TITLE: An Afternoon with Art - Good AND Bad
DATE: 9/01/2004 06:26:00 AM
I spent last Friday in Washington on business. In between meetings, we stole away to The Corcoran Museum for lunch. I was thrilled. The Corcoran is hands down my favorite gallery in DC. So excited, this slipped out of my mouth as I stood at the security desk having my bag searched. The security guard cocked her head and said, "Why?," as if she were surprised that someone would like the Museum so much. Quite simply I explained, "Because I can come here and see art by people who are still alive!"
With a little extra time to spare, we went upstairs to spend a little time with the exhibits. I was excited to see a Norman Rockwell showing, as well as Sally Mann's new work. Oddly enough... they were directly across the hall from one another.
Rockwell was a phenomenal illustrator. His painting style is superb. He calculated each brush stroke down to a science. Nothing is wasted. No flick of his wrist was without purpose.
The exhibit showcased a series of public service paintings Rockwell was commissioned to paint by the US Government in an effort to sell War Bonds for WWII. It's an interesting idea I cannot imagine taking hold today. Could you imagine people buying their little piece of the War on Terror? No. The concept, the exhibit, and this extraordinary marketing push are all points left in history.
A few steps away was the entrance to Sally Mann's latest series of photographs. Mann's portraits have always seemed haunted to me, whether by the look in the subject's eyes or the ghostly silver wash of the prints themselves.
Her latest work is truly haunted. The images focus on two subjects: Mann's dead pet greyhound and the photographic evidence of her shadowing a forensic researcher. So much of Mann's earlier acclaimed work is about youth and life. Now, her photos are evidence of a process of death and decay.
With these exhibits fresh in my mind, I was reminded of how I used to struggle with my thoughts on art, craft, and the possibilities of making a living through creative entrepreneurship. Looking at Rockwell's work alongside Mann's, this mindset returns to me and I wonder: How can an artist like Sally Mann make a living with large scale photographs of highly controversial subject matter that the mass public has difficulty stomaching? How can she succeed while functional potters fail every day? Is it just a numbers game?
While I don't hold the answers for these questions, even now, I do find it important to note that Norman Rockwell was a commissioned artist. His work was sold before he ever created it. He worked on the same model that Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonardo Da Vinci did. Sally Mann does not. The challenge before her is two fold: how to make art without a built-in buyer and how to keep making art even if the public voices objections.
Furniture makers, clock makers, quilters, ceramists, glass blowers, jewelers... these are the accessible artists that are made of the same stuff that Norman Rockwell was. Making art for a public that will purchase the work, give art to others, and often develop a dialogue with the craftsperson. It doesn't make their brand of art more or less valid than the Sally Mann variety. But it certainly does make you scratch your head and think... if Sally Mann can continue to thrive on a shaky tightrope with a limited collector base, why can't the successful glass sculptor with affordable work make it? Why can't the weaver with a line of pillows and throws find an audience? How far of a stretch is it to expect one gallery to display the wall hangings of a talented mixed media artist with a concept that can be widely embraced and collected?
Maybe we all don't fall in love with Sally Mann's work. Maybe some of us even find it 'grotesque'. But, her form of extremism certainly does assert that hundreds of thousands of craftspeople across the country have more than a fighting chance at making it big.
DATE:9/09/2004 02:37:00 PM