Monday, May 19, 2014

Article for Art Papers -- 1987

Pretty Face,
Art in Savannah

Jack Miller

Asked by the Art Association of Savannah to jury and judge awards for the annual "Arts on the River" show, I made the four hour drive from Atlanta through the warming spring countryside to Savannah. I always feel, as I veer from the freeway to Florida, as 1 pass Macon onto the long, lonely highway to the coast, that I am headed for some isolated outpost of civilization. Four days of viewing the city and its art
showed me a new form of isolation.

My colleague, an artist from Hilton Head, and I met at the Art Association showroom overlooking the Savannah River and River Street. The works we were to jury were arranged around the large room by category: photography, graphics, watercolor, and painting—oil, acrylic, and mixed media. Several pastels were grouped with the watercolors. After jurying, we were to give cash awards to the best in each category as well as a best-in-show award. We were also allowed several honorable mentions.

Arts on the River failed to
consider Savannah's frightening
secrets; in the Atlanta Biennale,
no abyss, nor horror, perversion, death
image, or form of destruction was
too ghastly to present.

What struck me immediately was the absence of controversy. The works before me were of seven types: colorful flower studies, cute animals, dockside or seaside scenes, more or less realistic renderings of pleasant looking people, fish, birds, and attractive homes. There were few exceptions. Let me make clear, forthwith, that I admire pretty pictures.
Perhaps no collection of paintings has moved me more than the lush studies by Matisse of rooms opening to the Mediterranean, shown in the "Early Years in Nice" show at the National Gallery. The Neo-Impressionist works in the recent exhibitions at the High Museum have similarly brought sighs of aesthetic pleasure. But as I walked around that room in Savannah, looking at pretty scene after pretty scene, removing only those that were incompetent, incoherent, or incomplete, I began to ask myself just what had produced so many attempts at escape. I found this display nothing short of immoral.
Savannah is an odd town. With its quaint squares, grand brick mansions from past centuries, moss-sagged oaks, and profusion of blooms, it is the very picture of Southern charm. What is less obvious upon first encounter are the murder, rape, and suicide rates, the robberies, the water and air pollution (obvious if the wind is westerly), the sprawling
military bases, the Savannah River Plant seeping radioactive tritium and other wastes into the water supply, extreme poverty, AIDS appearing among a quiet gay population, the homeless camped out in the quaint
squares, and violent racial tension. I know of these because I have lived in Savannah off and on throughout my life. I have lost friends to murder and to suicide there, and known others who have suffered many of the city's ills.
What, though, has any of this to do with the art show? R.G. Collingwood, writing of T.S. Eliot, offers the answer: "His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualist theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs." 1

The art of the "Arts on the River" failed to communicate or even to consider in any way Savannah's frightening secrets. I have often heard the question, "There is enough horror already; isn't it better for art to give us entertainment and beauty?" We all know well enough the fable of the ostrich. The artists of the Savannah region seem likewise to prefer a
head-in-the-sand pose as defense against encroaching dangers. Thinking that a more enlightened view might be found elsewhere in Savannah, I ventured to see the current show at the mushrooming Savannah College of Art and Design, which featured an Atlanta artist in its highly visible Exhibit A Gallery. There, amid pretty knicknacks for tourists, saleable student crafts, and scenic photos, I saw, to my dismay, a show made up of flat, pink and yellow watercolor flowers. There could be no avoiding the conclusion: in a word, the art of Savannah is a cover-up. It is an attempt to hide the disturbing ills eating away at the city's core.
The reader may well ask at this point, "If you think pretty art is so immoral, do you think ugliness will make us any better off?" To answer, 1 have to refer to another recent show which was the exact opposite of the one in Savannah, the "Atlanta Biennale" at Nexus. There, no abyss, no horror, perversion, death image, or form of destruction was too ghastly to present. The dark side of existence was fully celebrated, to
the exclusion of everything remotely appealing or beautiful. But such omission of the beautiful is no less an escape art than the omission of the horrors of life.What neither the Savannah show nor the Nexus show
achieved was a sense of vital connection—neither communicated a 

For all its phalluses and explicit
eroticism, excitement was missing from
much of the art in the Nexus show. The
Savannah show was too pretty to
excite anyone.

balance between, or even a sense of the struggle between, the good and evil forces affecting human existence. Herbert Read expressed the necessity of this vital connection when he wrote, "Art is human, not divine: profane, not sacred. It does not descend in Pentecostal flames: it arises like a green sap; like a seminal fluid, it issues from the body, and from the body in an unusual state of excitement."For all its phalluses and explicit eroticism, it was just such excitement that was missing from much of the art in the Nexus show. The Savannah show was too pretty to excite anyone.

Returning along the stretch of lonely road back to Atlanta, I could not resolve which was the greater immorality: an art that utterly ignored present day horrors, or an art that showed nothing but horror, with no redeeming vision. In the Nexus show, blame must rest with the curator whose focus seemed almost always on the obscene and the ugly. Since
the Savannah show was open to all, the blame there must reside with a community of artists who refuse to face the ills which, one day soon, may destroy their flowers and remove the smiles from the pretty faces they paint.

1 Quoted in George Dickie, Aesthetics (New York: Pegasus, 1971) p.94.

2 Herbert Read, The Philosophy of Modern Art (Cleveland- The
World Publishing Company, 1967), p. 66.

Jack Miller is visiting professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the Atlanta College of Art and Museum Librarian of the High Museum.

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