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Territorial battles are one of the basic functions of the primitive vertebrate brain. Animals from fish to Footballers spend a considerable amount of their time aquiring and defending territory (or property). I love watching my frogs do Sumo wrestling; belly to belly wrestling matches to see who gets the choice spots for courting females. Lizards spend a large part of their time doing push-ups and dewlap displays, plus chasing each other from their territorial borderlines. They even engage in actual battle. In Yucatan, I once spent an afternoon watching large Spiny-Tailed iguanas battling each other, like a scene from a ‘60’s dino movie using iguanas as faux thunder lizards.
I’ve had time to reflect on this behavior, not only as an observer of reptiles, amphibians, and birds in my yard and abroad, but as a participant doing territorial battle with a neighbor. Soon after we moved to this house, our neighbor began complaining loudly about the leaves from our property blowing onto his. It’s true, we have a lot of trees on our place. We like the trees, we like our yard’s natural appearance, and we don’t think we neglect raking. Granted, we don’t rush out with the vacuum cleaner every time a leaf touches down on the grass, but we do mow the lawn weekly with the bagger in the fall, incorporating the leaves and grass mixture into our compost pile. When the final big fall occurs, we’re out there with the rakes. This is not satisfactory to our neighbor, who has nothing else to do but sit and watch the leaves fall, and counts every one from our yard as a personal sin against him. I won’t bore you with the sordid details of our conflict, but we haven’t spoken for years now, after a series of shouting matches, poisoned trees and other vandalism.
Our huffing, cussing and puffing is very reminiscent of lizards doing their push-ups. The difference is that now I know how it feels to want to show my dewlap to its full effect. Rage is a feeling that is hard to ignore. It makes your heart pound. It keeps you up at night. When someone violates your territory, you feel personally violated, as if your land is an extension of your body. When my neighbor violates my property by killing my trees or flattening my tires, I really feel the urge to do battle with him. Nothing would satisfy the reward centers in my hypothalamus more than retaliation in a significant way. My cerebral cortex has kept me from doing so out of a desire to remain on the side of the law and out of jail, but the reasoning centers of my brain can’t keep my heart rate at normal or my brow from developing a deep furrow.
Watching other species in their own battles is a salve that I’ve found. It really puts my dispute in perspective when I watch my frogs puff themselves up with air, then bark at and charge all interlopers.
It doesn’t make my own rage go away, but it keeps me from putting too much importance on it. I’m sure that if I let it carry me away, things would escalate rapidly into a shooting war. Now, when I become aware of my voice rising in volume, my face turning red and my chest puffing out, I think of frogs, and suddenly my just cause just doesn’t seem so profound. Perhaps our world leaders should required to take a course or two in animal behavior and evolutionary psychology.
This weekend we put up a six-foot high privacy fence, walling off the offensive neighbor. It was as satisfying as a six-foot high wall of urine marking my territorial boundaries.
I always hesitate to describe myself as a wildlife artist. Why? It’s because of the reputation of “wildlife art” in fine art circles. When you say “wildlife art” to a person from the art museum world or the New York gallery world, they picture sappy hunting dog puppy paintings, bobcat kittens chasing butterflies, and clichéd African lions looking regal on black velvet. Because of the popularity of wildlife as a subject for art in America especially, it attracts commercial painters who are more interested in producing a painting that will sell a thousand prints instead of a painting that has something to say. Thomas Kincaid, a hugely popular landscape painter in the print market, actually investigated the most popular elements of paintings in order to be more commercially successful. He now makes (I’ve heard) $60 million a year on prints, licensed images, and even actual housing developments designed to look like his paintings.
Is it still art?
