IT is ironic. The history of modern art, from the Impressionists on, has been characterized by shock and rejection by the current wise men and power brokers in the art world. Alternative means are found for exhibiting the new art and, finally, the works find their way into the established galleries and museums. There, they receive accolades and explanation.
The Impressionists had their ``Salon des Refuses''; the German Expressionists printed a book of woodcuts called ``The Blue Rider Almanac'' and showed their work in exhibits they themselves organized; Dadaist artists put on what they called ``manifestations''; Pop artists staged ``happenings''; and contemporary artists have their co-op and publicly funded galleries or, in the case of the graffiti artists, the sidewalks.
Alternative spaces are effective aesthetically - where different styles are seen and adopted into the mainstream - but they are often failures commercially. Even graffiti art, an activity representing an attack on private property and public tolerance, has moved into the better showrooms. Although artists associated with the ``happenings'' of the early '60s, such as Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, have moved on to better things, that art event died out.
These events were not, certainly, intended to be ongoing things, but ``happenings'' did involve the public looking at art in a different way. Every alternative to the commercial art market has that as its basis. Art, the artists are saying, must not be removed from the real world. Art must be returned to the artist (who controls its presentation) and to the public.
While accepted tastes can be successfully challenged, the market has remained impervious. More galleries simply open up. To that extent, ``alternative spaces,'' as they have been known since the '70s, have proved to be dismal failures.
Interestingly, one of the most widespread ``alternatives'' to commercial art galleries is all around us. It is one of the only ways both artists and the public may circumvent the exclusiveness and high prices of art dealers and galleries - but it is rarely accorded anything other than neglect and scorn. It is the sidewalk art show.
The license plates on the artists' cars tell their stories: Florida, Texas, Michigan, California, and everywhere else. These artists paint for part of the year and cart their works to art shows around the country for the rest, in a manner similar to crafts people. It is a hard life, but a different sort of hard life than we generally ascribe to artists.
We think of artists alone in their studios, grappling with their muse and attempting to pictorially capture what we all feel. Trying to keep their works dry from the rain, or clean from the wind, or not scraping against each other in the back of a station wagon - these seem wholly unacceptable concerns for a serious artist.
Possibly, it seems unacceptable for an artist to so openly concern him or herself with making money from art.
``People in the mainstream art world look down on artists who make money as somewhat vulgar,'' says David Ichkowich, a New York painter who drives all over the country between Memorial Day and Labor Day, going to shows and tracking down the vacationing well-to-do. ``If you make money, they like to choose whom you get it from. If an artist is not making money, they feel that he can console himself with the knowledge that he hasn't prostituted himself. I don't know what's so purifying about not ever selling your work.''
Sidewalk artists generally don't see themselves in competition with the commercial art galleries but rather existing in a different dimension. Their market is the people who may feel nervous about going into art galleries, who like to collect but are not so wealthy, who feel they don't know enough to ask the right questions or understand the answers, or who are happy to avoid the middleman and buy a work directly for less money.
A New Jersey artist named James Carter, who does surrealistic airbrush paintings, notes that he sells his works on the streets, some for as much as $4,000, to people with an assortment of backgrounds. He has found that most of the people who buy his works are ``quite educated. Anyone who will lay down $4,000 on the street is going to know what they are doing and probably will have already gone to the art galleries.''
One person who has bought over 20 of his paintings is Marshall Kramer, former president of Christian Dior Sportswear, who first found out about Carter while passing by a sidewalk art show in his hometown of Weston, Conn.
``It's too bad that anyone might think to look down on James because of how he sells his work,'' Kramer notes. ``I think he is as good as many of the artists you see in the galleries. Certainly, the aspirations are the same; it's just how you would accomplish them.''
Carter is represented by a few small galleries here and there, but prefers the directness of outdoor art shows. ``When you're in a gallery, it can be pretty cold,'' he says. ``All you get is a notice at the end of the month saying, `You sold X number of works for so much money, here's your commission.' It's nice to talk to people looking at my work. I can answer their questions and that makes them feel more comfortable about buying my work.''
One drawback to the sidewalk art shows is quality. There are hundreds of shows around the country, and the only qualifications for entry in many cases are a fee and simply showing up. For every good work in a show, there are dozens of gimmicky, derivative pieces that often seem to obscure anything of merit within a wide radius.
Artists participating in these shows often disagree among themselves about whether these shows should all have some sort of competitive jury system to weed out the poorer stuff, as a number of them do. Doing so, some argue, would give the artists in the shows a more professional standing.
Others, such as Gus Wander, a Miami painter, claim that the ``jury system and the elitism that it tends to foster is what is wrong with the mainstream art world. The idea of putting works right on the sidewalks is wonderful. You don't have to pass some sort of jury or worry about some gallery owner thinking he can't make any money from it. What could be more pure?''