There was a time when all art had to do was be beautiful, and it felt like more than enough for you. You could gaze on landscapes, boats, flowers and bales of hay, and portraits of noblewomen and their fluffy little dogs, and you were transported. Once you could stand in a museum and just get lost in a Monet until the docents started to give you funny looks, savoring the texture of all those blobby little brushstrokes, the zing of the colors as the light hit them just so, all of the stuff that gets lost in even the best reproductions. Orwell once wrote that the average person is incapable of looking at a painting for longer than it takes to peel and eat an orange, and you took pride in knowing that when it came to art, you weren't an average person. You could have happily put down a five-course meal in front of a Turner.
So when did beauty, by itself, stop being enough for you in your art? When did you become the sort of person who can walk through a show like “Passionate Visions” at the Irvine Museum appreciating the undeniable, overwhelming prettiness of it all, but walking away feeling unsatisfied. When did you start thinking of this sort of stuff as Grandma Art?
You look at Jessie Arms Botke's oil painting Demoiselles, Cranes, and Lotus, and you think, My gosh, those sure are some fine-looking cranes. And just look at them lotuses! Lotusi?Botke really knew how to work the whole Art Deco thing—there's no denying that. This is a painting that would look absolutely gorgeous over your couch. But the thing is, art that goes over your couch is art that's useful, art you wouldn't mind looking at 45 times a day. It soothes and relieves, like Tylenol—but it doesn't stimulate, or nourish.
You wander over to Arthur G. Rider's Bringing in the Boats, featuring a guy using two tired-looking oxen to haul a little ship to shore, and you can savor the details, the electric blue of the crashing tide and the golden sun glowing through the boat's flapping sails. But then it suddenly occurs to you that, for all its loveliness, this painting would have been a natural for the cover of your high school lit textbook. Or The Old Man and the Sea. It would make a gorgeous illustration for a story. But there's no story here. At least, there isn't one for you.
What brought you to this point? Were you spoiled forever by art school? Too much confrontation and deliberate ugliness and thinking in your art, too much Duchamp, Dali, Picasso and Warhol? Too many modern wiseguys like Mark Ryden and Robert Williams making art perverse and fun and urban, so it feels like an extension of your everyday life instead of something you go to stare at politely on chilly white walls? Where did you go wrong? Why do you look at a perfectly lovely painting like William Wendt's Houses Along the Coast, and struggle to keep your eyes on it? Who is this mean, awful person who lives in your head now, who looks at Albert T. DeRome's Carmel Bay, Pescadero Point and thinks, This looks like the prettiest paint-by-numbers kit of all time.
It makes you feel like one of those annoying jazz guys, the snobs who have spent their lives seeking out ever-weirder and ever-more-experimental music until their palates become so jaded they can only find joy in stuff that's frankly unlistenable to the rest of us. Eventually, they reach a point where they can't even listen to great rock N roll anymore, they just sit there, griping about how there aren't enough notes. You say you like the Beatles, and they snort like you're confessing to being a Backstreet Boys fan.
Are you like them? Have you become an annoying art guy? If you don't put the brakes on this in time, are you on your way to standing around in galleries with a scarf and a beret, pontificating in a nasal drone about the unspeakably banal tastes of the common man? Is such a transformation inevitable? If it does happen, is there somebody you can trust to have the decency to put you out of your misery with a hammer to the back of the head?
Perhaps a good whack upside the noggin like that is just what you need. Maybe that will bring you back to the point when you can gaze on landscapes, boats, flowers and bales of hay, and it'll be more than enough for you.
“Passionate Visions” at Irvine Museum, 18881 Von Karman, Irvine, (949) 476-2565. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sept. 28.