The Festival of Arts likes to think it's the highest-brow of the three summer art shows clogging up lovely Laguna Canyon. (Here are the two pieces of advice I can offer about the Sawdust Art and Art-a-Fair festivals across the road: 1. Don't go to the Sawdust Art Festival in brocade boots; 2. Don't go at all.) And the Festival of Arts may be indeed the bestival, but only by inches. Housed elegantly in the almost six acres of the Pageant of the Masters grounds, the festival is a hive of shallow, competent works eagerly surrounded by a swarm of the upper-middle class. These are the kind of bourgeois folks who talk a liberal, tolerant game in stentorian tones and then secretly vote Republican, if you can judge people by the paintings they buy. And guess what? You can!

Because what is offered—over and fucking over again—at the Festival of Arts is a panoply of amazing sameness, of perky sailboat scenes (which at least have vibrant color schemes to recommend them), of Mission Viejo-beige nudes that pass here for edgy, of the same damn Impressionist Mediterranean villascapes that have polluted Laguna Beach as badly as the dog poop flowing down Aliso Creek. There was even a watercolor painting of—kill me if I'm lying—a teddy bear. Apparently, the bohemian spirit has been replaced with an animatronic version of the real thing. Now if you could just program it to love . . .

This antiseptic version of art is the evidence on which Laguna Beach stakes its claim that it's a beautiful town. There are many gay people. There is still the rustic community in the canyon, which once was home to the LSD dealing of the Brotherhood and all kinds of dirty hippies. It has terrific florists, the hallmark of a livable city. The museum's terrific, as are the handful of galleries that don't offer preposterous sunset scenes and ugly $12,000 sculptures. And so you would think the city would have better taste. But in fact the city so prides itself on the fair that when organizers threw a tantrum and threatened to head for San Clemente because they weren't getting enough looove, city fathers soothed them back into the stable with airy promises of a better amphitheater and more parking.

And it's amazing how crowded that parking lot is. Even at the invite-only preview, there were so many people jostling against one another you couldn't get within five feet of most artists' booths.

Not all the works at the Festival of Arts are terrible, but I'd put the figure at 90 percent. There's nice jewelry. There are lovely blown-glass lamps. When there is function behind form at the fair, things go well. By all means, people need lamps. You might as well have a nice one, sleek and silly in a vibrant orange. And there are many artist booths featuring technically excellent photographs—some Adams clones of Yosemite, some of the always-popular graceful old architecture featuring lots of crumbling arches. Now, of course, I can't see a picture of a graceful old arch without thinking of the new Beetle ads, just like I can't see a photo of a beautiful, pristine mountain vista without thinking how well a shiny Jeep Cherokee would look in the middle of it, its all-season tires tearing up the fragile ecosystem.

My friend Ellen Rose proved just how antiseptic an environment the Festival of Arts is, asking me what I thought of her series of silly dogs. Some are anthropomorphized in baseball uniforms (though sadly not playing poker); others look rabid and retarded. I told her I thought they were shallow enough to fit in with the rest of the festival, but that the shallowness was deceptive. Her style is loose and energetic, even sloppy, and the subjects are loopily charming rather than cute or precious. But where were her fat, juicy, sexy circus ladies I admired so much? Oh, she'd submitted them to the festival board the year before and had been flatly rejected for a booth space—in favor, I'm sure, of some teddy bears and seascapes.

Festival of the Arts at 650 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1145. Open daily, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Through Aug. 30. $5; students/seniors, $3.


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