For art to rise and shine, it needs neighbors who toe the line

What is the link between travel and art? Is a destination, by virtue of its mass appeal, sentenced to a diminished craft community, of tinkerers and self-selected assemblers of earrings and shapers of raku coasters?

Are its painters and sculptors squeezed through a tube and into a mold that produces nothing that doesn’t contain one of the region’s famous birds, fish or antlered ungulates?

Is cliche the inevitable result of mercenary desires? Does a conscious appeal to the masses — that quest for broad acceptance, and a greater chance of sales — lead necessarily to a flattening of risk and edge in the artist’s creative output? Is safe “art” a safe bet for a transaction that lifts the artist above his or her starving (i.e. more adventurous?) brethren?

Can art exist or even survive in a world where the obvious and familiar are endlessly cycled into wall hangings for condos left vacant 11 months of the year?

These questions come to mind, browsing a collection of local art in downtown Hilo, Hawaii. I want to chew the questions, although I’m not sure it will produce a digestible answer. Overlaying the whole exercise sits the bigger question of “what is good — or great — art, and where does one find it?”

I’m not sure there is an answer to that. It costs nothing to look, which is what I do when I find myself in places that have earned some cachet among art lovers, albeit for reasons that beg the question “why?” In Sedona and Santa Fe, Carmel and Aspen, this cheapskate pedestrian has wandered into gallery after gallery, and departed in a fog of confusion about the goal of the artists and their gallerists. If every piece, to show its origins, must contain crashing waves or bugling elk or red-rock buttes, can it fairly be called art, or more accurately decoration?

And then there sits the line between art and craft. If utility is the underlying rationale for its creation, can craft compete with an item that is meant strictly for viewing? Is there greater value in the purely aesthetic, compared to that which has an aesthetic quality and also provides a barrier between sweat from a cocktail glass and the koa wood coffee table?

I love to visit galleries, or shops that represent a mix of talents, be they assemblers of beads and pounded metal, or painters, or whimsical welders and their scrap-metal representations of the local fauna. “Cute,” we say most often, and pass on.

For many people, this is what passes for art, and this is what many people come to think of as art, because they see little else, when they travel, in the shops and “galleries” that come to dominate the retail landscape of their destinations. Destinations, I should add, that ascend to the heights of allure because of the sheer volume of such retail establishments that have come to comprise their landscape.

To be fair, to each his own. Everyone has a right to like what they like. Not everyone wants or expects to be challenged by a creative work, although I do. I recall a visit a couple of years ago to Los Angeles, and some of its art zones. In particular, my wife and I found ourselves captivated by the work on display in several of the galleries in downtown Culver City.

In the instance of our captivation, I recall seeing nothing on the wall that looked to have been inspired by the world outside. There was fantasy, whimsy, humor and lust. We could recognize elements in some of the work, or nothing at all in other expressions. But whenever we stopped and stared and thought that if we had a spare $5,000 lying around, we would buy this, and buy it now, we were staring at a work that neither of us had ever seen or imagined before.

Yes, in shops to the left or right of the one in which we stood, we could find nicely wrought earrings or vases. But where we stood, we found wonder. In the world of all that is possible for people to create, only the rare and unfamiliar deserves such regard. The contrast emerges from the greater context. Without cliche, the magical and revolutionary would have nothing above which to soar.

Or, to put it bluntly, without the junk, the gems would never shine.

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