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Signs on the High Seas

by Russ Cushman


At the risk of being trite, I have to orient you to my concerns with the overused term “sea change” which is going on in our culture, and thus our economy and more specifically, the art market. If it is such a thing, and it seems so to me, then that must be why I just saw a buoy float by my lonely island advertising a closeout sale on art supplies, frames, limited edition prints, and cheap offers to deliver rolls of canvas, primed and unprimed, barrels of linseed oil and tanker truckfuls of turpentine, written in Chinese and French... and English.

OK, I'm just kidding...but....

There were other signs which I have ignored---as a mere coincidence or pure happenstance. Like almost all of the art galleries I used to show in going out of business; like the deluge at auctions of name art being liquidated for a dime on the dollar. And there was the shortage of art collectors... beginning about the time the wealthy class was reclassified as most likely to be taxed for succeeding.

Still, I stayed busy, distracted with all of my projects...most of them locally based, capitalizing on a lifetime of building my brand. I ignored the wholesale shut-downs of “Mom & Pop” owned art stores, and then national chains, which used to provide me a great deal of materials...Crafts Etc., Amber's and others. As the Internet grew, and consumers gained access to their wants and needs worldwide, I told myself that my clientele would not be affected. When it did I modified my services and stayed alive through teaching, making signs and painting murals.

But now I am strictly a studio painter... and the art is stacking up.

The other day I decided to make a trek to see what I could see. “Got in my boat” and headed south. I steered my boat on, hope springs eternal, past Salado, a great tourist town but not a promising art market for me after several years of showing there. I had already investigated most sites north, Waco, Temple, surely there HAD to be... oh yea, there was this great tourist-friendly town farther south, well known as an “arts center.” I will refrain from saying exactly which town it was. The point here is not to defame or castigate.

The town, a beautiful Victorian throwback on the I-35 corridor, had a dozen or so “art related” sites. Most of which were closed. Many were only open in the afternoons, or Thurs-Friday-Sat. In other words, times are hard and they don't worry about missing any business if they are not open, about half of the time. Not a good sign. A small combination gallery/frame shop, packed and a little disheveled, was open and had decent art, but was not taking any new artists, and had a long waiting list. A couple of sites were really only museums for traveling exhibits, and not open... and some were just gone, out of business.

But I am no quitter. After giving it some thought, I went back...on a better day, later in the week. Maybe things would look different. I decided that I would break down and visit the home gallery of a longtime idol of mine, the studio gallery of Dalhart Windberg, and see if he or his son had any ideas. Windberg's name has been the gold standard of traditional Texas art for nearly forty years. He and his son established a wonderful art school, art shop and art gallery, right on I-35, between Salado and Georgetown. According to one of my former students, it was the most ideal art mecca in Texas. After going through a great deal of driving my boat in circles, I finally realized that the reason I could not find it was...it was not there. I finally located Windberg's abandoned island... no signs of life, not even a sign saying that the Windberg flagship had sailed to a better port. That, for me, was a symbolic moment.

The rest of the day went in a similar vein. Visits with persons at “art related” sites gave little hope of commercial intent or viability. One nice fellow at one of these museums finally understood my inquiries, and said, “Oh! So you were interested in COMMERCIAL... art!” He seemed amazed.

I nodded yes... I love art, but I gotta make a livin'!

Towns all across Texas advertise their artiness, but in reality there is very little in the way of an art market, as the demise of so many art galleries attests. The surviving “commercial” galleries today are specialized, niche retail situations, some with long-standing client bases, or frankly, just tax write-offs, with no bottom line. But the search goes on...

The other day I was nosing around Hobby Lobby and noticed that they have cut their frame selection in half... after cutting it in half a year or so ago. Not a good sign. Every once in awhile I see my old buddy George Boutwell, merrily rowing his boat to another port, the last of the last itinerant artists in Texas. He was smart and did all of his own framing forty years ago. But how in the heck could a new artist today do now what he and many others did then?

Well, the answer is that she or he won't. They may find a market, but it will not be contained in brick and mortar. It will not, as art in Western culture always has (think NY, Paris, Santa Fe), depend on tourism. The young people with means to purchase art don't go anywhere anymore. And COVID has put the final nails in the coffin. Artists are entering a new era in history, something as significant as the Renaissance was. Everything before does not matter. Everything to be done is an unknown.

