Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

Last week Laura and I went to Santa Fe for a couple of days so we could get all touristy together and unwind a little bit. In our wanderings around downtown, we found ourselves in the State Capitol.

The State Capitol building is circular, and is, in fact, a huge mandala. You can go inside, stand in the rotunda, and find the exact spot at the very center that will cure your headache or sharpen dull razorblades. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, actually -- I didn’t have a headache that day, and I had left all my dull razorblades at home. But there was still a nice buzz to be had if you knew what to look for.

The corridors of the State Capitol are lined with paintings. It’s a huge art gallery, and it’s free. And since the State Capitol serves a function other than art, it avoids that sterile art gallery atmosphere. Most of the paintings are contemporary (within the last 20 years), and many of them are impressive. There’s some powerful stuff there. What a fine bunch of artists we have living in our state! I would imagine having your work hanging in the State Capitol would be a high honor if you’re into that kind of thing.

Later we wound up at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, which is now one of Santa Fe’s leading tourist attractions. State residents get in for half price, which ain’t bad. It’s rather like entering a temple. People speak in hushed tones, and the officious guards will definitely kick ass if you break decorum. (On my first trip there, I gestured at a painting with my museum brochure while talking to Laura, and a guard came right over and told me that was a no-no. Not only do you have to stand behind the line on the floor, but no part of your body can get any closer than the mandatory deference distance.) I think Georgia would get a chuckle at the reverence shown the sacred relics, I mean, paintings... but then again, the kowtowing of the masses was exactly what she had spent her lifetime trying to accomplish. She succeeded quite well. In fact, she became one of a handful of artists who achieved iconic status, and are known by their last names. A few that come to mind are Picasso, Dali, and Warhol. And O’Keeffe, of course.

The exhibit this time was a combination of her paintings and a selection of the numerous photographs taken of her during her lifetime. When she was a fledgling artist, she hooked up with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, 24 years her senior, who launched her career while enhancing his own. She maintained this mutually beneficial relationship with photographers her entire life.

She was an attractive young woman, radiating a serene self-possession. Her face had an “old” quality even when young. So her face matured more than aged as she got older. But it was her body, more than her face, that made her famous. Posing nude for Stieglitz was a risky move, a risqué move which could have turned her into a mere curiosity, the plaything of a famous photographer. But the combination of a young woman with a great bod, who was also a decent artist, photographed in a controversial yet tasteful way by the great Stieglitz, proved to be the magic key to a lifelong career and her eventual enshrinement as America’s most famous artist (many people would not consider Warhol a “real” artist).

The exhibit didn’t include any of the nude photos, except for a couple of close-ups of her hands. (She had great hands.) Most of the photos were chosen to trace the evolution of her chosen image: “Georgia O’Keeffe, wise old crone of New Mexico.” She was always photographed wearing dark colors, with a somber expression on her face, posed in front of elemental New Mexico backgrounds – mountains, doorways, adobe walls.

Interestingly, the older she got, the deeper she got into this image, and the photographers were only too happy to oblige. They knew how to pose her just so, and get the lighting just right. She played it straight... no irony... just the wise old crone growing older each year. This is in contrast to a later generation – the 60s rock gods – who no longer feel the need to wear the rock god mask, and now allow themselves to be photographed as they really are – aging millionaires on the tail end of a lifetime of self-indulgence. But O’Keeffe lived in an earlier era, when being a celebrity – and especially a celebrity artist -- was evidently serious business, not to be taken lightly.

Abstract art doesn’t do much for me, but I have always liked her paintings of flowers, and especially flowers and skulls together. I call this “haiku with objects” – the utilization of powerful archetypes in juxtaposition. Thus, the ephemeral, fragile beauty of a flower, in association with the hard permanence of a skull... with the skull itself implying the fragility and impermanence of the animal it was once associated with. You can tell quite a story with a rose and a skull, and all without words, no less.

She did some very nice little watercolors before she got famous. And like I said, some of her paintings of flowers, bones, and skulls were excellent. But for the most part, if her paintings had been hanging in the State Capitol, I would have walked right past them without a second glance.

Downtown Santa Fe is a remarkable place, one of the few locations in the state with actual pedestrian traffic. It’s one big tourist trap. There’s the Plaza, the Palace of the Governors, various art museums, and St. Francis Cathedral, to name a few attractions. Without exception, every store is either an art gallery, a gift shop, or a restaurant. The amount of money changing hands there is staggering. Multiply that by all the other art destinations in this country, and we can trace the outlines of a huge art industry which has been fed, up to now, by the building boom and the gigantic transfer of wealth from the rabble to the elite.

Art, as defined in Late Empire America, is essentially home decor for the upper middle class and downright wealthy. People now spend an exorbitant amount of money on their homes, and home decor is a significant expense. This is why there is such a huge amount of money to be made in art, and why there are so many art galleries. Every little podunk town has its art gallery. Music, on the other hand is mere entertainment or background noise. And writing... well, you’ve got to actually read the stuff, which is a limiting factor right there. But art – specifically, paint on canvas – is a huge industry in our post-baroque era.

There’s an unprecedented renaissance in “the arts” in general going on right now. The wealthier the upper classes become, the more art they buy. But this is a frivolous era. For a couple of generations now, we have ignored our essential infrastructure – including the planet itself -- in favor of whatever today’s little trinket might be. In fifty years or less, will people look back and admire what an artistically creative culture we had, or will they remember us as the generation that destroyed the planet when we had the opportunity to save it? This is a rhetorical question, of course.


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