As you may have noticed, or heard, I spent most of my life close to “the visual arts”. I was twenty-six when, in the Netherlands, I hung my first show in a museum and I continued to be involved in the organization of exhibitions until my departure for the U.S. in 1994. Having arrived in America, my devoted attention was first claimed by the landscape: the wide open spaces of the West, with one exception: the co-ownership with Ans of The Tin Moon Studio / Gallery in Abiquiu, New Mexico starting 1998. After 2009, we resettled in Kansas and opened The Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs and The Bank art space. I got involved with the new Symphony Gallery as well; right now I am pushing forward the Matfield Station Prairie/Sculpture Path; and there was, and is, much more to set my bad teeth into. It took Ans and I, supported by a few friends, about six years to “turn” the small town of Matfield Green into something we now, although hesitantly, call an art community. We’re not done yet, things move slowly in Kansas. But, as they say in China, patience is a tree with bitter roots that carry a sweet fruit.
While running art galleries in Kansas, I discovered an unexpected number of truly fabulous and daring contemporary artists even in dull cities such as Wichita (Kansas City on the border with Missouri is a different story, being one of the main art hubs in the U.S.). I found good artists even in the smallest of small towns. My opinion of “rural-made art” changed over time from skepticism to admiration. If only I had more wall space… One proof of high quality is added here: ‘The Conversation of Saul’ by long-time Wichita artist Kevin Mullins, a painter and printmaker, a master of repetitive aesthetics, who creates “technically stellar pieces with pulsating visual rhythm.”
Impecunious Creativity is Money in the Bank
I am convinced that contemporary art deserves a more prominent position in life than it gets from most people especially in states such as Kansas, steered to doom by an art-hater-in-chief in the person of its governor. Art enriches individuals, it makes communities blossom. I am not talking about art produced as a hobby, just “to do something”, or for other kinds of essentially therapeutic goals and recognized as such or, sadly, not. These amateurish creative outbursts don’t bother anybody, they harm no one; yet they contribute as much good to a community as, say, spending a few hours coaching softball. Fine with me. No, I am talking about true creativity based on borderless curiosity, constantly renewed and extended knowledge, deep thoughts welling up from bottomless souls, broad and feverish discussions, long hours of daily experimenting, ever improving technique, and an eye permanently on the world beyond the first blade of grass. I am talking about professional artists who deliver goosebumps, who make us experience awe. Thanks to them, suddenly we are aware that we’re in the presence of something that transcends our understanding of the world. You may remind me that any American politician can bring about the same effect (I know, I know), but the awe they infest us with and the transcendence they create are of a most different order, as I don’t have to explain to my readers.
Look for the magic beyond the comfort zone, that’s what it is all about. Real art requires reorganization, instability and change, not conformation with, or confirmation of what’s same old, same old. Real art widens horizons, expands perceptions and encourages empathy. Oh, don’t forget, it gives pleasure and delight as well. “In contrast to the market, art increases mutual tolerance, encourages cooperation and engenders trust,” writes Robert Hewison in his recent book ‘Cultural Capital’. “The intrinsic value of art should lead to an awareness that shifts back from prioritizing art consumers to promoting and supporting art producers,” precisely because they produce awe. And, “awe helps us bind to others, motivates us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities,” as discovered Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner while researching at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine. * They found that research participants who experienced more awe in their lives, who felt more wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous people to boot; they shared more resources and sacrificed more for others; they felt less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity—“all of which are behaviors necessary for our collective life.” Piff and Keltner make the case that our culture today is “awe deprived”… Really, what would we do without psychologists?
But how right they are especially in a time of dismantling art programs in schools, not only in the U.S. but in the U.K. and elsewhere as well, in lieu of programs better suited to standardizing yet numbing tests—how right they are in an era in which time for unbounded exploration is sacrificed for “holy” yet senseless résumé-building activities. I hear they are testing four-year olds now. I also hear there’s abundant counseling for exam stress. Eating disorders, self-harm, suicide at a young age, it’s all on the rise, concludes George Monbiot. “Finish your homework, pass your exams, spend your 20s avoiding daylight, and maybe you can, someday, live as the elite, my son.” Daughters, too, of course. But, you’ll say, eventually the young have to make money, don’t they? They cannot live from the wind, can they? Aren’t there enough boomerang children already? Bamboccioni or parasaito shinguru living with their hotel mamas—these are some terms for the new “entitled dependency” phenomenon in different languages. The “Bank of Mum and Dad” may take care now, but will they in the future? They, who have just become “blank-collar workers” (neither blue- nor white-collar workers; the qualification comes from Douglas Coupland). They, who will never be middle class again (and never come to terms with that). Their bank is waiting to go bust.
