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Friday, December 26, 2014

For the second day of Christmas: the river of culture

Yolanda Sharpe
Watercolor by a local friend--
soprano, painter, SUNY-Oneonta professor in studio art.
Blue, Red, and Yellow, 26 by 40 inches, watercolor on paper, 2014

And words by another friend--nihongan painter Makoto Fujimura, founder of International Arts Movement and The Fujimura Institute:

The words at left and below are
from Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care,
the lovely result of his Kickstarter campaign.
Available here.
An industrial map in the mid-twentieth century colored New York's Hudson River black. The mapmakers considered a black river a good thing--full of industry! The more factory outputs, the more progress. When that map was made, "nature" was widely seen as a resource to be exploited. Few people considered the consequences of careless disposal of industrial waste. The culture has shifted dramatically over the last fifty years. When I share this story today, most people shudder and ask how anyone could think of a polluted river as good.

But today we are doing the same thing with the river of culture. Think of the arts and other cultural enterprises as rivers that water the soil of culture. We are painting this cultural tier black--full of industry, dominated by commercial interests, careless of toxic byproducts--and there are still cultural mapmakers who claim that this is a good thing. The pollution makes it difficult for us to breathe, difficult for artists to create, difficult for any of us to see beauty through the murk.

It is widely recognized that our culture today is not life-giving. There is little room at the margins to make artistic endeavors sustainable. The wider ecosystem of art and culture has been decimated, leaving only homogeneous pockets of survivors, those fit enough to survive in a poisoned environment. In culture as in nature, a lack of diversity is a first sign of a distressed ecosystem.

Many of the streams that feed the river of culture are polluted, and the soil this river should be watering is thus parched and fragmented....

Yolanda Sharpe, Neighborhood, encaustic on panels
(center panel: 23 by 22.5 by 3 inches), 48 by 43.75, 2013


  1. I have a naïve theory about the arts and society. Once upon a time, long, long ago, wealthy patrons supported artists of all stripes; of course, many would-be artists failed to secure patronage, and we have never heard of those folks, but we have wonderful creations from the Renaissance, for example, simply because of the wealthy patrons. Later -- much later actually -- governments were involved (e.g., think Hitler, Stalin, and Mao; think Progressives, Roosevelt, and the Great Depression; and think later about 20th century American federal foundations and grants -- the latter being a pernicious marriage between government and culture), and the same patronage environment has been repeated but with undesirable effects. At the same time, throw in academia -- almost never anything more than a self-centered petri-dish for cultural inbreeding and mutual backslapping -- and the "Hudson River" becomes even more polluted. Well, with that theoretical ranting and raving out of the way, I also think I have a solution: artists must simply continue creating (even if they feel as though they are trees falling silently in the forest without anyone to hear them) while waiting for a return to the good old days of the Renaissance patronage (which means casting governments and academia aside as being polluters of the "Hudson River"). Of course, I could be completely wrong (again).

    1. Tim, I like naive theories! Certainly the old patronage system was erratic, but it did produce wonders. And government has had its oar in since, and that's a very mixed thing. And yes, most people in the arts (at least in writing worlds) are now comfortably ensconced in academia. I think that's better for some of the arts than others, but there's a lot to critique.

      I suppose that I am an example of setting aside, as I abandoned academia just after tenure. And have made less and less money ever since! But have done what I liked.

  2. I am grateful that my colleagues where I work in upstate New York refuse to be ensconced in the academic mindset. It is unfortunately true that academe oftentimes rewards and punishes according to trends.

    I am blessed because I feel unencumbered. I grew up in the urban, creative, and innovative era of Cass Corridor experimentation in Detroit. It seems to me that the creative class (that's the fancy turn of phrase that is presently assigned to artists-especially the young ones that think it's a novel adventure to move to Detroit to make art) are among many other artists who helped keep Detroit's spirits high during its former bankruptcy.

    Artists, who are vibrant and productive, invite others to envision something other than poverty, failure, and lack.

    1. Good response, Miss Yo-Yo! I do think that studio art is an better academic track than the writing MFA for various reasons...

  3. Great point, Yolanda, and thank you Ms Youmans for sharing this art, which remains, as ever, exquisitely beautiful and harmonious.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.