Alpharetta is on a path that would create its own Arts Commission, a volunteer panel that would foster cultural enrichment within the city.

The group would advise the City Council on the acquisition of art works and how government can help promote the arts.

Great news for those who draw landscapes, not so good for those who draw lines in the sand. Any time government cozies up to the arts, there are inevitably critics who protest their tax dollars put to purposes other than roads and public safety.

Piloting a campaign of culture is hard enough with private dollars. Add tax money to the mix, and you’re asking for it.

Look at the incessant calls to end government support for Public Broadcasting and Public Radio. Listen to the howls when a local gallery spends government grant money for a work many find objectionable. Worse yet are those with no opinion of art at all, as long as their tax dollars aren’t being used to express it.

It’s a tricky business, this cultural arts thing. I have my doubts.

How do you inspire a population to foster achievement, promote appreciation for a discipline so difficult to define?

What is art?

The noted poetry critic John Ciardi once complained of “the lack of criteria” for art. He admitted to having friends who suggested throwing coffee-soaked tissues at canvass was as much a work of art as anything, so long as the artist is sincere.

“Is sincerity enough?” he asked.

Ciardi argued for criteria, informed standards that a vast majority agree should be elemental within an art form. He decried the flood of so-called “poetry” he received in his mailbox each year.

“We’re all poets,” he concluded. The difference, he said, is that there are precious few who have put in the effort to master the techniques of poetry – its rhythms, its weight on words, its arrangement of ideas. For everyone else, their “great poem” never materializes on paper because its journey from the mind to the pen does not run along an informed path.

Art is not easy, but art appreciation is even more difficult, especially here in America.

The Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, is a covered wooden footbridge spanning the river Reuss in Lucerne, Switzerland. On the interior of its canopy are paintings dating back to the 17th century. I found myself walking that path some years ago.

As I strolled across the bridge, distracted by the magnificence of Lucerne, visible in sort of letterbox format between the railing and canopy, I was struck by a dreary realization. What I noticed most was not the artwork adorning my enclosure, it was the absence of graffiti.

There were no initials carved or scratched anywhere, no spray-painted figurines. All clear – for centuries. Would such a phenomenon be possible here? Be honest.

A month before his death, President Kennedy spoke about our appreciation for art while attending the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

This speech was important to Kennedy because he’d failed to repay the late poet for appearing at his inauguration in 1961. He redrafted the speech even on the plane to Amherst.

This is what he said: “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft,” he said. “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”

(2) comments

Rossy Finol-Bishop

I understand your hesitation about if Art is really worth it. But you answered yes, when you talked about your experience in Lucerne. Art is worth it, and it is in Lucerne or Alpharetta. What is getting in the way of people’s full support is how absurd or even fraudulent some aspects of contemporary pseudo art manifestations can be.

You said Art is difficult, and it is. But art appreciation isn’t as hard as creating art. The aesthetic experience in inherent to our humanity. (And that is why cities that are built with art in mind persist in time and are visited by thousands.) Clearly, there are levels of scholarship in the appreciation of the arts, but anyone can appreciate a real work of art. Art appreciation is learned by exposure and by education. You can’t expect people to develop any level of sophistication in any area if there is not the repeated experience of it. Besides of enriching people’s lives and encouraging dialogue; the arts are a serious investment in the future of a city. They create singularity and uniqueness and they offer a rupture of the monotony of city design standards. Obvious examples are the cities where everybody wants to go: Paris, Florence, London just to name a few places everyone knows. Or Lucerne, the case you cite. A great work of art can even put a city in the the world’s mind and revitalize the economy of a whole town; a now classic example is the town of Bilbao in north Spain after the creation of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Ghery.

Art isn’t as subjective in its aesthetic value, it is subjective in in its capacity to reach individuals. Art is the result of years work and dedication to develop skills and a unique language. There is materiality in the plastic arts, the visual arts. Art objects have special material qualities that also carry special special “content or meaning”. Color, composition, line, representation, abstraction are elements of art that require technique and knowledge that can be objectively seen. Intention or assigned meaning is not enough to produce art. Is the art what creates the context, not the other way around. If not try this easy experiment: imagine the piece in question outside the gallery, the museum where is exhibited. Ask yourself: does it still look like art? does that Botticelli out in the street looks like something that is still beautiful and needs to be preserved or put in the trash? Does the pile of candy, rubber or other material that you found in the impeccable space at the museum, when seen outside of its context, does it still looks like something beautiful that bring other ideas than putting it where it belongs? The garbage can? That “art“ that makes people doubt the real value of the arts, is most probably not art at all. And we should use our senses and our intelligence to judge. Graffiti may have a place but definitely NOT when it vandalizes our cities, our property and other works of human labor, or art.

I applaud the Alpharetta Government initiative to create an Art Committee to foster, along with other groups, the creation and promotion of the arts in out town. These people need to offer intelligent and solid opinions to the arena for this commission to be a positive force. In the long term attention and focus to culture in all its forms will only allow our young city to further succeed. Art brings joy, depth and creativity and also bring work and business to all the surrounding aspects of living and visiting a city where arts shine as one the highest production of the human mind. Rossy Finol-Bishop


Well said Pat. Also timely. And, finally, art - successful art - often is not what is said, painted, created, or written, as much as what is not been created, and the reader, listener, or viewer is left to fill in that blank - the blank for which the artist has provided context, and then stepped back and waited. Like the absence of graffiti...

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