Art and its Discontents

Posted: Sep 26, 2014 2:47 PM

Every year the annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center is something to see, if only to think on a) how much art has changed, and b) how much we have. For the one sure indication that we're looking at art, good or bad but never indifferent, is its power to send us into reverie.

Walker Percy understood. He called such an experience a repetition. "A repetition," his hero and alter ego Binx Bolling explained in "The Moviegoer," "is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle."

Leave it to good old Binx to put the feeling into plain English, or rather plain, palpable, crunchy-as-peanut-brittle N'awlins Suthuhn. He savored the poignancy, the perspective, of what he called a repetition, the different frame of reference that a period of time provides -- as in time-lapse photography.

It's the perspective offered by seeing the same old movie over a lapse of years, which is what "The Moviegoer" of the book's title does. The movie doesn't change, but we do. Try it, you might like it -- or hate it. Some of us can't stand just to be still and see; we've got to be up and about and doing or at least discussing -- before we start thinking too much.

Better to just stay busy. Busy at what may not be clear, and maybe we don't want it to be. But better, much better, to have things to do, places to go, items to scratch off the list. Pause to reflect and we're lost.

A repetition. The word certainly applies to an annual visit to the Delta show, which has been put on for 56 years now.

My own pick for Best of Show, whatever judges much better versed in these matters have decided, is "Old Man With Hat" -- graphite and charcoal on paper, 42 inches by 60 inches. It's by Jerome Mazyck, now of Sherwood, Ark., though he was born in Memphis, and clearly knows the country where old black men fit in as naturally as cypresses and tupelos. For they, too, look as if they'd been there forever.

What caught my eye about "Old Man With Hat" is the hat, a worn black derby like the one my grandfather wore. Wore? Meaning something he could put on and take off? But as far as I could tell as a child, he never took it off. Which figures. An orthodox Jew from the old country, he kept his head covered. Always, as far as I knew. The old black derby was as much a part of him as his carefully trimmed goatee.

When we would drive up to Chicago every summer to see Zeyde Chaim -- Grandpa Charlie -- and the whole teeming family up there, I always wanted to ask him if he slept in it, but didn't dare. I was too much in awe of him to ask so personal a question. I preferred to just sit alongside him and study his face line by line. Or walk alongside him -- a slow, old man's walk by then. Zeyde would hold my hand, gently but firmly, as we crossed the busy street on our way to the ice cream parlor. (Always chocolate for me, no matter how tempting the other flavors might look. Chocolate I knew and trusted. Why take chances? I was a conservative even then.) I'd never felt so safe, so protected, so loved as in the wordless aura my grandfather cast in his old age.

All of that came back as I studied "Old Man With Hat," who seemed so old and worn and wise, and familiar. The texture of it -- was that a straw in the old man's mouth? And what was that large black circle on his threadbare coat? Had he just come from a funeral? Whatever it represented, the picture wouldn't be the same without it, that is, perfect. The balance, the composition, the weight of felt experience carried naturally.

The drawing is much too old-fashioned a kind of art to win prizes any more. It's the kind of picture that tells a story, or at least invites memories and questions. It's a portrait whose presence I'd like to have around, where I could sense it every morning on arising. Then the picture, silent, watchful, would be there -- much like Zeyde Chaim. Or a guardian angel.

This year's Delta Exhibition is full of favorite artists from years past -- like Mark Lewis of Tulsa, who's represented by "Boston Avenue (Looking North)," graphite and paper collage, 81 inches by 58 inches -- a good example of his careful draftsmanship -- but with a realistic urban edge.

Then there's Neal Harrington's "Delta Oracle," woodcut, india ink on paper, 32 inches by 24 inches, a wild yet precise drawing that might be a Rockwell Kent bookplate from the 1930s, its Art Deco style magnified as if it were on peyote. It's both wild and soothing at the same time, a genie out of the bottle, but with no evil intentions.

The rest of the extensive show? Despite a thing of beauty and a relief here and there (see Jeanne Seagle's fine and finely drawn "Winter Trees," pencil on paper, 20 inches by 48 inches), the show quickly veers off into the all too new and therefore already old.

Some of the exhibits seem only elaborate but not very funny jokes, like "Victory Leading the Coneheads," an updated adaptation of Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" -- tricolor, heroic poses and all. So much painstaking trouble expended to so little effect. Well, maybe a little chuckle. A very little chuckle.

My own nominee for a salon des refuses would be a construction: a very clean wash-bucket surrounded by an oval of even cleaner little sandbags, or at least I think they're sandbags. They could be sponges. It's another example of the Andy Warhol style or lack of it.

I take the liberty of looking for a broom closet at the museum, and find one full of cleaning supplies -- bucket with wringer, mops and all. It's much superior as a work of art compared to the faux one on exhibit. For it's not just realistic but real, a thing of use and beauty, its texture and even informal composition a work of, yes, art -- intended as such or not.

Maybe this is the long heralded End of Art, for these afterthoughts attached to the annual show might be just that -- if only they were significant enough. They represent the triumph not of some terrible anti-art (they're not striking enough for that), but just the substitution of merchandising for art, of Warhol Art for the real thing.

He called it Business Art, and defined it with unabashed, even admirable, candor: "Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They'd say 'money is bad' and 'working is bad.' But making money is art, and working is art -- and good business is the best art."

Forget all that highfalutin stuff about man being the measure of all things; it's money.

Once again the Delta Exhibition surprises and doesn't, delights and disappoints, just the way an annual show should. It offers both art and a glimpse of the end of it in our little post-Warhol, post-meaning era. It's art as merchandising, or as an inside joke I don't get, philistine that I am. ... And the repetition is complete. Till next year.