Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Culture: Art Finally Comes to Mason

Note: Here's this week's column.

Controversial art historian Lee Sandstead will speak this Monday evening at the Johnson Center on something this campus hasn’t seen or heard about in decades—art.

What? How can I say this? Isn’t there art everywhere at Mason?

Well, yes, there is a lot of “art” on campus—but I wouldn’t call it that. Coming from University Drive, there is 25 foot tall, two foot in diameter rusty girder, bent at an angle and sliced out in parts named “America.” Despite its large size, this work speaks to nothing.

To the side of the Center for the Performing Arts, there is an upright, rectangular column of marble with the center cut out and angled to the side. This work is similarly mute.

Last year there was what appeared to be a 55 gallon fuel drum split in two, hammered flat and hung from a tree. On the artist’s website, she says her work was created in what she describes as “periods of clarity and lapses in judgment.”

Judging by the product, I would say it was less of the former and more of the latter. Add that almost any time there is an art “instillation” shown on campus, one can safely bet that it will be yet another offering made to the cult of the hideous.

But Lee Sandstead will not be speaking of this type of “art”—he will be speaking about an art-form long lost that once used images of man to uplift man. Art like that of Evelyn Beatrice Longman.

American sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman was once the most famous female sculptor in the world—yet her artwork has been forgotten by the common man and buried by academia.

First, a little bit of context. Last year, Sandstead gave a lecture at Mason where he described how a painting saved his life. When he was in college, Sandstead was like a lot of us: a boozer, a mindless skirt-chaser and an academic failure. The way he tells it, he was little more than a fool. Many of us are.

Yet this was before Sandstead happened across a painting by 19th century Frenchman William Bouguereau. The painting he saw portrayed two children in a moment of sharing. In that painting, Sandstead says he saw Bouguereau depict something that he had never observed before: human benevolence, with a sensitivity and depth that comes from the ability to see life for awesome thing that it is and recreate it in art.

From that moment on, Sandstead says he changed his life for the better. He buckled down, finished college and became an art historian and university professor—all that because of a painting.

Now Sandstead seeks beautiful art as a prospector seeks gold—and gold is what he found when he re-discovered Longman. Longman strove to portray the heroic because that is what she thought was most important about us. Her sculpture shows men and women at their best: she depicted scenes of intelligence, strength, and spirit.

One of her works, a winged man clad in gold, holding lightning bolts in his upheld hand celebrated mankind’s mastery over the power of electricity. It once crowned a great skyscraper.

Yet now, almost 80 years later, it stands lonely duty as the parking lot attendant of a nondescript telecommunications facility in a nondescript New Jersey town.

This did not happen by accident. Works of glory are not ignored and works of mediocrity are not enshrined by mere chance. Artists, whatever their school, focus on what they think is important—through their work they show us their sense of the world.

Once, artists gave us something to live up too. But now, the triumphant has been lost—lost to a blob, a pile of rust and vomit on a canvas.

And that’s where Sandstead comes in. He says we should reject the ugly and the meaningless. He says we can rediscover the lost masters like Longman and learn what they have to say. And like Sandstead did when he turned his life around, we too can apply these lessons to our own lives.

Can a work of art save the world? Lee Sandstead thinks it can. I, for one, agree with him.

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