Welcome to America—Commentary

Brian J. Sullivan

I held a cardboard sign high in the air with the word "Nirobi." I was assigned the pickup and escort duties for the US Consulate in Chicago. Nirobi was a diplomat from a small West African country. We had never met before, hence the sign. Emerging from the crowd was a black man dressed in colorful garb; he approached me and extended his hand. I also extended my hand and said, "Welcome to America." He replied back, "Home of the tasteless white bread." Contact had been made and passwords matched. He spoke very little English on the way to the consulate.

I dropped Nirobi off and proceeded on my way, pondering the image people must have of America. Not only do we have tasteless white bread, but also picture perfect apples with little or no taste along with other wax coated fruits and vegetables. Has the art fair circuit become diluted too? Have the over saturated market and big time promoters cheapened what was at one time a field filled with risk taking and daring art? Has the industry crossed over the proverbial line where only those who can afford the high cost of entry fees, booth fees, hotels, display setups, and multi-purpose cargo trucks are the vendors who sell to the masses—not original art, but reproductions, imitations, prints, geclee, and buy-and-sell? Are we inundated with commercially viable art but not cutting edge museum quality art? What ever happened to the good ole days when the artisan whittled away hours in the studio in order to have enough art to sell at a fair? Currently, production shops of many artists mass produce items which are erroneously passed off as the work of the person in the booth.

Has the art fair become big business with sponsors taking center stage to the art? Think cell phone makers, car manufacturers, alcohol distributors, all of which currently sponsor and have large presences at most national venues. What happened to art for art's sake, art fairs which only have art, no frills, no bands, no yard art, and no beer tent? Have we conditioned the viewing public into expecting and accepting second rate art? Are we all a bit responsible for the demise of the art fairs? Realistically, how many artists or even vendors sell enough during a four-day show with 1,600 other booths competing for the same limited consumer dollar?

Have we, the artists, become the entertainment of the event? In years past people went to a museum, paid their $5, and viewed art. Now they come for free, view hundreds of artists (and take all their business cards and literature), see lots of art, and not purchase a thing? And for this privilege an artist pays? How many theatre performances or music concerts do you know of in which the artist pays for the privilege of entertaining you? None I suspect. So here we are, a group of independent minded artists grabbing at whatever scraps we can in hopes of making it through another season. When will this craziness stop? If we don't compete and apply for the top shows (in protest), there are hundreds lined up behind us to try their luck. Promoters don't care because they get the same money whether it comes from artist A or artist B. The public does not care, nor do I suspect that they even realize the process behind the scenes. They expect to be catered to for the whole day. Yes there are true artist patrons who do buy art and care about originality, but this is a small number. In my experience, real visceral art of some substance does not sell at art fairs. Consumerism sells, taste does not.

So blame it on the tasteless white bread that we feed our children while they were growing up. Or on the Walmarts of the world which sell "original" oil paintings already framed for $150. How can we as artists compete? I am truly repulsed by the art and quality of these pictures selling at the big box stores. They have no redeeming value nor will they ever hang in a museum. Yet I watch as countless people pick through the racks and actually purchase these pictures!

At my next art fair I will be displaying loaves of "tasteless white bread" because that is what the public wants. Whereas Andy Warhol displayed silk-screened copies of Brillo pad boxes, etc., I will be displaying the actual product, very similar to Duchamp's ready-mades, such as his urinal. New, avant-garde? I hardly think so. Nirobi is now back in Africa organizing an international art fair. I hope he has not learned too well what we do in America.