I hung up the phone and said to my wife, "Well, they want me to say something about where do we go from here?" Her immediate reply was, "Who is we?"
I guess That is a pretty good place to start. I am sure that you and I are most concerned about where we are going from here. It is the nature of the creative spirit that is within all of us ever to be asking questions. It is also our responsibility to our society and to our existence. This is the quality that the early school years manage to systematically destroy particularly in our childhood art. They seem to forget that it is also the responsibility of our society and its educational systems to create the circumstances allowing us freely to pursue the creative spirit within us. Perhaps rather than ask that collective question, "where are we going?" we should be asking "what are they doing to us and what can they do for us to achieve our vision?"
Having started art school in 1946 after returning from the Second World War, it seems to me that I have seen a steady erosion of some of the values and conditions that made it possible for artists to remain true to the pursuit of their vision. The art market, art galleries and museums at that time respected this quality and tampered far less with the artist and his product. What has happened to connoisseurship? Where is the respect for creativity and the artist's dreams and visions? We might very well ask,what are they doing to us?
Certainly the art scene today is most disturbing. For those who have spent time reading and thinking about art and aesthetics, distinguishing a work that has substance or content, goes well beyond a nicely designed piece with all the colors and shapes in the right place. Its silent message grasps the viewer without word, thought or explanation. What is disturbing today is an eroding of that quality. Vast numbers of creative works seem to lack originality and the aesthetic elements that lead to achieving that hidden vision. Attitudes in art schools, art galleries, art museums, municipal and corporate institutions all seem to focus on a sort of product and marketing mentality. Consequently, I see the artist being cast in the role of designer or illustrator ready to fill the next trend, order or assignment. All we need do is look a the art galleries and their lack of critical judgement and their mad scramble to handle anything marketable. Crude bad drawing (often conveniently called appropriation), derivative rehashing of any image, anything goes if it will sell!
I worked as a museum curator when art museums carried the leadership role indetermining eminence in art. Their local, regional, and national competition formed a proving ground for the young artist, free of the marketplace. An artist had to have a credible resume of those kinds of shows in order to get gallery representation. A level of connoisseurship existed that is not prevalent today. Museum curators are inclined to shop the market now for what's hot and in.
Art museums have changed considerably. The block buster shows produced to raise revenue, take on a sports event character, with all the hype. Booths selling memorabilia and the museum shop are examples. Art images are reproduced on jewelry, plates, coffee mugs, scarves and T-shirts. If there is any way to destroy the visual potency of something, simply reduce it to the commonplace.
Unfortunately, this also shifts the public's interest from substance in a work and away from purchasing a serious print, drawing, painting, sculpture or finely conceived jewelry, pottery or craft object.
Municipalities and the corporate community pose another problem. Often demonstrating a Chamber of Commerce mentality, they try to place works of art palatable to everyone. Asking artists to address themes, their easy solution, force an artist to speak not to what is in his heart but on what is on the mind of the administrator.Censorship and the quaint notion that art should address ecological, sociological or political problems can also be a limiting factor if it is imposed on the artist.
I, personally, find it hard to abandon the feeling that visual art like poetry teaches us something about ourselves and our universe that goes far beyond simply putting down some nice colors and shapes. What should be done so that we can pursue acreative path to our inner visions?
Education is obviously the principle force that could make a difference. Arts and humanities are an essential part of the human spirit. Learning how to live is certainly as important as learning how to make a living. Sound visual education of students by all educational institutions is a must if we are to have the kind of audience that is needed so that artists can pursue the best of their creative visions. Art schools, also, must focus on strong aesthetics and go beyond their trade school mentality.
Lastly, we as artists, need to do some self-examination. We should try to be aware of and focus on that silent voice within us that when revealed can produce a creative and original work.
The above text was originally published in the Texas Sculpture Association Newsletter of Sept/Oct 1991 (reprinted by the TSA in 2008)
More of Wilbur Verhelst at http ://www .txsculpture .com /member /verhelst_ wilbert.html
Note: transcribed by Council for Artists' Rights, 2011