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The Vision Thing

August, 1999

SOME YEARS BACK–by now it seems like decades ago–we made much sport of then President George Bush's "vision thing," his well-meant but somewhat inept attempt at putting a name to what ought to constitute a national purpose. If a nation of market-oriented free enterprisers could scoff at such a quaint idea (everyone knew that the bottom-line purpose was money) the "vision thing" surely found a sympathetic ear here and there among our cultured few. Artists of all stripes–if they were at all serious about their chosen field of endeavor–must have felt, however dimly, some twinge in their creative souls. The "vision thing," no matter how old-fashioned an idea, has long been the special province of the artist and, although often shunted onto the back burner when in the presence of "sophisticates," still resonates in the silent spaces of the true artist's soul. Looking over the field today, one wonders at times if the idea of vision has been so discredited that it has even fallen out of their hearts and minds if not merely out of their vocabularies. We seem so at sea, so foundering in our attempts to make things that we forget that all great art begins with a vision, a reason for being that transcends art for its own sake. In our commodity-driven society with its market-place mentality, we find more galleries than ever, more museums than ever, more exhibits than ever, more Holiday Sales than ever–and yet an ever diminishing return of substance and purpose in the offered products. Browsing the art fare today, one might as well be surveying kitchen gadgets, auto accessories, computer hard- and software or household appliances rather than objects that once were believed ought to transport us to deeper and higher realms of human experience. (I guess I shouldn't be so surprised that the Guggenheim's latest "art" show featured motorcycles!) As one wit once put it, it is like the bland leading the bland. Artists–like priests–once had a "calling." Now they have an occupation that demands a steady output of things designed to catch an eye and a purse. Purpose and vision have been reduced to expediency and practicality. What was the practicality of painting a chapel ceiling or adorning a tomb? How practical to paint a landscape or reproduce a prepared still life? Of course artists ought to make a living, but should that be the driving force behind their creativity? Once artists freed themselves from a "higher purpose" in their art, they merely put themselves into bondage for hire, making themselves no different from any other manufacturer of goods for sale. If they thought that "art for art's sake" would free up their creative juices, surely by now they have discovered that a slavish conformity to consumerism has been no salvation. Once the power of the dollar was pitted against aesthetics, the handwriting was on the wall. Nor is the aimlessness confined to artists alone; among the highest echelons of our cultural institutions–as witness the rising disillusion amongst museum directors across the country–we have a dispirited cadre of art professionals fleeing the field because, at heart, there seems to be no point anymore. How can one critique a standard-less enterprise? Vision and purpose, whether old-fashioned or not, whether we like it or not, has always been the "secret" ingredient that has lifted the competent artisan–whether painter, sculptor, writer, musician or actor–to that of artist. (Two such artists, Zhang HongNian and Judy Alderfer-Abbott–artists who still believe in the "vision thing"–are here critiqued in this issue's pages). By debasing art to commodity we not only debase the artist, but the whole grand enterprise of uplifting the human spirit that had, with the first cave painting, begun moving us from a primitive state of being. If art can be reduced to any 'thing,' then anyone can be an artist–the "vision thing" be damned. Sadly, such an attitude can only leave us all impoverished.

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