drink beer, to ponder whether or not Jim Public could do an event like this; and, even as my expectations for the art are immeasurably low, I’m always struck be the terrifying mediocrity of it all. For example, I was intrigued by the black scratchboard technique of rendering animals and then glazing over it with color to make them more lifelike; technically there was something to look at there. But, as we went on, I began to wonder how long it would be till we arrived at the next booth that featured the exact same stuff by a different artist: it happened within 30 minutes.

jim public kids at cottonwood art festival 111002

I leave you with a photo of the kids in the creative zone glazing their ceramic tiles which will soon hang in our kitchens or protect our tables from boiling saucepans. And I leave you with a final analogy. I usually avoid conversations about why so much art isn’t real or good, because I don’t like looking pretentious. But, imagine you’ve been immersed in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, enjoying all the latest advancements in graphics, player interface, sophistication of game play, and just having a great time: you’re a hard-core gamer, and the game developers have come through for you. Later you attend a local gaming convention and when you arrive you’re confronted with checkerboards created in different colors and sizes, and variations of those wooden games with golf tees like they have at the Cracker Barrel, and marbles. You finally see a plugged-in screen and a crowd of people gathered around two players actually holding joysticks; approaching, you realize that they’re playing a poorly re-made version of Pong, and, what’s more, no one seems to think that this is lame on every level of lameness. You try to strike up a conversation about Call of Duty and not only does no one know what you’re talking about, but they’re eying your camera suspiciously.

This is what it’s like, my friends.

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