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We got mail!

The sequel
Northwest side story, part II

Last month, letter-writing reader Natascha and NW Drizzle Art Editor Jeff Jahn exchanged letters. This month their dialogue continues:

Dear NW Drizzle,

Speaking of "in-depth," you might want to go back and re-read (or read?) Darwin before you start calling art scenes "Darwinian." The neo-Darwinian take on human social interaction is as tired as the demand for coherence, programs and "decisive" statements in art. Thanks for your response to my letter but may I critically suggest that you walk the walk if you're gonna talk the talk. Renting "Bring It On" should clear that up.

Have a nice day,

Dear Natascha,

It's all well and good that you believe artists don't adapt to their environments and that somehow, in your neck of the universe (SE Portland? NE?), there are limitless supplies of resources and opportunities – thus eliminating competition among artists.

I wrongfully compared an art scene to Darwin’s ideas about adaptation for better more "decisive"access to limited resources in his seminal "Origin of the Species."

What was I thinking? I had no idea a non-competitive reality like you suggest even existed. As a scholar of British literature, I now know Sir Thomas Moore’s "Utopia" is completely attainable, despite the fact that he loved to be flogged in a shack. He somehow left masochism out of his version of a perfect city. Oh well, why trouble over the details of human history? Does that really matter to an artist?

You are right: artists don't need to engage anything but Pabst, a few friends, a hit of ecstasy and the eternal funniness of Austin Powers' car, the Shaguar. Those elements alone make "coherence" an outmoded pursuit. Just like the new dot.com economy that experts three years ago described as impervious to the business cycle of boom/recession, your ideas have shown this old dog some new tricks. I now suggest everyone invest in WorldCom stock ...

One must be careful about being in a group and using it as a shield from critical thought.

Sarcasm aside (I'm even sarcastic about sarcasm), having a group of friends as a bulwark for your creative endeavors is very important. Degas felt artists created for a small circle of friends. Then again, he was horribly bourgeois.

But having people such as Mary Casatt in your circle shakes up a few of the middle-class stereotypes. One must be careful about being in a group and using it as a shield from critical thought.

Also, being decisive is no paper tiger and making a decision – for better or worse – is the only way we learn. Commitment to a course of action reveals information as experience. And, as a contextualizing force, experience is invaluable.

That said, I certainly don’t discount the need for peer-to-peer interaction. In fact, friendly competition combined with some generosity is the best way to go. For example: the YBAs, die Brucke, der Blauer Reiter, The Ten and, more recently, The Royal Art Lodge, have historically developed highly eccentric and individual styles within the context of group dialog.

In the end, though, each artist evolved into a unique role.

For example, within der Blauer Reiter, August Maacke was well aware that Franz Marc was the more highly developed painter in 1914, but was working with subject matter that mixed man and animal.

Marc has a legacy of being the most famous animal painter on the planet. Maacke is more obscure and is known more to specialists like me. Both were cut short by WWI: Marc was in his prime as a Blauer Reiter and as an individual; the tragedy of Maacke was that he never got to fully develop.

I’m mainly concerned that young Portland artists not isolate themselves out of relevance. Being decisive means testing things out on wider audiences so adjustments can be made, or not. At some point you have to risk failure.

Then there is the academic notion of my "Darwinian" versus your claims of "social Darwinism." They are not analogous terms and social Darwinism was a misappropriation of Darwin’s empiricism in much the same way that fundamentalism co-opts the texts of various religions to serve other purposes.

In last month's response I'm not evoking social Darwinism, but the empirical constraints of evolutionary systems that Mr. Darwin started to articulate – such as adaptation, specialization and access to resources. I could have just as easily tied it into the concept of innovation within complexity theory, but felt that was just a bit too pretentious and gratuitous. Instead of being out of date, Darwin’s theories on evolution now have mathematical models.

Lastly, congrats to both James Boulton from the "Maritime" show and Cynthia Star from "Hug Me." Both truly deserve to be in the 2003 Oregon Biennial, but hopefully there will be a little bravura and competition, lest the Biennial be the high point of stillborn careers.

Think of decisiveness, competition, programs and coherence as facts of life; they can either trip you up or bring things into focus.

But if you never try ... you'll never know, or develop.

– Jeff Jahn

E-mail us your correspondence at editor@nwdrizzle.com, or check out some of our favorite letters in the mail bag archives.

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