Even now, instinctively, the young people are tearing down the old, making room, mostly in their minds, for the new. Our forms of art will soon be as valid as cave paintings. It will start as a dark age, with nothing, or at least with no footing or precedent... and then it will grow from some unexpected quarter of the world.

We used to dream of a “brave new world.” Instead we are in living nightmares of an artless transitional epoch of quantum change and human adjustment. The “art” today and in the future will be born within the new technologies, created within the mental limits of computer programmers, which erase the touch of the human hand. 3D printers and DIY art via Photoshop will usurp Da Vinci and Van Gogh and Remington. The pace and distractions of the modern age require a different mode and substrate for art. A totally different language of art.

People don't think much about art when they are swatting at Tyrannosaurus Rex, or wandering the wilderness in search of water, or trying to remember three dozen different passwords to access their various computer apps and programs and accounts... They don't have time to shop...and really don't have the money.

So...they have their original art tattooed on their bodies, and keep moving. It's always with them, no walls, no frames, no paint cracking. And when they die, they take it with them...something many children of now deceased art collectors I have known wish they had done! Art has become very democratic and convenient and is no longer a symbol of status or “good taste.” In fact some folks would argue it has changed poles.

Plenty of people, millions of them, are buying art. And wearing it. But they do not need an art gallery, or a consultant to get just what they want, put right where they want it. And the art expresses what and how they feel, and not the sentiments of some no-name artist whom they never met. In this pre-socialist malaise of “Obama” phones and “Obama” care, ubiquitous tattoos are to art what Ford was to automobiles. Everybody got one, the world took off at 45 MPH, and nobody looked back.

So in my voyage I figured this all out, especially after stopping at a drive-in to get gas. It seemed everybody in the place was WEARING ART but me. Folks drawing attention to themselves on T-shirts, caps, or directly on arms, hips, ankles, necks.... And this is when I knew... I could never be a part of this BRAZEN new world.

I have lived most of my life under the delusion that I was special, that I had a unique and valuable talent; a rare human talent belonging to the great masters of the Renaissance; an era when mankind put its highest achievements up for the world to see and enjoy... when Art was created to reflect and magnify humanity and its Creator. That art is now dying slowly, as narcissism and socialism expands its domain.

Anyway, having had my say through art for 60 years, I never felt the need to draw attention with jewelry or body art. That had been the preferred attention getter of those who had little or no voice in society. But now it is cool to be...common. And now they are redefining what is acceptable or desirable. From what I can tell, it won't be pretty.

Go study all the great art you love... very little of it was created in socialist countries. Wherever socialism prevailed, those countries who had great art traditions sputtered and ceased to make great art... and then looked to the West, (us) where freedom inspired hope and innovation. Italy, France, Spain... once great fountains of culture, just peaked and then became stagnant. I'm just sayin'.

Today's art genius must be utilitarian. Now there are dozens of new TV shows, elevating bakers, clothing designers, chefs and home remodelers to a high level of “artistic” achievement, clouding the memories of Bob Ross, or Norman Rockwell, or Andrew Wyeth. This is exactly what is prescribed in the Communist Manifesto. The earliest socialists in Germany considered most forms of art to be decadent and intolerable. In their paradigm, everything, everybody serves the State. Everyone must have a function. And socialist ideas obliterated the idea of art for art's sake, or art as entertainment, or art as a mental escape. There was no time for that when trying to feed a starving nation. Thus there was pitiful art to inspire them to reach higher. To hope. To trust in God's marvelous Creation.

You, and John Pinkerton and I cannot completely amalgamate with today's popular art market. We have a very different self-image, and far superior value system, and I would not trade it for anything. We may be like Cezanne, wandering in the park among younger artists and being called a lunatic, or like Van Gogh---humbled and destitute, or Rembrandt; poor and ostracized, ahead of his time... but in our case we are left behind.

It has been a wild ride. There is nothing more positive than making art. It has been beyond any words to describe my joy at doing it as a profession, joining about 400 years of striving and reaching for excellence, freedom of expression, and yet making this world a better, more beautiful place. Now the Huns of socialism want to tear it all down. It is perhaps the final sign... as we grasp for our life rafts. Those artists I named, and other artist's life's blessing was that, beyond their special talent, they never lived to see or feel their own irrelevance. They never saw society's mindless hatred and loathing directed at their contributions. My huge legacy of public art is now on the chopping block, but I am sticking with them---till the bitter end. I am kind of proud, if history dictates, to be the last of the Mohicans.

Besides, I could never stand all the needles!