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Last Message of the Hermit Crab...

by Russ Cushman


All the world, especially the world of art, is behind us.

Many thousands of years ago we have evidence that humans drew on cliffs and the walls of caves, and all over the earth there are primitive paintings in pure pigments of those things of their concern...various beasts and warriors and even spirit beings rising to the heavens. These early artists had all the world before them.

We as a species struggled with art, as there were no obvious materials with which to record our history or feelings. We tried everything from wood and clay to iron and gold. The history of art experienced its first sea change when man made quantum leaps as the Greeks sculpted and cast in bronze some of the greatest sculptures ever conceived. They left glimpses of their legacy in murals and mosaics and on their pottery. Everything in art since then has been an echo of their groundbreaking achievements. The Romans and then the Holy Romans could only pay tribute to Greek Genius.

Then the “Renaissance” in Europe made the conventions of art a discipline... and artists either chose to relish or rebel against such institutionalized ideals. We artists have had a good run...either way. There has been even more rebellion in the latter years...

And now we find ourselves about as relevant in this society as those naked men scratching on caves with charcoal and ocher. The transition has been so smooth so that we never felt the pain of usurpation, never saw the tide rushing in, and we ignored the signs along the road that warned of another quantum change. Photography and cinema were the exciting harbingers of a technological tsunami which would obliterate everything done before. Everything, including art as we know it.

Computers have ushered in the final layer of the deluge, and so transformed our culture, and culture in general that most traditional artists today swim desperately around just looking for something floating by to grab and hold onto, to prevent total immersion.

Almost anything and everything can be created on a keyboard. Digital programs and printing can produce imagery any size and style. And there are new elements available which make everything before pale in comparison---motion and light. Paintings look dead compared to the dancing and light of digital imagery. And the average consumer is in love with the new technology. So much so that he or she does not look anywhere else for stimulation...

Still today we artists conceive, produce and market our works like there is someone that cares. We have watched our world shrink and dry up like those ancient men who watched the earth's climate change and continents shift and thousands of species lost in the shuffle. They probably never saw it coming. They probably never completely adjusted, and their children probably never understood what mattered so much to them.... The world was, after all, a safer place.

As I observe the average gaggle of American consumers, and I have fifty years of good memory of what they used to act like, what they used to respond to...what they used to relate to and want to own---I see nothing familiar. Today a majority walks past most art as if it is as dead to them as hot asphalt pavement on a summer day. The bizarre and outrageous still has an audience...but people saunter by, talking on their cell phones and tune out almost anything...and they can stand in front of art with nothing on their minds and still see...feel... nothing. They have been completely de-sensitized. There is nothing we can put on canvas which can compete with the average television car ad. The average consumer is constantly inundated with hectic and sensational imagery which has made him or her art-blind and song-deaf.

He or she is also spending all of his or her expendable income on the various new technologies which dominate all of their ever-expanding leisure time. They have no money left to purchase art, no room for it in their lives. Artists must find an audience by using their skills inside these technologies...or become as expendable as saber-tooth tiger trap-builders.

Years ago there were signs already foretelling this transition. Architects designed homes with plenty of windows...cathedral ceilings...paneled walls...and very little wall space that could accommodate original art. Architects were jealous of the status of material culture...they wanted humans to see their constructions as the art in itself...art was unnecessary in a well-designed space.

Still there were corporate and medical buildings which demanded the status and beauty of well placed art, "Corporate" art. So public places were where much of my production ended up. And I was happy about it. My work was seen by more people...enjoyed by the masses...and then our culture turned on these institutions...profit became an evil and extravagance with it. The government commandeered the medical industry, in fact most industries...profits are spent meeting regulations, taxes, and removal of themselves and their loyalties to other countries---where artists work very, very cheap.

Today whenever I make a bid on a sculpture, I know already that my client has priced something similar (But inferior!) made by an art provider overseas. Imported bronze sculpture has had a devastating and leveling effect on American sculptors. The average consumer, his senses now deadened, cannot appreciate the difference in craftsmanship between imported art and “real” art. Whatever the differences, he or she is not willing to pay for the difference. The Walmart syndrome has provided the last wave of the complete annihilation of Western Culture.

So you think I am exaggerating...Go try and find a true art gallery. I know of only a dozen or so left around the state. There are almost no "high end" art galleries left. The market is soft and the lower-end still has mild potential. So many galleries have closed down in the past decade that you will probably not know off-hand where one is in your town...(unless you live in an art “center” like San Antonio)...if you do...it is the last one within fifty or one-hundred miles. And most of the ones you can find are hold-outs...actually frame shops or tax-write-offs in tourist traps.  Yes, there are some in Round Top, God bless 'em! Greta and her allies are still hanging in there in Bryan.

I have scouted for over a year to find new representation since my galleries have withered on the vine. The options are very limited. Nothing in Houston (never has been much), very little in Austin, a few left in Dallas-Ft Worth. The best galleries left that I know about are in Fredricksburg...good luck getting in. They are stuffed from floor to ceiling.

The art landscape I see today would be comparable to the dark ages of American art before WWII. Then galleries were confined to a few towns in the Southwest and the wealthy neighborhoods within the major cities. Art was irrelevant to the average American then...unknown to most countries around the world.  When people thought about art...art from the Western Culture...(I do not mean Cowboy art, which is just part of that.) they associated it with New York or Paris...isolated, specialized markets. Porfirio Salinas got his start selling his works out of a paint store. The greatest American artists made their living as illustrators for magazines. That is where we are again today...and the tide is not shifting back out.

Most of the art in the world is behind us...under a deluge of cultural change. The mastodons and longhorned bison are not coming back, and neither are the weekend art shows with wealthy art patrons strolling along the river musing at the beauty of God's creation. They quit adding to their collections thirty years ago. Their children did not want their art...it is stacking up in second-hand shops all over the country.  My antiquer friends and I brag among ourselves about the incredible deals on original art we get these days from ignorant dealers in so-called "antique" shops who have no idea what they have...or care what it is worth.

There is a reason why they do not care. Their customers don't care. There is no money in it. The new shop retailers are just cultural beachcombers...picking up random beautiful seashells at a dime-a-dozen on a wasteland of dead sea-life. And the tide just keeps moving in.

And we are the driftwood...once living tissue. Now washed ashore in a market of rapid change and technology, inhabited by distracted creatures who look human...but have lost their touch with the humanities.

We need to keep working, as long as we can. We will still connect with a few, a poor man who does not own a computer, a child who has not yet been robbed of her simple wonder, another artist striving to develop his or her talent. We were never in it for the money anyway...it has always been the message...and it has been an honor being one of the last of the Mohicans...to actually make beautiful things without buttons or patterns or machines...but with my bare hands...to impact other's lives...with the human touch.

I am so grateful to have lived when I did, to remember glory days of human interaction...even arguments over art...before art was treated like something on a level just above graffiti. I may be washed up...but I am going to be a little hermit crab giving life to an ancient shell. And I am not dead yet. I will be making one final, tiny furrow in the sand...writing out a message lost to the waves.

Art, which INSPIRED, was mankind's highest achievement.