What’s Wrong with Beauty?

Feb 10, 2017

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A recent article in the New York Times about Hawaii’s contemporary art scene, while touting some upcoming events in Honolulu, made me angry.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/travel/contemporary-art-honolulu-hawaii-biennials.html

To quote, “…contemporary arts curator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, said that because most local art “is geared toward the visitor market, with watercolors and Hawaiian-themed landscapes,” these events could help dispel the notion that there couldn’t be good contemporary art in Hawaii.”

What?

And there was more. “Contemporary art can prosper only if there are enough venues to show and sell it. Many artists and curators in Hawaii bemoan the shortage of private galleries, especially ones that aren’t just focused on fast-selling realist landscapes of little craft or value.”

As a gallery owner, former artist, publisher of two coffee table books about Hawaii’s contemporary artists, long time volunteer, and local arts advocate, I can’t let this one go. During a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is being threatened, we have institutions belittling the value of beautiful works—landscapes, watercolors, pieces with a sense of place.

First, why is beauty not valued? Why are things that make us feel good—beautiful things we love to surround ourselves with, not valuable?

Isn’t that the value? They make us feel good? They remind us of special times in our lives? The very fact that they are “fast-selling” should show they have value as a source of revenue for our state and value to the people who purchase them. After all, Hawaiʻi ranks #3 per capita of our 50 states with fine artists and craftspeople (according to the National Endowment for the Arts 2008 “Artists in the Workforce” report). It’s beauty Hawaii is selling. Our natural environment. This incredible culture that is undergoing an amazing revival. A sense of place.

Second, throughout history, artists are the documenters of the times. The very fact that these beautiful landscapes exist today and continue to inspire artists and collectors is truly wonderful and should be celebrated! The fact that there are sea turtles, dolphins, humpback wales, and you see them show up in art, should be a good thing. You don’t see art of Dodo birds anymore… With our current government dismantling the EPA, these things all may go the way of the Dodo, and so may our beautiful landscapes as pollution and climate change take their affects. But artists are documenting all the beauty we are fortunate enough to surround ourselves with today. Collectors are surrounding themselves with images of Hawaii that inspire them to want to return. That’s a wonderful thing!

Personally, my taste runs wide and I, too, get tired of realism, but it has value. Real, beautiful value.

Third, it’s become obvious to me that all of the artwork you see in the world comes from people creating from one of two perspectives. Some work through their angst, hurt, and frustrations with their creative process, and this shows in their art; we feel their emotional turmoil. Others can create only when they are happy. Their inspiration and process flow when they let life’s worries go and instead focus on the joy that comes from creating. In Hawaii, they draw from the inspiration of living in this special place. In turn, their art uplifts people around the world who purchase their works as special remembrances of their visits to Hawaii. Powerful, positive energy.

While it’s true there are things that are ugly in this world, I’d like to say ‘Thank you’ to all of the artists who chose to focus on the positive and beauty and keep bringing more of it into this world. Thank you. Thank you.

Fourth, what’s wrong with watercolors? I work with several artists who create amazing watercolors ranging from scenic to abstract. One of them even teaches at the Honolulu Museum of Art…

Here’s the thing about art. It’s made by people sharing their life experiences. And its meant to connect with other people and create experiences.

When a painting stops us in our tracks and our jaw drops, or a sculpture draws us in for closer inspection of every angle, marveling at the lines, we feel a visceral response to the work. Art makes us feel. It is a vehicle not only for expression, but of connection.

So, why bemoan the fact that fewer and fewer galleries exist? Why not embrace the Information Age that has made it so widely possible for artists to find their collectors/audiences? Times have changed and its time for artists to become their own best selling galleries. Sure, we still need galleries through this time of transition, but its not an easy business which is why so few exist. So enough fear mongering—celebrate that change is occurring—more people can earn a living selling their art which provides the service of inspiring collectors!

Finally, it’s also clear there are many different parts of the contemporary art market with many different audiences. To claim they are all the same is like saying Alice Cooper and Justin Timberlake’s music appeal to the same people, or that since they often don’t, one or the other has no artistic value. It’s wrong. Why belittle audiences and artists that are inspired by the beauty of Hawaii and want to surround themselves with it? On one level, it’s much like what’s happening with our country right now. Polarizing. Belittling. Wrong. Haven’t we come far enough to see the value in one another—and ourselves in the process? Haven’t we found that we truly are one and can celebrate our differences?

Truth be told, the article I referred to is actually discussing conceptual art, though they call it contemporary art. After all, how many of us will drape our living room in silk tunnels, or have nets hung across our bedrooms, creating an obstacle course to the door? But there is room for that too in this broad world of art. It’s fun to experience the realities from other people’s imaginations, and I’m grateful there are spaces that provide that. But I don’t appreciate them trying to make people believe that what appeals to them has no value!

Having the pleasure of meeting and working with so many collectors, there’s one story that stands outs a great example. A mainland couple who attends Art Basel and a lot of the big art fairs around the world, and loves conceptual and contemporary art, chose beautiful plein air landscapes by a couple of Hawaii’s contemporary masters when it came time to select art for their second home here. They wanted that sense of place. It’s the very reason they bought a home here to begin with—to surround themselves with beauty.

It’s time to quit dismissing the impact of our local contemporary art scene—its contribution to our local economy, our wellbeing, and even our communities. Hawaii’s artists throughout the Islands create with a depth and breath that is inspired by living in this special place—from realist landscapes, to abstracts, to conceptual art, and this environment is beautifully documented, translated, and shared. We are indeed rich with artists.