But I fancied myself something of a connoisseur of the arts, mainly because I'd spent most of my life and much of my bookstore's profits -- often to my wife's furious chagrin -- building a modest collection of modern American prints, mostly from the first quarter of the century: the Ashcan School, Stieglitz and his Gallery 291 crowd, and the Precisionists -- America's Futurists -- who celebrated industry, speed and technology. Once I had to get a second mortgage on the store to buy a George Luks monotype of a Greenwich Village street scene. For me art is life, and I can't imagine a meaningful existence without it. My wife only talked about limits and Freud's reality principle. She's never been impulsive, but she says it's because of me.
So with my aesthetic beliefs and needs, I figured that something as big as what the billboard promised shouldn't be missed. I turned onto an avenue lined with large oaks draped with Spanish moss leading to an intricate wrought iron gate depicting swans drifting among water lilies. Ten bucks later we were inside, rolling slowly along the grand entrance driveway, passing between more gigantic oaks through which shown sun-drenched vistas of cool groomed grass.
According to the historical background sign outside, the gardens, comprising some 5,000 acres, had been fashioned in the '50s on the grounds of an old rice and indigo plantation carved out of cypress swamp in 1704, where the last scion of a venerable Lowcountry family decided to do something different with the largely neglected plantation. During the '30s he began to acquire as much contemporary sculpture in metal and stone as he could find, which was relatively easy and inexpensive thanks to the Depression. Artists were lining up outside the Greek Revival semi-temple of a home just to exhibit and explain their creations. He passed judgment on them then and there, but he'd let their creators stay the night if it was too late, and give them a good meal with wine. Art market communication being what it is, every artist in a five-hundred-mile radius knew who he was, with some becoming sculptors almost overnight.
With hundreds of sculptures in his possession by the end of World War II, ranging from small bronze figurines of nymphs and satyrs, to epic marble pieces weighing tons, he began to convert what was left of the rice paddies to elaborate formal gardens as the environment for his collection, the works to be situated among fountains, reflecting pools, a tropical greenhouse (for the smaller items), arbors, and beds upon beds of flowers, elegant trees and freshly-shaped shrubs, sometimes in topiary and intricate mazes. Because he wanted the botany of the experience on an equal footing with the art, everything vegetable and mineral had a brass label, even on the ground to tell you what kind of grass grew there.
As a botany lesson it was appealing, but as art it was conventional and painfully middlebrow, just what our tourists love. Yes, I am a snob, but not in a mean-spirited way.
Some art is just better than others, and there's pleasure in discerning that difference. In fact, the better you are at perceiving that difference, the better you are as a human being. It is a corollary of the aesthetic experience, if that experience is defined as an embodiment, a showing forth of the Good, as Plato held.
The collection was drawn from the mainstream of American sculpture done between the turn of the century and World War II, but, with the exception of a few pieces that seemed vaguely art nouveau and deco, the dominant popular styles of the period, it displayed virtually no evidence of the modernist eruption in Europe, not even a hint of the primitive mask, the sliced geometry of cubism, or the surreal images of the slithering unconscious. In fact, to judge from this epic assemblage of bronze and stone animals and heroic figures from Greco-Roman mythology, modern art had never happened at all.
It pissed me off at first, thinking how unrepresentative and misleading it all was and how symptomatic it was of everything I hate about America. But overall it was just plain boring, which, to adopt Wilde's decadent aesthetic, is the worst sin that any art can commit. This was truly art for the masses, though, many of whom had arrived in pickup trucks, zany T-shirts and flip-flops, showing interest only in what happened to be nude or big or both. As an elitist snob, I believe that art affects and edifies everybody but that only a small minority are able to understand their aesthetic experience and discriminate among its different kinds. I was an initiate, they weren't, and I resented having to rub elbows with them in the illusion of equality.
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