The Isness of Art
09 Mar, 2012 - Rebecca Martin
In downtown Hanover, New Hampshire, there is a gallery that carries local and regional art: the League of NH Craftsmen Gallery. You can enter the front door at Lebanon Street and find yourself in a broad, open space of gorgeous local handicraft on display. Or you can come in at the back, as I prefer, climbing steps past a downstairs studio where a bearded man cradles fast-spinning clay in his hands. The door at the top opens onto a host of well-crafted, authentic pieces: display cases filled with jewelry, shelves of blown glass and glazed ceramics, walls of framed art, and–the jackpot for me–stacks of matted paintings and photographs.
The picture that connected with me on this particular visit was a whimsical serigraph by New Hampshire artist Catherine Green. Entering the back door, I flipped through a stack topped by a stylized depiction of a creek bed, right up my husband’s alley, though somehow not to my taste. I wondered if there would be something to satisfy us both. There was. A wooded landscape, rendered stark and serene in confident greens and calming blues. Quintessential New England. Each slow, silk-screened paint layer was pressed through at exactly the right spot, and a skillful use of white space defined the winding snow path that lit the way through a birch forest to a hilltop cluster of pines.
I loved the spareness of the rendering. And I was immediately and poignantly reminded of a scene from L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known Emily of New Moon, wherein the title character names her front yard trees and makes friends of them. More to the point, I was reminded of my first acquaintance with the book, holed up at home during a ninth grade snowstorm. Appropriately, the screen print in my hand was titled “Meeting Old Friends.” I carried it around the gallery with me, and I brought my husband back the next day for a second opinion. I deemed the picture well worth the price. I walked out the door, art in-hand.
One-of-a kind, handcrafted finds are popular these days. We live in a culture that, at the moment, values the authentic, the handmade. Area farmers’ markets are nouveau chic shopping spots, their tables laden with locally crafted wares. Small, local art galleries are promoted and supported. Major home furnishing retailers get in on the action, too, not only selling items that merely look old and timeworn; they actually market original vintage pieces to coordinate with their faux-distressed tables and bed frames. They even (much to their credit) support online artisan sites like Etsy. Etsy items get pinned and repinned on Pinterest, and new members seem to join constantly, sharing their discoveries with friends and strangers. It’s fast becoming an era of mass marketed authenticity.
Recently, a New York Times Home & Garden article called for ceasefire. One person interviewed proclaimed frustration with too many things crafted. The overabundance of unique, authentic items in the home began to “seem like a ‘design uniform’.” The value became diluted. Another person explains, “When you pile Etsy on top of Etsy, it gets really cacophonous: ‘Everything in here is totally unique!’ It starts canceling itself out.” …and he throws the baby out with the bathwater.
I would like to keep hold of the baby, please. The same article asks the question, “How much authenticity is too much?” Perhaps therein lies the problem. If we’re only looking for the authentic, we will find it anywhere and everywhere. We could buy up the entire art gallery in hot pursuit. And we will indeed get oversaturated. Rooms packed with too much of the “real thing” — vintage furniture, artisan crafts, prints bought off Etsy — will amount to the same thing it always amounts to when we gather stuff for the sake of gathering stuff. When acquiring for the sake of acquiring, the value of the item itself will surely be lost.
In this kind of deluge, it’s easy to forget the value of the individual: the singular work of art and the unique person, and the intersection of the two. And we’re all so different. Our perceptions and pasts and particularities of “isness,” as Madeleine L’Engle would say, converge to make meaning out of, and thus to find value in, surprisingly different items from person to person– when we pay careful, close attention to each actual item, that is.
Walter Benjamin approaches the matter from another direction. As a collector (of books), he notes that the “phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” Belongings lose significance the further they get from the person who owns and appreciates them. It follows that a unique, original art object needs to be grounded in the caring ownership of an individual in order to be valuable — and in order to be authentic. The work of art that is dissected from humanity has no real history; it might as well be a painting in an assembly line. But when Benjamin rifles through his crates of beloved books, full of personal meaning and past experience: “what memories crowd in upon you!” He wants to keep hold of the baby, too.
Back in the art gallery, I held the painting, and I could smell the chill in the air from the snowed-in weekend when I first read Montgomery’s Emily, recuperating from the flu on my mother’s living room sofa. It was transporting. Yes, meaning may get lost in the jumble when too many one-of-a-kind pieces are bought and hung merely for the sake of an aesthetic. But in those unexpected moments at a gallery when a certain picture seizes my imagination and, even better, rouses memories of other moments, art and personal history intersect– in real time, in actual space. Authenticity is augmented.
When L’Engle talks about isness, she suggests there’s a certain glory in being precisely who we are, each person as unique and real as the work of art I ended up bringing home with me. She recognizes that when our individual isnesses intersect, our true selves are more deeply established; via relationship, we reaffirm our very existence back to each other. I contend that works of art can do the same. And if any created items reflect our lives back to us–by memory, by story, by sheer imaginative rendering–therein lies an authenticity that deepens the already significant work it takes to craft each handmade, individually-conceived piece in an art gallery.
So I say, “Sure.” The bathwater can go and take the glut of authenticity with it. Maybe it’s all just a slurry of marketing ploys, anyway, destined to be washed down the drain when the next big decorating trend comes along. Thankfully, art doesn’t get dragged down with the rest, especially when it is created out of time and skill, slow focus and care. When it connects with someone on a personal level. When it isn’t sought merely to add to a cumulative collection of “authentic” things.
We can talk local art, and we can talk authentic, quality craftsmanship. We can talk about the grand meeting of the two, and we should. But value that’s lasting is ultimately in the personal connection, in the meaning made out of memory and imagination at the moment we engage with a work of art. It’s the experience I climbed those steps looking for. It’s the kind of authenticity I can’t get enough of.
 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. p.222-223
 Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library.” Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., New York: 1955. Transl. Harry Zohn. p.67, 66.
 *L’Engle, Madeline. A Circle of Quiet. HarperCollins: New York, 1972. p. 6, 110