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Jewish World Review July 21, 2005/ 14 Tammuz, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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The medium is the message | SANTA FE, N.M. — Washington — or at least "media Washington" — is focused on Rove, Rove, Rove. Or was, before the president switched the focus to the Supreme Court. ("Media Washington" has a limited attention span.) But here in Santa Fe, "rove" is what you do through an art gallery. All the talk here is about art, art, art.

Washington, a company town, produces politics. Santa Fe, though the state capital, produces art. With a permanent population of only 65,000, the city counts more than 150 art galleries. Over the past few days, the art population has ballooned as the city hosts its sixth international contemporary art fair, drawing exhibits from Asia, Europe and Latin America as well as the United States.

International art fairs are big business, but the best ones are about more than money. They introduce young artists to wider audiences and offer something the politicians can't.

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, gave a lecture in Santa Fe emphasizing his favorite theme, why art and art museums matter. "Why should we care?" he asks of an audience of patrons who care, and care passionately. Art, he insists, getting no argument, "is mankind's awe-inspiring ability, time and again, to surpass itself. What this means is that no matter how bleak the times we may live in, we cannot wholly despair of the human condition."

Art is often the canary in the coal mine, the first to die when poison gas seeps through a blackened environment when evil comes to power. Hitler and Stalin persecuted modern artists, silenced them or sent them into exile; they represented the creative independent spirit that would not, could not, conform. Such warfare on artists echoes in our own day. Mr. Montebello recalls how the world was shocked when the Taliban destroyed the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, six months before September 11.

Fine art, whether ancient or modern, expresses human aspiration and individual freedom and threatens those who seek absolute power. It works within traditions while at the same time challenging tradition. Art can be the lens that opens the eyes of men and women oppressed by tyrants.

China, though oppressing human rights and chilling the human spirit, has nevertheless decentralized the arts, perhaps setting the stage for loosening government control. The government's motives are not driven by democratic idealism, but to exploit the market. But it's possible that this change may be a beacon of light, freeing the artistic impulse, particularly in the performing arts.

"Performing companies now have to find the market," Li Dongwen, minister-counselor for cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, tells The New York Times. While international dealers were bringing their art wares to Santa Fe as a way of broadening their markets, Chinese officials and "managers" of art charged with overseeing the changed government policy attended workshops at the Kennedy Center in Washington to learn how to create a cadre of donors, organize budgets, develop electronic ticketing systems and write mission statements.

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Market-driven art has limitations. It sometimes aims for the lowest common denominator, commercializing and vulgarizing art for the consumer. While there were patches of authentic creative excitement in the Santa Fe exhibitions, much of it, especially some of the high-tech conceptual art, appeals to a Disneyland sensibility more appropriate to a theme park than to a museum. One "art" piece is made up of dancing abstract designs arrayed across a television-like screen that incorporates the visual image of the viewer standing in front of the "art," thus making the spectator a participant in the composition. Children love it.

Art, like architecture, is the reflection of who we are, and we're presently suffering an "anything goes" culture. It takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff, original brilliance from glib trendiness. The cliché that "art is anything you can get away with," attributed variously to Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan, echoes the idea that "the medium is the message." Art and politics are linked in contemporary society.

Whether "Rove, Rove, Rove," or "art, art, art," we're the spectators participating in the projected image. To put it all together, we naturally go to the Bard, and his marvelous dialogue between Hamlet and the Queen in their search to find out what had gone wrong in Denmark:

Hamlet: Do you see nothing there?

Queen: Nothing at all; yet all that is, I see.

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate