At every dentist visit as a child, waiting for Dr. Haka’s* assistant to come clip on my paper bib, I would stare at the sailboat picture mounted on the wall. I studied every line: how it swooped, intersected, and ended—where water met boat, boat sky, sky water. When they went to work with their buzzing, sucking instruments and trays of flavored foam, I’d continue tracing those colors, finding comfort in the studied lines while metal clinked about my mouth.
The picture was little more than a framed poster—a distraction at best, unnoticed by most. Would you call the pieces mounted in offices, hotels, and lobbies art? Bucolic nature scenes in cozy B&Bs? Splatters and bold strokes in modern marble high rises? Mass produced reproductions—decorations—so many steps removed from an artist at work?
Filling a space in a beautiful way, that is what art means to me.
“Me” being Arthur Dow, who uttered the quote, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived by it. But at what point does the attempt to fill the world with beauty devolve into the hunt for paintings to match curtains or a bright picture to soften a white medical wall? Rothko abandoned his 1958 commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, worried that his murals would become little more than “over-the-mantel” art. The mantel, in this case, being a pretentious dining space filled with cursory attention spans.
Mark Rothko: Seagram Murals. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., Photo by Rob Shelley.
On the one hand, I also fear art’s degradation by decoration. On the other, I don’t think withdrawing art is the answer. How do we save pieces from a commercialized dentist office fate, while still giving them space to fill and make beautiful? How do we get people to pause and see, not just pass and glance?
In a way, I see it as an issue between supply and demand. When a little girl goes to a dance performance and says, “I want to grow up to be a ballerina,” that is the problem. That’s the split between people who grow up to create art, and people who grow up to disengage with it. Yes, we need dancers and poets and painters, but we also need people to say “I want to grow up viewing.”
Our artists need an audience to see, buy, and value work, not just shop for reprints. We need to nurture consumers as well as creators. Then, perhaps we wouldn’t have independent artists losing out to posters. We’d have a larger army fighting for the NEA. We’d have more galleries, more theaters, more museums and more attendance. We’d even have pieces in lobbies and offices worth calling art.
We’d have spaces to fill in a beautiful way.
*Name changed to protect his identity. Even though he was a very nice and gentle dentist.