The tension between commercialism and art has always existed. Even the “great masters” of the Renaissance employed students to do the grunt work of actual production, and enjoyed great commercial success. That their work is still appreciated today reflects not only the high quality of what they did, but also their commercial success and popularity in their day. So commercialism does not necessarily exclude a work from the realm of fine art. Still, it is often quoted as the reason a particular piece fails as art, especially in genres like “Wildlife Art” or other, highly commercial genres. I think that we cringe when we recognize clichéd images that have popular commercial appeal, like puppies, children and butterflies. They can lack originality, and if it seems obvious that the cliched images were used in a blatant appeal to popular sentiment, we reject it as junk. This experience happens to me a lot when I look through wildlife and western art magazines. Most of the crap appears in ads, and occasionally in editorial material if the pickings were slim that month in article submissions. This is not to say that wildlife as a genre does not produce some incredible work. There are many artists working in the genre today that are producing amazing stuff. The problem is the reputation of the genre in the eyes of the art “elite,” fostered by the acceptance of crap in ads and articles (for purely commercial reasons!) by editorial staff, and the preponderance of junky wildlife-type art in local art fairs, where crass commercialism often proliferates. The magazines cannot survive without ads for junk art, unfortunately. If they start eliminating ad clients based on the quality of the work, they’d go out of business in a hurry. The funny thing is that art in more “upscale” modern art magazines can be just as crappy, but it is harder for your Average Joe to discern it from the really good stuff. Abstract art requires a little more training to appreciate, as it is based more on academia and “esoterica” than more literal imagery (hence the snob appeal). Anyone can tell when an artist does a poor job of rendering a literal image, but it’s something else that makes a piece great art. In fact it’s basically the same thing that makes good art of any genre. Good draftsmanship is part of my definition of fine art, especially when realism is involved, but good draftsmanship doesn’t mean more realistic, it means control of the medium.
We can set academic definitions of what constitutes good art, we can develop cultural definitions of good art, and we can measure art’s worth by its commercial success. Do all of these hold equal weight? I think we’d all agree that they don’t, and we’d all disagree as to which element was the most important. Ultimately, art is a personal experience, so what appeals to us is entirely subjective. Our reaction is based on our education, the culture we live in, possibly our genetic predispositions, and our own life experience. However, art as a public experience is judged by public opinion. The art we collect is judged by others by how well our taste matches how academicians define good taste, or by the fashions of our modern culture at large. Tastes change with the times, of course. What looks modern and cutting edge today will be the cliches of tomorrow. Since the rise of abstract art, the fine art crowd has looked upon most realist art with at least some suspicion, if not disdain. “Why not take a photo?” My answer has partly been that I can do things a camera can’t do. Besides, photos can be fine art, too. Realism made a comeback among academicians in the 70’s, although the subject matter was intended as a critique of society, rather than a didactic portrayal of real life. Wildlife art was looked upon as illustration at best, while abstract or non-objective art tossed all meaning aside in favor of purely aesthetic pursuits. Well done wildlife art can serve both aspects. I’ve always said that every good realist painting has a good abstract underneath. Once we get past the story-telling aspect or the romantic/emotional appeal of realist images, it boils down to the same ingredients: balance/tension, color, light. Perhaps that is why sappy wildlife paintings are so offensive to fine art elitists. The emotional aspect (sometimes looking contrived) overwhelms the aesthetic aspects.
I seem to have carved out a niche for myself in the nature or wildlife art genre. I guess I’m stuck here for the moment, but I cringe at being lumped into the same bin as the bobcat kittens and Indian children with pets. I hope my work can be seen as something different. I came out of an academic art background, and my parents were both art school graduates. I was surrounded by high quality abstract art as I grew up, but as a kid who was also very much interested in the natural world, my art interests trended towards realism. Am I commercial? Sure, I make my living with my art, and market considerations do happen. I just hope my work does not look commercial. So I try to avoid some of my pet peeves: Cuteness, crass sentimentality, Native Americans as “wildlife art,” furniture store colors, hunting scenes, hunting dog puppies, kitty cats, children with pets, songbirds with flowers… and of course, just poor draftmanship or scientific mistakes. Of course, there are probably paintings in which any one of these subjects might produce awe on my part. There are always exceptions to the rules. I am probably even guilty of producing one or more of these forbidden subjects. So, if you specialize in one these subjects, please don’t be too offended. A little offended is ok, though.