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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Art Capitals

When someone in this day and age uses the phrase "art capital," they usually preface it was the little word "an." Or, they follow it up with some limiting geographic reference such "art capital of the south," or perhaps they refer to Chicago as the "art capital of the midwest." Today, even places like New York, Paris, or London cannot legitimately claim the title "art capital of the western world." For one thing, the so-called "western world" is simply too big and diverse to allow such a designation. At best, that title would have to be shared with not just the "big three" I mentioned above, but you'd have to add Rome, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and perhaps as many as a dozen other major cities, depending on your criteria.

No one country or geographical area has ever maintained a monopoly on the development of art.  Down through the ages, the "art capital" of the western world has moved about the Mediterranean basin with considerable frequency.  We are all aware that some of the earliest painted surfaces were in the numerous limestone caves in the south of France some 20,000 years ago.  When we next find a highly developed artistic culture it has jumped to the opposite end of the Mediterranean to the Nile Valley and attached itself to manmade limestone walls where it glowed for a more than a thousand years.  From there it used the Islands of Cyprus and Crete briefly as stepping stones to Greece and the Ionian Sea shores. There it bloomed for another thousand years or more. From Greece it moved westward to the Italian peninsula, Rome, and the far-flung provinces governed from that great city. The art capital of the western world remained in Rome for nearly five hundred more years before moving back to the Western Mediterranean and the Byzantine regions during what we've come to somewhat inaccurately refer to as the "dark ages."

A map of the western art world for some 20,000 years
After a respite of another thousand years, the Renaissance found the capital of the art world back at home again on Italian soil for a couple centuries or so before it gradually began shifting northward and westward toward Germany and France. Then it kind of seesawed back and forth for another couple hundred years until those two countries got on one anothers nerves to the point they began killing each other and scaring the raw sienna out of the movers and shakers of the art world so badly they started thinking seriously about putting an entire ocean between them and the reckless political nonsense behind it all. So, after one war failed to settle things down on the continent, and with a second, even larger brawl waiting in the wings, a sizable group of dispirited young artists, being particularly astute at seeing the "big picture,"  began quietly voting with their feet for artistic freedom and a continental "change of venue."

They came to America.  It wasn't an easy decision.  The "Yanks" were a rowdy bunch, unsophisticated, and just plain backward when it came to viewing the avant-garde artistic experiments these poor lost souls brought with them in their steamer trunks and, more importantly, stowed safely in the backs of their minds.  Living and working in America, especially in an era when even the natives themselves were having a rough time of it, took a great deal of perseverance, ingenuity, and good luck as they watched from a safe distance their former civilization self-destruct. Yet, by the time the bloodbath in Europe was over, they found themselves in a position to proclaim a NEW art capital of the western world, that was literally in the Western World--New York City, New York, USA.

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