September 28, 2005

Recognizing the value of “perceived value”

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:51 pm

I am always fascinated by the concept of “perceived value” when it comes to the arts. There is a pecking order which categorizes creative output as either highly valued or undervalued.

Sometimes value is based on the amount of money something is worth. A painting by Picasso, for example, is generally regarded as something worth a lot of money.

Sometimes value is merely emotional or sentimental, like tourist art, which costs more to frame than the inherent value of the piece itself. But if you could measure the heart palpitations of the owner of the tourist art, the dollar to heartbeat ratio might easily be equal.

Some financial value determinations seem to have to due with the substratum of the artwork. Newspaper is cheap and easy birdcage liner. Most of the writing informs or amuses the reader for a brief moment and then it is forgotten. Newspapers and their content have very little perceived value.

Film historians are panicking because the celluloid (an expensive medium) on which many early films were captured is disintegrating. Some of those films are classics, and many are not, but film has a high perceived value so a tremendous amount of money is spent to preserve it.

It works for performing arts too. For instance, I know I have moaned when a favorite rock group is demoted from a prestigious venue on its last tour to a second-rate facility on its current tour. My perception is that the group must have fallen from public grace a notch. Their perceived value has declined, even though they are likely playing the same music they always have.

Trying to interpret financial perceived value is merely a curious exercise for me. But the hypocrisy and discrepancy in evaluating sentimental value can get me pretty riled up. There have been a couple of offenses recently in my life.

The first was a personal infraction. I am creating a family art gallery in the bedroom wing of our home. To get in, the artist has to share blood with one of us. It is our family way of honoring the creative heritage of some ancestors who are no longer with us, some who live too far away to see all the time, and some up and coming creative contributors to the family line.

One day when I was collecting data to learn about the history of a quilt, one family member said, “Oh, that was just a kids quilt thrown together.” Now what does that mean? Is this piece being undervalued because it is a children’s quilt? Or because it was “thrown together” without needless hours of toil? As art, there was a discrepancy between our perceived value of this piece.

The second infraction was more general, but just as disturbing. A talented and sophisticated designer with her own show on HGTV framed a piece of children’s art for the room she was decorating. She commented that with the frame, “ordinary kids art can become a museum-quality art piece.”

There are a lot of problems with this statement, but the only one I am going to dissect is the use of the word “ordinary.” She could mean “ordinary” in terms of the piece being “common,” or “run-of-the-mill.” I know a lot of people see kids art this way. A canvas smeared with paint has more perceived value than a piece of construction paper with finger paints on it. For many of us, the finger-paint piece is automatically relegated to the refrigerator and we install spot lighting to showcase the canvas above the mantle. Which one is true art and which one is a mess? Sometimes the difference is negligible, but the “ordinary” construction paper masterpiece is worth no more display effort than lifting a magnate on the refrigerator.

“Ordinary” could also mean that there is such a prodigious output of kids’ art that finding some in a house with children is not an unusual or extraordinary thing to do. People with kids do often find themselves surrounded by original artwork. I was struck by something one father said to my son’s preschool teacher when he picked up his kids and was handed a stack of paintings. “Look at all these paintings. This stuff is so special that we put it in a box in the garage. How can we throw it away?” Examine that statement. Is putting his kids’ art in a box in the garage really any different from throwing it away? That attitude makes the refrigerator look like the Louvre.

I have a soft spot for kids art because it is always so fanciful and colorful, two qualities I admire. I also find it anything but ordinary because for most of us, the prolific art years taper off as we grow and by the time we hit middle school age, we have a hard time filling that box in the garage.

I think the output of visual artwork from children during a finite period in their lives is extraordinary. It will only be ordinary when I can walk into 45-year-old Bob’s house or 77-year-old Mary’s apartment and see their daily artwork up on the refrigerator.

September 14, 2005

Drinking In the Artistic Spirits of New Orleans

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:36 pm

By the time you read this, it will be almost four weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of reminiscences about New Orleans. Part of that is due to the statistical probability that with all the New Orleans press, someone else must have already said what I have to say about New Orleans as an exemplar for celebrating the arts in everyday living. Remarkably, I haven’t seen that perspective voiced yet.

I also feel somewhat guilty giving New Orleans one more warm fuzzy memory piece as if the lives and culture in that one city are more important than anyone or anything in Mississippi. Coverage has been lopsided, I feel, with less ink and airtime going to the Mississippi devastation and aftermath. But I have never been to Mississippi, and I have been to New Orleans and New Orleans happens to be a place I can’t forget.

My one and only visit was two years ago. I was prejudiced against the city going in, with its famed Mardi Gras celebrations, 24-hour bars and the laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler attitude. I’m not a big drinker or partier and you would never catch me in the Crescent City during Mardi Gras. It seemed like my personality and the city’s were diametrically opposed. And as it turned out, during my visit I never went into a bar and I was in bed by 11 p.m. every night just as the city was waking up.

But New Orleans by day surprised me and I felt incredibly at home, as if I had visited many times before, if only in my imaginings about an utopia for the arts. In the daytime, when the streets were relatively empty of people and the noise from the bars and neighborhood hangouts was silenced, the true heartbeat of the city pumped loud and clear. New Orleans was undeniably a city that celebrated the arts and artistic expression in the small, everyday moments of life.

Distant strains of music played constantly. If it wasn’t a lone instrument several blocks away, it was a person singing as they passed on the street. I saw high-end art and street art, local art and imported art everywhere. I saw people dressed with an individualistic flair that most of us don’t have the guts to even imagine. Performing artists on street had genuine talent rightly commanding the attention they garnered.

I liken the artistic approach to life by New Orleanians to my experience with their food. Whether I was eating in an inexpensive eatery or the grandest of fine restaurants, every bite was exquisite. I can still taste several delectable dishes from my stay. That’s also how I felt about the visual and performing arts I experienced in New Orleans. From the lowest rung of the arts echelon to the highest, every sampling was exquisite.

I don’t have a romanticized view of New Orleans. We did not stay in the best part of town. Our rental van was stolen and trashed our first night in town, including my son’s car seat. A discourteous streetcar driver did not give me (seven months pregnant at the time), my two-year-old son and my husband enough time to get off at our stop, abruptly closing the door in our faces just as we reached the last stair. When we asked for directions at the next stop to get back to our intended destination, she slammed the door in our faces again and drove away. And the all-time rudest exchange I have ever had with another human being was with a restaurant bathroom attendant in New Orleans.

Still, the so-called Great Cities of the World that I have visited didn’t have the visceral impact on me that New Orleans did. Two years later, my memories are as fresh as if they were just made, and they pop into my head on regular occasion. Paris, New York, London and Rome are fabulous cities, but they didn’t nestle their way into my heart.
As a Bay Area native, I’ve always felt we have a lot going for us where the arts are concerned. The general community is supportive of the arts. San Francisco and Berkeley provide a wonderful stage for artists to take risks and push the boundaries of their genres. But I would call the overriding nature of the Bay Area arts scene to be rather refined and highly intellectualized. In contrast, the day-to-day arts environment in New Orleans felt raw, and was as easy and natural as breathing. Nothing else could have been more intoxicating for me.