Palm Trees and Other Art Objects (1995)



 Palm trees -- all trees -- are much like people. We both stand upright, with "trunks" and "limbs". Trees have leaves, we have hair, which may be lost in winter and old age.


 The ancients thought trees have souls. Anyone who loves trees would not say they were wrong. Trees have much character and feeling.


 The palm tree is beautiful in its compact, nearly spherical form and symbolic expression of life's cycle. Youthful green fronds spring upward from the top; adults spread horizontally; old age fronds angle downward. Dead fronds hang in brown bundles below the living green.


 If palm trees are so beautiful, why are they scalped in some Phoenix neighborhoods? Left with only three or four fronds sticking up like pathetic green hairs on top of a shaved head, the beauty of the tree as tree and expressive object is demolished.


 Other possible reasons for doing this aside, surprising numbers of people -- on a deeper, unconscious level -- apparently fear nature, even in controlled, urban environments. This fear may explain, in part, why so many contemporary artists ignore nature (and the spiritual, organic principles it represents) as a subject for their art. Nature reminds us of forces in life beyond our control -- death, above all; but also political, social and personal pain and struggle. We, therefore, sometimes seek nitpicking pseudo-control over nature to try to compensate for our actual inability to do anything about the frightening realities nature represents.


 A weed dares raise its nose in our lawn, or anything green poke through our gravel yard? Spray it with herbicide. An ant attempts a crossing of that vast concrete Sahara, our patio? Call the exterminator. A cricket or spider actually enters our house? Dial 911. That tree sheds filthy pods and leaves? Cut it down. Dandelions? Don't be silly.


 If nature threatens us by the subliminal intensity of her insistent, irrepressible processes of life, growth and death, cut, chop, hack, spray, pour, douse her into submission. Shape shrubs and trees to the soothing regularity and smoothness of ball-bearings and bowling balls (we're more comfortable with machines than plants, anyway). Lower the blade on the mower to the "severe-cut mode" and mow the lawn so short it squeals, immodestly baring its roots until it looks like a yellow-brown billiard table. Go all the way. Be as obsessive as Mondrian.


 "Stop me before I trim again."




 Living things are the animation of the spirit of the universe.



There are people in the arts whose sensibilities and connection with art and nature have become so atrophied by their addiction to technology and urban existence that they respond more to electronic imagery than to human beings and the natural world.



Patience, courage and persistence are the great virtues of the artist...and all the rest of us.



When ethics and the health of the human spirit break down, art breaks down...becoming as degraded as any other manifestation of decadence.



Abstraction in the twentieth century -- in its honest aspects -- resulted from the desperate search for an elemental truth beyond -- and escape from -- the disastrous life-threatening realities of modern society. Unfortunately, it led artists into narrowly self-involved, art-for-art's-sake ivory towers and blind alleys alienated from nature, humanity and the world. In its opportunistic guise, abstraction is commercial exploitation of degenerated formulas by people of little talent and ideals.



Athens, great in thought and art, is brought to its knees in 430 B.C. by a plague that kills one-third of its population, including Pericles, the leader responsible for the Parthenon and the golden age of Greece. How strange that greatness and beauty should meet such a fate.



The pseudo-avant-garde: people, who for psychological or other reasons, must destroy any concept of art related to real life, the great art of the past or to human creative and spiritual health and aspiration (everything that humanity needs and has always needed).



The genuine avant-garde: those seeking, by means of significant content and elevated aesthetics, the artistic and societal truths of their time in the context of timeless human and artistic values.



Typical art opening: a milling throng concerned with food, liquor, their sex lives and meeting people who will help their careers...not necessarily in that order. The last thing of interest to them is the art on the walls.



Eighty to ninety percent of people -- whether trained or untrained -- seem to gravitate instinctively toward the mediocre in art rather than toward quality. Why shouldn't it be exactly the opposite? What a puzzlement. This does not bode well for quality ever dominating junk in art or life.



Alicia de la Rocha's arthritically knuckled, muscular hands and knobby finger-tips -- a farmer's or plumber's hands -- powerfully and sensitively persuade the piano to reveal the beauty of Mozart.



Certain contemporary "classical" music is as droningly repetitive and monotonous as an air view of the grids of shopping-center parking lots. It has much in common with Andy Warhol, thirty or more years ago, pointing a stationary motion picture camera at the Empire State Building for stultifying hours on end. Is such numbing regularity intended as a slap in the face of the vitality and variation natural to art and life? Many minimalists in all the arts embrace sterility as their theme and technique in a seeming attack on life and society. Or, is it, like endless ritual drumming, an attempted comforting antidote to unpredictable life's fearful possibilities?



"Genius" grants are often given to professors. Nothing against professors, but is something out of whack here? Aren't professors generally safely mainstream non-geniuses who spend their lives studying the accomplishments of real genius: those safely dead and known. Professors and grant-givers would seem largely unaware, by reason of a conventional mindset and milieu, of any living geniuses. Not many awards went to Manet, Van Gogh and Gauguin, for example, from the grant-givers of their day. None, in fact. Is it even in the genes of bureaucracies of any kind and age to understand living genius?



Only from great men and women -- great artists, poets, statesmen, composers and philosophers -- do we hear the truth. Most others have their special interests to promote and protect.



Companies poll consumers, test and retest their products to fine-tune them into something the public will like and buy. Significant artists paint what's in their hearts, letting the chips fall as they may.



Though more variable and complex than most -- and like life, replete with mystery and the unknowable -- art is a language that can be largely learned, whose interpretation can be explored and understood to a greater extent than often Portuguese, physics and auto mechanics.



In all eras, there are limitations of vision, concept and understanding that the greatest artists overcome in the process of their greatness. Mediocre artists abide unthinkingly by the status quo.



When the arts, like a soul, have lost their moorings, their center, they begin to drift, to fragment, spin out of control, away from order into disorder.


Copyright by Don Gray



Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms