We're on a fact finding expedition to something called the Starving Artists Show. Bess and myself have been gearing up to hitting the craft fairs in the hope of selling our respective works and generating a bit of wonga, and this constitutes research. I've been painting on canvas, and I need to know what to expect - what the standard is at this kind of event, how much people generally charge and for what? This will be new ground for me because I've previously only sold my paintings intermittently and have always worked in acrylics. Now I'm trying my hand at oils, meaning I'm effectively having to learn all over again.
The Starving Artists Show takes place in la Villita, roughly speaking a nineteenth century village of small limestone buildings at the heart of San Antonio, and which arguably was San Antonio back in the good old days of rickets and slavery. Today it's an artists' community just south of the city centre, meaning it's mostly galleries, stores selling hand crafted nick-nacks - some quite nice, some fucking awful - a couple of eating places, and general artisanal shite. I mostly think of the pieces sold in la Villita as art for people who don't really like art, but who otherwise pride themselves on knowing what they like. If you're after something with the intensity of a Billy Childish woodcut, then la Villita probably isn't where you're going to find it. On the other hand, it's not a bad place to pick up handmade Mexican folk art.
We begin with a visit to one of the stores because Bess is friends with the woman who works there. They talk and I wander around the shop, picking up clay figurines and inspecting them. The world of mass-produced injection-molded souvenir tat in which I grew up is long gone, but I still can't work out how I feel about its replacement. I like that the precious things of the shop were made by a human being, and I suppose they're nice enough in their own way; but they operate within a system of values which I don't understand. There's nothing here I really need to own, and I can't see the point of having anything you can't claim to need by some definition.
We move on, having had the obligatory discussion about our respective cats. The narrow streets of la Villita are lined with temporary tents and awnings, and each is hung with art of one kind or another, and all of it for sale. The standard is better than I'd anticipated. I'd expected lurid Disney characters scrawled by persons with more enthusiasm than talent, and although that stuff is here, it's thankfully in the minority. On the other hand, I'm surprised to realise that my own fledgling works in oil - of which I'm happy with less than half of those painted so far - are probably above average compared to most of these efforts. There isn't actually much I'd be happy to see hung in a gallery, the one exception being the work of an old guy specialising in Western themes, with desert landscapes painted at least to the standard of Frederic Remington. His canvases are large and he's asking hundreds of dollars for them. I too would be asking for hundreds of dollars had I painted them.
Moving on, the best work seems to be mostly what you could just about call Post-Impressionist, tending towards the representational, and competently so, but with a slightly wild approach to colour. There are plenty of abstract works, if we're going to call them works, but patently produced in the belief of splashes of colour being sufficient in and of themselves. The best abstract painters, in my view, tend to be those who learned to paint like Titian before moving on to non-representational realms of expression. You make a better job of breaking rules when you're at least a little familiar with what they are. I don't think those selling their work today have arrived at the abstract by quite the same route.
I look at the prices. There isn't much under one-hundred dollars, and those which are tend to be tiny nick-nacky canvas squares with a single twee image - a heart or a peace symbol which can't have taken more than a half minute of fingerpainting. I've been thinking of selling my canvases for around sixty dollars, at least those I like, so I guess I won't have to feel guilty about the possibility that I might be overcharging.
We turn the corner into the next street and it seems to be getting worse. More and more I'm seeing Frida fucking Kahlo. I don't have anything specific against Frida Kahlo, beyond that she tended to paint the same tea-towel self-portrait over and over again, but she was never the saviour of modernism - if anyone still remembers what that was.
We reach the lowest circle at the end of this second street - Mexican folk art and Día de los Muertos skulls embellished with the catchphrase Go Spurs Go. The San Antonio Spurs are the local basketball team, none of whom are actually from San Antonio because their success is such as to be able to afford players of ability greater than any of the local hoop-shooting fucknuggets can apparently muster. The Spurs are a big deal if you don't have much else going on. When you see them, you call out Go Spurs Go to show your support and to affirm membership of the tribe. Personally I couldn't give a shit about the Spurs, and Go Spurs Go painted on a flowery skull is possibly the dumbest thing I've seen in my entire life.
Bess and I stand and stare for at least a couple of minutes, trying to imagine what it would be like to be so stupid as to get excited by Go Spurs Go painted on a flowery skull.
We beat a retreat, across South Alamo Street to the Hemisfair Park, which is where they held the World Fair back in 1968. I would have been three, and Bess would not yet have been born. It's been fifty years since the World Fair, so in addition to the Starving Artist Show, we have some manner of celebration marking the anniversary.
We watch Native Americans dancing on a stage for fifteen minutes, chants and drumming amplified through a PA. The theme of the 1968 World Fair was the coming together of cultures. Much like the crafty things of the shop, I'm not sure how I feel about this, about Native Americans reduced to a dab of ethnic colour in the sideshow, but then again, maybe that's preferable to their being rendered invisible. Maybe there isn't a single right answer to the question.
We eat Mediterranean food from a truck - probably khlea - and watch a German choir, many in lederhosen, choiring along to a CD of oompah band music. