Wonder Bread vs. Seven-Grain II

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(Note:  This is the conclusion from last Friday’s Post.) 

When I was in grade school, my only experience with art was when, two Thursdays a month, the volunteer “Art Lady” would come to our class, and in an uninspired nasal tone, discuss Monet and Van Gogh.  She looked tired and bored, and frankly bored us, but at least she was trying, which was more than the district was doing.  The Shawnee Mission District, in which I was educated, spent a lot of money and time promoting athletics, while budding artists—writers, painters, musicians—were left with the dregs of the budget (the district has done a much better job since). 

My mother sensed the injustice of this, and tried to give us a cultural grounding that she herself had not received.  This was at the same time–1967–that she discovered yoga and meditation, when fried food and red meat began to disappear from our diets, when concepts of positive thought were reinforced to us on a daily basis.  Her journey, and the one she took us on with her, is a curious tale, but I have no room to discuss it here.  I’ve done that through a different book, Cool Nation, that likely one day will see print.  In fact it covers the crazy journey of my whole family—the innocence of the early ‘60s, the intervention of the Vietnam War, the draft, the resulting disasters, the drug addictions, suicides, and eventual redemption.  That is a different story.

But that quiet woman, who our Leave It To Beaver neighbors thought nuts, gave us an opportunity to explore individual growth and creativity that we otherwise would have been denied.  I’m not saying that it didn’t come without a price, only that it opened a door.  It was also at this time that all Wonder Bread disappeared from our house, replaced by the seven-grain that she bought at the health food store in Westport.  It was not long after that, in 1970, that she made each of us read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and related books.  She even asked my father to read it, which he did, then tried very hard to keep from mocking it, at which he failed.

My father, a bare-fisted contractor from the Ozarks, was mildly shocked by these changes, but did his best to change in pace with my mother, hoping that if he did, it would save the marriage.  It didn’t, a heartbreak from which he never really recovered.

Why do I mention this?  Because in cities all over the country, at that same time, other men and women were making similar discoveries for themselves and their children.  If they hadn’t, the renaissance we’re currently enjoying would not be taking place.  Many of them did it at the price of ostracism, cruelty, and damaging gossip from narrow minds.  But for those who understood the worth of integrity and growth, none of those things mattered as much as the opportunities for change.

Even then, this notion of rebelling against a conformist society that was so unenlightened, was limited mostly to the middle class and universities.  In the inner cities, especially among non-whites, the impact was minimal, since those people were largely concerned with all the civil rights they were being denied.  They had bigger, more pressing, fish to fry.  These cultural changes would gradually be felt there too, but it would take decades for the substance of this to have any impact.  And even then—meaning now—the impact for non-white artists has been minimal.  

If you think it’s hard for a white artist to succeed, think of what it’s like for a black or hispanic artist, especially women.  Hard?  Hell, it’s nearly impossible.  Why?  The art world has for long been the province mostly of white males.  I don’t know that this restrictive imbalance has necessarily been the result of any intentional plan; more I think it’s the outgrowth of how our society is structured.  I mean, I don’t know a single white artist who would intentionally wish to deprive a non-white artist opportunity.  But still the deprivation is there.  Later, I’ll get into this fact in greater depth, and what many people are doing to try and change it, including myself.

But back to that house in the Kansas City suburbs, to my mother the seeker, my father the loving redneck, and the confused children they raised.  Had it not been for the sacrifices of my parents’ generation—during the Depression, World War II, and after—we, the succeeding generations, never would have had the leisure or means to explore this new art world.  Had it not been for the questioning nature of women like my mother, we would never have known that that world existed, and would have morosely gone on eating Wonder Bread for the rest of our lives.  My hat is off to that generation on both points.

Were they art collectors of any great magnitude?  Rarely.  They were rightly concerned with prosperity and safety.  Had I gone through the same hell that they endured, I would have been no different.  Their idea of art was a framed poster, or a cheap engraving of an English fox hunt.  For them, The Depression was still quite real, and for those who saw battle in the war, the nightmares never ended.  Just because they didn’t discuss it, didn’t mean it wasn’t there.  Art had no real relevance for their lives.  The members of their generation who were passionately interested in abstraction, impressionism, or figure, were so rare as to barely be visible—understandably so.

How do I know this?  No only did I grow up among this generation, but when I opened my gallery, I tried to sell art to them.  I tried to sell it to them as private collectors, corporate collectors, any kind of collector—often with negative results.  They would look at the work, maybe compliment it, usually criticize it, then drive off in their Cadillacs.  

Few of them understood that their refusal to become involved in the arts, instead of allowing themselves to be intimidated by same, was holding back the cultural growth of an entire nation.  And laud them while I do, I never once forgot that this was the same generation who did their level best to crush the Civil Rights movement, and all attending movements–at least the majority of them.  I admired these people, and was grateful for their sacrifices, but never was I deluded into believing that they were The Greatest Generation.  There is no such thing.  Along with their valor, I remember their bigotry, their harshness, and their general lack of involvement in their own kids’ lives.  They were certainly a great and heroic generation, with both their virtues and their flaws–like any generation.  And I will always laud them.  Without their sacrifices, I would never have had the privilege to become the writer, and art dealer, that I am.

But that generation is gradually passing.  Now the reins of the country are in different hands.  This generation, again because of the sacrifices of those who preceded them, tends to be better educated, more interested in the cultural world around them, and less inclined to be shocked by nonconformity.  I mean Cadillac recently ran a series of TV ads with background music by Led Zeppelin.  Cadillac?  This should tell you something.  The generation now in charge is juiced by the suggestion of nonconformity.  Even if their lives are conformist in nature, they don’t want to be seen in that light.  In fact the byword for everything now, even at the executive level, has become Cool—for better or worse.

What does this mean for you as an artist?  An entire new market has opened up, facilitating the renaissance that is now taking place.  This means that no matter where you live, you can develop a viable career that works with this market, grows from it, and sows mutual benefit.  How?  Oh I’ll get into that in plenty of depth later, but first I have a few stories to tell…

2 thoughts on “Wonder Bread vs. Seven-Grain II

  1. Paul – my view of that generation is entirely different; maybe it was a cultural thing – growing up in the Midwest vs. being in the orb of NY City. I grew up in New Jersey; my parents, who married during the depression and went through the war, etc, never had money but collected art. My mother was friends with others – all poor – who collected, also. They bought works on paper because that’s all they could afford – and paid them off $1 a week because it was important to them. (well,to my mother, really). The walls were hung with Rafael Soyer, Gropper, and others. My maternal grandfather was an artist who made his living as a house painter…but we everybody in the family had his paintings on their walls.

    We collected art but we ate Wonder Bread. Go figure.

  2. Rayna: Nothing like a differing point of view. Thanks for telling this great story. Of course I was generalizing, and we all know that doesn’t work–except in general. Sure there were exceptions. Your parents and their friends obviously were that.

    Jersey. One the guys profiled in The Greatest Generation, Len Lommel, was from Jersey. Served with incredible distinction at Normandy, collected art, somehow with his wife put all their kids through college, guided them in their careers, built a successful business, and was a civic leader in working with underprivileged kids. I met him a few years back. Another fine example of that generation. He still lives somewhere around Teaneck.

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