The Unknown Artist: Thoughts on the Arts Focus Group Discussion for the Appleton Downtown Plan Update

At the city planning meeting, Len tells a story about how he showed a class of teens at the high school for the arts, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and how dismayed he was that the students didn't know who painted it, guessing Picasso.

But I'm not even sure I know much more than Hopper's name, if I even could have come up with that on the fly. *(Full disclosure: I thought the painting was called "Night Cafe", probably because that's what we called it playing Masterpiece.  See note.)

Does that make me less of an artist?

There is consent in the room, that indeed, this is disappointing news.  But who is to say what a seventeen year old should know?

How many people know about the Mercator Projection?

Probably not too many, which is disappointing seeing how profoundly map projections effect our view of the world.

I would know nothing about that if I hadn't randomly landed in a map projection seminar freshman year of college.

Why should we expect a student to know Hopper?

Because it is such an important cultural icon.

Why?  Who chooses the objects that become cultural icons?  Why are certain images shown to us over and over?  Why is a work of art not deemed important until enough people acknowledge it's important?  Why is it that by seeing an imagine again and again, it becomes important? Is being important more than a popularity contest?   And what does that mean for images from communities that have no chance of ever becoming important?

Is it just as dismaying that these same students can not identity the work of even one artist in their own community?

Why is the work of famous dead artists more important than the current work of local unknown artists?  For one, because it is safe to say that the popular dead artist's work is important.  We known it because it's obvious.  We don't have to defend our position.

Mostly, we feel uncomfortable with the messy, failure-ridden process of making art.  Mostly, we don't want to look foolish showing interest in an art work that isn't considered important.  Mostly, we don't know what to think of art works and whether or not we realize it, need an expert's validation in order to feel a connection to the work.  Experts arise from all kinds of places.  Study and reflection and connection and chutzpah, the daring to believe that their opinions are important.

But the vast majority of artists never become "important."  Does this mean we are unimportant?

Why do art communities grow and what value do they offer?  How does a mural change a neighborhood?  How does a poem influence discussions?  What is the roll of the unimportant artist?

When a city decides to honor its artists by naming streets after them, dedicating sculptures to them, stamping their writings on buildings, presenting their works in the concert halls, discussing their philosophies in salons, what impact does that have on a society?  What happens to a society that supports a community of people who concern themselves with art making?

Len tells how he talked to the students about the angles, the light, the loneliness, the influence on film noir.

So now they know about Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks".  Because it is important to an artist working in their community.  Rather than disappointing, I find that inspiring.

Three details from a work of my favorite unknown artist,
my mother who took oil painting classes with Frank Siposic every Tuesday night,
and whose paintings I studied all throughout my childhood.

* The only reason that I even kind of know that Edward Hopper painted "Nighthawks" was due to our childhood obsession with a rare board game called Masterpiece that featured some of the west's most famous  art works.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joanna, You make a ton of valid points here. Check out these short videos I discovered last night. I especially enjoyed the last one, where Ken Loach talks about Hogarth. These videos depict the exact relationship I would like the aspiring filmmakers in my classes to have with the world of Fine Art. —Len http://nofilmschool.com/2013/12/film-meets-art-directors-discuss-painters-inspired-work