Cultural phenomena go in huge arcs, decades long, so that students get out-of-phase with their teachers, performances get out-of-phase with their audiences, and art gets out-of-phase with public taste. There are two “long arcs” that I’m not sorry to see go on the down curve, one is the abstract movement of the first part of the last century, all those intellectual exercises in cubism and targets and Campbell’s soup cans -- though I have some favorites among them -- and the other is the outrageous career of Damien Hirst and his pickled animals, which no one dared to criticize until recently an Aussie critic (they’re still “cowboys,” unlike the metrofication of Americans) said they were “tacky.”
The new arc seems to be lifting up representational art, some of which had been reduced to the level of wallpaper in many institutions throughout the country. Not only can you tell what it is, the subject matter is often uplifting, even celebratory of the nation. Coinciding with this is a sudden realization that since real estate and the stock market have become shaky investments, art is looking pretty good. In fact, some paintings by newly admired artists have become so potentially valuable that the owning institutions have been unable to resist the temptation to sell them.
So what impact has this had on cowboy art? The Western art mags have gotten a little thinner and have included more art that is still certainly “Western” but about landscape, still-life or iconic works as well as the man on a horse with a rope. Some major corporations have sold off their collections, for instance, the 7-11 photos of the West. It’s nice to see familiar CAA artist’s names listed in the catalogues of Sotheby’s rather than the ghettoized but enormously successful annual Western auctions, and the value of the big names is holding if not increasing: Russell, Moran and so on.
At the shows in the institutions the art is increasingly skillful. One surprising factor has been immigrating Chinese artists, classically trained and seeing the terrain with new eyes. Another has been the influx to the field of cartoonists, most often the people who invented and replicated the backgrounds now drawn by computers. They are also skilled and have a kind of romantic aesthetic that goes well with Western subject matter. I hadn’t realized how many there were until I read the bios in the latest Cowboy Artists of America catalogue. I sometimes wonder whether the action isn’t with the teachers of wannabe artists, rather like the teachers of wannabe writers.
The CAA, which now often drops the second A, has had its troubles with the “arc” because of aging membership. The original group was knitted together both through friendship and from loyalty to their career-changing impact on the fortunes of cowboy artists. By joining with Dean Krakel and the Cowboy Hall of Fame, they achieved “critical mass” as a movement and respectability for pictures that appealed to a lot of rough-hewn shirt-sleeve millionaire buyers who needed to show they had “culture.” Now the founders are much outnumbered by a second and third generation of artists -- some of them literally the sons (no daughters) of the founders -- and far more competitive with each other. (Dean Krakel has been gone a while and the Cowboy Hall of Fame has changed its name again.)
Experts used to argue that Remington’s art was a better investment than stocks and bonds and had a little graph to show why. But that was before the SE Asian artisans discovered that they could eyeball any statuary and create cheap equivalents that the ordinary citizen could never distinguish from the originals. A new technology uses lasers to create a replica of any three-dimensional object, including a person, so now we’re back to the kind of accusations Rodin encountered when he created “The Age of Bronze” and was accused of simply casting his model from molds applied to his body. The tiny plastic injection toy farm animals I see at Big R are often as cunningly done as many bronzes. “Cold cast” miniatures are popular. The dime stores feature clever and fairly accurate painted animals and vignettes. And a giclee print with a few judicious paint-strokes added is for most people indistinguishable from easel art.
But probably the real key to Western art is -- as it was for most of the CAA artists -- life experience. These works appeal to people who can relate, so the success of the art is linked to people who hunt, who ride, who rope, who attend rodeos and eat beef. Thus, to some degree, the prosperity of Western art is linked to the fortunes of the Republican party. Every time I say this in front of a dealer they can hardly keep from putting a hand over my mouth. The excessive moral outrage of huggers -- whether of trees, buffalo or owls -- amounts to a form of terrorism. (Not that I disagree with the real problems -- just their methods.) At events about Western art the audience is often white-haired.
More and more, the kind of promotions that institutions like the CM Russell Museum use to build their base are programs for children, or with an interest in wildlife, or are linked with a particular lifestyle exemplified in magazines like the Big Sky Journal, based mostly on massive log, stone, plate glass, and Corten mansions in the middle of nowhere -- but a nowhere with a fine view and possibly a tennis court or ski trail. (How long this trend will continue as these people age is open to question.) Miniature art and “quick draw” events where the art is sold wet off the easel are also popular. So far I see few classes on how to tell “good art” from “bad.” Maybe it would have to be taught by some bold Aussie who isn’t afraid to bring down the wrath of artists on his or her head.
The dealers tell me that more than anything else, it is the thinning of the American middle class that affects sales. The very rich feel no constraints. The poor never bought anything but dimestore art anyway, though they might be loyal admirers of people like Charlie Russell.
In the end I think Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks are doomed -- the art reporters are saying a warehouse sale is planned. The best of the Manhattan-based abstract work will never lose its value in our lifetime because there are too many people who have taken the trouble to understand what it is about and to grow fond of it. If they pass that on to the next generation (if the experimental materials like Pollock’s housepaint and car enamel don’t just deteriorate out of existence).
I don’t think “cowboy art” -- the man on the horse with a rope -- per se will disappear. Rather it will become one figure among a whole panorama of American art. Quality will become increasingly important. The education and experience of the audience will matter. I’m very curious to see what happens to this amazing auction culture, rather like rodeo culture. Will there be on-the-spot bronze pours like rough stock events? Can’t you just imagine the searchlights sweeping over the gallery, the smoke and fireworks, the Western artists swaggering across the floor (covered in sawdust for the occasion) in chaps and Stetsons? Might work. But only for a season or so. Then back to the mantra: quality.