The Eight against the tastemakers

THE desire to share something important or precious with others lies behind a great deal of contemporary art. This something may be a special vision of painting, a particular formal ideal, a love of landscape or flowers, or a feeling of joy at being alive. But whatever it is, whether powerful and culturally important or fragile and intensely private, it represents not only what the artist wants others to see and feel, but his or her generosity of spirit as well. Viewers tend to forget the latter or to take it for granted -- or, worse still, to deny it entirely. Feelings about artists are often quite negative, reflecting an envy of what is seen as their ``freedom,'' or an unwillingness to credit them for what they are attempting or have accomplished. Some even insist that artists are merely makers of things, that they paint or sculpt only for money, and that they are more like selfish children than mature adults. I disagree -- though I must admit that here and there one will find ``artists'' who fit those descriptions perfectly. The vast majority, however, are remarkably idealistic, caring, and generous individuals who have retained a child-like attitude toward life, but who in other respects are thoroughly responsible adults.

This child-likeness can manifest itself in a sense of enthusiasm, wonder, or delight that is often so strong that those who are accustomed to a more cautious and cynical approach to life are taken aback and even embarrassed by it.

Confronted by a painting that is dramatically alive in a startlingly new fashion, society's initial impulse is to insist that such a wild and woolly thing couldn't possibly be art. It simply isn't dignified enough, nor does it fit into one or another of the neat little categories of art we have been taught to respect.

The artist, of course, doesn't see things that way. He or she encounters, feels passionately about, or simply wants to share something, but only in a form and style totally appropriate to it. If no traditional form or style is available, the artist must invent or improvise one, and will not give up until the most perfect combination of form, color, line, and texture has been found -- no matter how shocking or ``inartistic'' it may at first appear.

Genuine artists, in other words, don't invent new modes of expression merely because they want to be different or create a sensation, but because they want to convey something for which no ready-made form of communication exists. In the process, they may violate several of the most sacred rules of art, work with material previously considered not good enough for art, or draw upon art history and mythology for images in the manner one leafs through a catalog for something to buy. In addition, many younger artists today use themes and subjects seen in comic strips, television commercials, or toy stores to fashion complex, idiosyncratic pieces of a generally iconoclastic nature.

This search for new thematic and formal devices shouldn't surprise us, however, for art will continue to change as long as human perceptions of reality change. Art, after all, is one of mankind's truest and best avenues of communication.

Unfortunately, too many still view art merely as the embodiment of certain long-held, culturally determined ideals of beauty, and fail to realize that art is much more a matter of character, substance, and formal integrity than of adherence to traditional standards of beauty or form. It is doubtful, for instance, that the 19th century saw anything more truly beautiful than some of Monet's and Renoir's early canvases, and yet, as far as the Parisian art world of the time was concerned, their pictures were nothing but wild and ugly daubs of paint.

And when members of The Eight showed New York their work in 1908, they too were treated with disdain. This group of eight painters had started exhibiting together in 1904 to protest the narrow and overly elegant values of the National Academy and American art in general. In place of haughty society portraits with their yards of silk, satin, and lace, slick academic religious allegories, and overly pretty depictions of flowers, landscapes, and home interiors, they advocated the portrayal of daily life as it actually appeared, even if such subjects were considered ``vulgar'' by the tastemakers of the art establishment.

Their 1908 exhibition drew large crowds, a predominantly hostile press, and mixed public reaction. The works of Henri, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Sloan, Davies, Lawson, and Prendergast were both derided and admired, but attracted enough interest for the show to be sent to Philadelphia and eight Midwestern and East Coast cities. The overall response was such that American art has never been quite the same.

The remarkable thing is that none of these artists set out to be ``different.'' They only wanted to paint their world as simply and directly as possible -- and to share what they had seen and felt with others.

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