Tree. Moon. Animal. Landscape. The soothing images of Saturday Market and Etsy are repetitious, earnest and unchallenging. This type of art has a solid footing in the culture of the white and well-fed. I’ve lived in Eugene for 28 years and I can say that for most of Eugene’s residents, this is the only art they recognize as art. The entirety of worldwide contemporary art exists for “others.” We are Eugene, we don’t trust sophistication. We like to rehash the old complaints and keep things the way they are. We congratulate ourselves on our righteousness and humility. The world is a harsh place and in home we seek refuge. We don’t need art to challenge us and make us think. Visual art should be comforting and sincere and not bother us.
I am not blaming or criticizing artists who follow a simple transactional model. They make what you might buy. My finger points at the art audience. How is it that we can embrace challenging films, books, plays, music, TV, comedy and political actions? We can dissect, discuss and take lessons from those current cultural totems, and yet we shy away from visual art that is not instantly understood – or worse, somehow pokes us in the eye.
This rejection might be explained by the viewers’ feelings of intimidation, the idea that you have to understand art history or be part of the elite to approach a challenging work of art. That is a lie. You simply need to be open to feel what you’re feeling in the presence of the art and stay with it, even if the feelings are uncomfortable. You cannot be lazy with your powers of perception.
For example, let me describe a public art project from 2018 in Chicago, called “Gun Share Program” and ask you to imagine it. Artists installed, on a downtown street, a rack for public rental bicycles. Instead of bikes, the rack was filled with a row of 10 replica AR-15 assault rifles. This would never happen in downtown Eugene because (let’s skip over the funding, supplied by an ad agency in Chicago) the project would offend the literal minded and hypersensitive. The ambition required of artists to achieve such a project would be modified by objection or killed by the misinterpretation of irony. The outcry would be, “What do we say to our children?”
What you say to your children is exactly the point. Kids have to make sense of the astounding and confusing times we live in, as we all do. Sometimes the answer is that you don’t have an answer, just more questions, and I thank every artist who continues to pose them.
Go see Eugene’s contemporary artist groups, who are hanging on and mounting shows somehow. Because we lack a physical art center in Eugene to offer regular exhibits, you must go online and join their mailing lists to find out times and locations: Eugene Contemporary Art, Tropical Contemporary, Ditch Projects, BRIDGE Exhibitions, ArtCity, Gray Space Project, Harmonic Laboratory.
So what’s wrong with hippie art and landscapes? Nothing, they’re just not contemporary. Consider if you will, that the place we live molds and contours our perception and an evolving world demands our evolving powers of perception.