Simon Jenkins ** wonders if living off the dwindling fat of the past has a future. “Or, should we put more faith in the dynamic of a humanistic education? Graduates in the arts take chances and do not regard money as everything. They seem better equipped to use their imagination and challenge conventional wisdom.” The future, as Jenkins sees it, can only lie in what are rightly called the humanities, the history and imagination of human beings. Jenkins quotes Alexander Pope who already said that the proper study of mankind is man. “Most … adults believe their offspring will be poorer than themselves,” writes Jenkins. “Yet today millions indulge their children in careers they already know will yield neither financial nor national advantage. I am not convinced the world they are creating will be worse off for that.” In other words, please allow the kids to bring awe into their lives and that of others, and save them from the doldrums, from career demotivation, from lethargy, from what the Japanese call karochi, which is something like physical and spiritual death from overwork. Instead, let robots and computers do the grinding labor—in an age of machines, it’s only humans that really matter.
In eastern Congo, Renzo Martins, a Dutch artist, and his family are creating an art scene in one of the most impoverished parts of the world. It is not a joke: he is basically putting a White Cube gallery in the middle of the jungle to see “what it does.” Through his foundation, the Institute for Human Activities, he has already helped artists from Congo’s capital Kinshasa establish a critical curriculum akin to an art course for plantation workers; workshops, exhibitions, and other art-related events in what will be “central Africa’s most beautiful contemporary arts center” will result; and new creative artists will stand up—and make a better living from their art. Martins is sort of “the latest white man voyaging to the Conradian heart of darkness, a godless missionary endangering capitalism’s harsh gospel: how to monetize their poverty.” By creating art, and awe.
I do not dare to compare east-central Kansas with the jungles of the Congo. But this is precisely what I have tried to put into motion by bringing inventive art to the tallgrass prairie. To show that there are ways for (young) people to not suffer at the hands of politicians but to give their creativity a fair chance to develop, and also to develop away from the crazily bubbling art scenes of Basel, Miami, and New York City; to not let the present-day austerity of the blank-collar world endanger their dreams; to monetize their creativity by creating awe, mucho awe. One of the dangers lurking in the background is, of course, what all over the world nowadays is called: the creative industries, an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. As if using a new term such as this suddenly gives a stamp of approval to the arts. By Jove, even Kansas governor Sam Brownback agreed with the formation of a creative industries commission encompassing the Kansas arts, the same Koch Brothers supported Sam “The Man” who is aptly called Sam Greenback by my New York friend Ajay Revels. The number of greenbacks he graciously put on the table to support this field won’t even pay for half of what we, just a few friends, here in little Matfield Green are accomplishing.
Anyway. Now you know why it is that some small towns and areas are prospering, while many others are suffering disinvestment, loss of identity, and even abandonment. The trick is of course to let communities grow without losing their heart and soul. Let them capitalize on their distinctive assets: history, natural surroundings, and home-grown business. In Matfield Green, all three were present for as long as there were family-owned ranches. With cattle breeding now practically taken over by big land-owning corporations (luckily we have a few surviving small ranchers left in our Chase County, who love what they are doing, and are doing it well), my friends and I thought it was time to bring in a new business: the friendly, small-time business of creating and presenting art–the business of creating awe. This means change in the community. But change is inevitable anyhow—technology, the economy, demographics, market trends and consumer attitude are always changing and will affect communities whether they like it or not. *** At least with artists and their art, a community receives a fresh impulse; artists predict the future by creating it themselves (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln). Communities with a vision of the future will always be more successful–and longer living–than those that just grumpily wait and see, or accept whatever may come along even if it is disastrous.
“Places with talent attract more talent and have stronger growth, while everyone else loses what talent they had and falls farther and farther behind,” writes Richard Florida in ‘In Praise of Spikes’. The post-Boomer generation in the U.S. grew up seeing their parents lose their jobs by the manufacturing collapse and corporate restructuring. They know their parents, now blank-collar workers (if they still have work) had been told that theirs were supposed to be lifelong career jobs; it didn’t turn out that way. This post-Boomer generation to a large extent never had reason to develop deep faith in corporate America. After the post-Boomers came Generation X, I believe. And after Gen-X? I am old and I don’t keep up with all these fads, but I’ve heard rumors it is Generation AA–you know, the boys and girls who learned to binge drink at a young age. Which doesn’t leave me in awe.
In Matfield Green, one of our two contemporary art galleries is housed in what is said to be the old bank building. The bank closed in 1933, went belly up during the Depression, but was able to pay its customers some 86 cents on the dollar. Not bad. Anyway, since July 2013, eighty years later, The Bank art space delivers living proof that impecunious creativity is money in the bank.
My very personal take? To paraphrase Talma and Hemingway: As my enemies, I have all those who owe their lives to prejudice and regret the passing of old times. As my friends, I have those who love the arts and see life as a moveable feast.
*New York Times.
Ton Haak, June 2015