In Lahaina, on the island of Maui, there’s a weekend outdoor art market around and under the world’s biggest banyan tree. I’m watching the entrepreneur-artists set up their spaces in the early morning. There’s a wide range of quality and media: watercolors, oils, acrylics, drawings and prints, some work bravely quoting from more expensive artists. There’s also inventive art done with coral, bark, stones, wire, feathers, smoke, mirrors, coconuts and cork. There’s batiks, squeezers, fabric-art, wood-carvings, fiber sculpture, hand-colored photos, Photo-Shopped Epson computer print-outs. Some exhibitors demo their work on location, others talk and sell. “This is my ‘art gecko'” a painter says, showing her watercolour of a gecko. “We’re not buying more art unless it’s a dolphin,” I hear a woman say to her husband. They buy the gecko.
Not much is said or written about the vast sub-culture of artists and artisans who show in places like this, on Sundays like this, all over the world. No one mentions the sheer democratization of art these days, or gives a clue to the meaning of the phenomenon. Even Thomas Hoving in Art for Dummies makes few suggestions for negotiating popular art. He talks as if collecting is still a matter of tracking down Rembrandts.
What’s happening? We’re in an era where sentiment and decoration rule, where hand-work is honoured and novelty often supersedes quality. Much is propelled by the life-style choice of the artist and the superfluous cash of the public. Furthermore, folks today connect with the environment and the often rustic characters who make the art. Great names are not so important; perhaps great names are under suspicion. For the casual collectors and tourists who wander under these far-reaching branches, artists live just down the street and around the corner.
PS: “Never has interest in art been so high, and never has quality been so low.” (John Ruskin, 1838)
“The only enemy of art is taste.” (Thomas Hoving)