IT USED TO BE “A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT.” Today, the rallying cry is more like “Every town, its own art center.” How else can we grow into informed, sensitive, environmentally caring and gender-free citizens without art? Without the ministrations and musings of Those Who Know? Without the comfort of art to compensate for our unemployment?
Ask Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A prosperous metropolis at the turn of the 20th century, it was a naitonal center for the manufacture of woolens. It had thriving mills that produced grist, lumber, paper and textiles. Agriculture flourished in the land along the Housatonic. It was a self-sustaining place with an industrial base that produced substantial goods. A predecessor of General Electric developed the transformer here before G.E. became a major employer.
By the 1970’s, its industries had fallen into decline. Successive, large-scale layoffs by G.E. depressed the town further. According to a recent article in Financial Times, city planners abandoned decades of efforts to lure a new generation of industrial jobs. They focused, instead, “on an arts-driven renaissance.”
When art becomes the draw for revitalization, more and more of the stuff is needed. It has to be kept coming to give customers a reason to come back. Up goes an arts center in some lovely 19th century, red brick building that once had a real life. Changing exhibits follow one upon the other. It hardly matters what is on exhibit. What counts is that it keeps on keepin’ on. Clean cup! Clean cup!
That brings me to Pittsfield’s Litchtenstein Center for the Arts. On show from November 13 to January 8th, is an exhibition called Naked. It showcases the work of two women, Anki King and Jeanet Ingalls, to coincide with the second annual Berkshire Festival of Women in the Arts. [A strange sort of celebration, as if women were a separate species of artist. Or so easily wilted that they need their own handicap.] This is figurative work, described this way:
The paintings are raw, catching the figures in moments of stillness and unconscious, unembarrassed self-revelation. [There is nothing more embarrassing than someone else’s unembarrassed revelations. But let that pass.] Inherent in the paintings are all the emotions, psychology and states of being [States of being? Which ones, please, are these women in?] we read into the word itself: NAKED. . . . self conscious [What happened to unembarrassed?] exposed, sexual, humbled, fearful, hopeful, revealed, provocative, assertive, ashamed [Again, what about unembarrassed?], feminine, masculine, androgynous, caught, terrified, depressed, dangerous, yearning, empty, and alone.
Oh, my! Do we dare to look?
The painting below is, presumably, a portrait head of some sort:
Ms. Ingalls’ production runs to this:
The art is of no particular distinction and leaves no leeway for aesthetic discussion. An overwrought press release fills the gap. The art on view, if it accomplishes anything, provides an excuse—the contemporary meaning of grist—for flights of belle lettre by underpaid artlings. More interesting than the art itself is the ubiquity of the kind of look-ma-no-hands sensibility that it represents. Any one of hundreds, even thousands, of artists’ names could be attached and no one would question the attribution. It’s all give-a-damn self-expression—an ephemeral and ominous substitute for the kind of vital production that once sustained old mill towns like Pittsfield (or port cities like Portland, Maine). What the old Pittsfield produced was not only durable; it could be exported (trade balance, anyone?). The new Pittsfield–touted as “The Brooklyn of the Berkshires”—puts on offer cheap, short-order consumables that will be qualify as landfill in ten years.
At some point, the money to support this stuff dries up. It goes to paying off our nation’s foreign creditors. Welcome to the latest exhibition—and art classes, and studio visits, and all the other entertaining distractions that art provides—at yet another illusory art center.
Update: Anki King responds with a letter in the comment section.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey