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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Art Afloat

Art gallery aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Gem.
Some of the best contemporary art to be found in the world today is not in expensive urban galleries or necessarily behind the gated walls of suburban private estates with their private art collections. Visiting these outstanding, museum-quality art galleries is not cheap. Admission charged can run into the thousands of dollars. But, there are certain side benefits included in the price at the door--like a free vacation. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about cruise lines and their habit of covering up their bare walls with expensive art. Some of the most outstanding art I've ever seen has been in these floating art galleries, taking me (somewhat rockily at times) at around 25 miles per hour to historic cities so I could visit other art museums. And just to be fair, some of the worst art I've ever seen has been during such "moving" experiences.
No, it's not the King of England,
it's me along with Bacchus aboard
the S.S. Norway, 1993
I suppose it all started with Cunard hung a portrait of the king (or maybe Queen Victoria) at the top of the grand staircase on one of their early transatlantic liners, maybe back as far as the mid-1800s. Once you begin moving ships using steam rather than sails, certain improved amenities quickly follow. Our first cruise was on a neat little ship having a sort of "yacht-like" profile in 1988. (The ship is still in service, by the way.) At that early date near the birth of modern-day cruising, I don't recall much art. That was not the case some five years later aboard the S.S. Norway (formerly the S.S. France). Art abounded, though much of it was somewhat mundane, as I recall. By 2001, aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas, the art collection had taken center stage, being touted as one of the major attractions aboard the company's ever-growing fleet of mega-ships (the bigger the ship, the more and better art.)

Stair art, main dining room, Grandeur of the Seas
By the 21st century, virtually all cruise lines were boasting of multi-million-dollar art collections on each of their ships, though in my own experience, I think Royal Caribbean has better taste in art than most of its competitors. That extends to the aesthetic qualities of their ships as well. Such cruise lines attract a wide variety of seagoing vacationers. Admission to such art galleries can run as low as $35 per person per day and as high as twenty times that. Thus the collection selections reflect a similar broad range of tastes. Being an artist and having come from a lower middle-class background to hobnob with a lower upper class crowd, my own taste are equally broad, which, no doubt, accounts for much of my love for these nautical art galleries. By the same token, I have virtually no love at all for the ubiquitous art auctions which cruise lines foist upon their passengers, other than perhaps their rather slanted dispensation of a little art history. Though they sometimes sell originals by virtually unknown artists, most of their "big name" art is in the form of so-called limited edition prints, which are mostly a huge rip-off (especially as art investments).
From abstract expressionism to folk art, cruise line collections have
something for every taste.
Don't go on a cruise expecting to see paintings by the old masters. The Louvre seldom lends work to cruise lines (like never). Most of the artists to be encountered are still alive and well and living...well, virtually all over the world. Cruise line collections are nothing if not eclectic in every sense of the word. Although I wouldn't count him as an "old master," you do sometimes see minor works by Picasso (he was so prolific, even cruise lines are able to snag a few pieces now and then). However, in most cases, if you recognize the name, it's a reproduction. But if you don't recognize the name, you can often expect some of that artist's best work (cruise lines pay artists top-dollar). Virtually any medium that will float can be found. Sculpture is often hollow fiberglass to reduce weight, but I've seen a few intriguing bronze pieces as well (also hollow). I've seen cruise line art so powerful in its presence as to completely dominate the entire room. Sizes (in the corridors, for instance) range from pocket-size to lobby installations rivaling the Mayflower in size. And like their shore-bound counterparts, these floating art museums are often just as artistically spectacular as the art they contain, becoming, in a real sense, floating works of art themselves.
Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, a floating art gallery and a work of art itself.

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