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ART'S BLUE-COLLAR BLUES

Buffalo is, as everyone is happy to remind you, a blue-collar town. What that's supposed to mean in terms of culture is that we have a huge knucklehead population out there that is just not going to get anything that doesn't involve a ball or a puck.

Art especially they won't get. For them art is something TV anchors automatically giggle at and congressmen rage over. If it isn't plain silly, it's weird. If it isn't weird, it's elitist. If it isn't elitist, it's obscene. If it isn't obscene, it's some kind of hoax designed to trick people into buying meaningless daubs.

The image of the artist himself, according to this stereotype, doesn't often fare any better among blue-collar folk. Artists are seen as eccentric slobs who eat paint and can't button their shirts right -- the Van Gogh "mad genius" stereotype. They are missing genes for such essential human activities as barbecuing and bowling.

No doubt, these stereotypes about art and artists are warmly embraced by many ordinary Buffalonians. But then, this view of the art-challenged blue-collar worker is itself one big mindless stereotype. That only certain in-the-know folk can reap the pleasures of art is an absurdity. So-called ordinary people can share in the bounty -- and without consulting learned professionals and plowing through art history texts.

Knowledge and experience help, of course. The more you know, the more you will take in and the more you'll enjoy. But a great deal of art -- whole centuries worth, in fact -- can be accessed through emotions, thoughts and experiences that all humans share.

Certainly art isn't always instantly accessible. There is such a thing as puzzling, conflicted and downright unfriendly art -- especially in this puzzling, conflicted and unfriendly moment in which we live. Nobody can comprehend it all. Who would want to? And some effort is required. Even picnics require preparations.

Years back I worked at Artpark, in the days when the Lewiston arts facility brought in artists to build big outdoor sculptures right before the eyes of the public. The idea was to get people close to "the creative process" and make them realize that it wasn't an easy and frivolous task to make art.

To some extent it worked. I remember guys with hard-hat suntan lines earnestly talking to the artists, trying their darnedest to fathom what was to them probably an incomprehensible heap of lumber and steel, and frazzled-looking women with three or four kids in tow who obviously enjoyed this or that artwork even without prompting.

It wasn't as if hordes were cheering for this art. Some remained stubbornly close-minded, even hostile. But nobody fell to the ground in fits of laughter or thought it necessary to toss off bons mots about their 4-year-old being able to do better. Thrown at them the way it was -- half-finished and with a sometimes frantic artist on hand working away in the sunlight -- they showed the healthy curiosity that humans and felines alike exhibit when presented with a new phenomenon. They saw that it required work and thought, that it grew and changed as the artist headed toward completion. With the encouragement of the artist (who was, by the way, not usually the peculiar creature they imagined), they dared to mentally poke and probe these strange objects. And this curiosity didn't kill a one of them and probably became a valued experience.

It is understandable that people have these fearful feelings about art. The media constantly feed all of us a distorted fun-house-mirror view of creative life in America, and lately Congress does seem to be going after artists the way it once went after communists. Everything in the broader culture seems designed to convince the normal, tax-paying citizen that he won't get anything out of art even if he tries.

The Intimidation Factor

And worse, people are simply afraid to try. The mere thought of entering a museum or gallery can be intimidating for many. Somehow they feel unprepared, as if they forgot to do their homework. They feel out of place, paranoid. They suspect that there is some kind of conspiracy of the elite expressly designed to keep them out -- or at least make them miserable while in there.

This, I should add, isn't a fear limited to the uninitiated. Seasoned gallery-goers may be fine in relatively friendly Buffalo, but in the chillier galleries of big metropolitan centers they may sense this same alienation. I've pretty much learned to ignore the steely stare of the bloodless creature behind the desk in Manhattan galleries, but occasionally one of these glowering Dracula brides will make me feel like I'm wearing plaid pajamas and have a popcorn machine strapped to my back.

Recently a young, reasonably well-informed guy in jeans and T-shirt told me why he never felt comfortable in art galleries.

"I feel like I have a sign on my forehead that says NOT BUYING. I'm afraid they'll see through me. It's like going into a high-class boutique. It's not like you can look around for an hour and then ask if they have anything for 20 bucks."

A Buffalo professional man, not inexperienced in things cultural, had "pop quiz" anxiety.

"I'm the only one in the place and I'm looking at this painting that I have absolutely no opinion about one way or another. I figure any minute the person at the desk will come up and ask, 'So what do you think of this piece?' I'll just blank out and come off like a complete idiot."

I've talked to people who envision museum guards chastising them for a multitude of infractions, from slumping to talking above a whisper. Others worry about how to dress. They are positive that such a highfalutin place must have a secret dress code that nobody's telling them about. Then, when they appear in ripped jeans and sneakers, a chorus of debutantes in elegant gowns will emerge and point fingers at them and laugh.

Art openings cause other, no less intense anxieties. Is the wine and cheese free or is there a cashier hidden away somewhere who'll leap out and demand payment? Some openings are receptions for the exhibiting artist. Will you be required to shake hands with him or her? Respond to the work? Some people confuse these events with Tupperware parties: They fear that they will be required to buy a piece of art at the end of the night.

The Imagination Factor

Worried or not, people will -- if given half a chance -- still instinctually seek out imaginative things. Everybody knows, deep down, that imagination is life's magic elixir. This amazing human trait can wrap up all the good, bad and ugly of the world, and make it seem joyful or exciting or just plain interesting.

Art is one of the most free-ranging imaginative things going. A painting or sculpture may exist only 30 inches from your nose, but it can take you on journeys that seem to reach to the end of the galaxies. Art can make ordinary things -- even a couple of onions and an old jug -- seem fascinating or strange. It can point up some unnoticed part of existence -- a plain rooftop in the afternoon sun, for instance -- or create some fantastic vision of color, shape or form out of thin air.

And in those rare moments when you and an artwork really jell to perfection, it can transform your life.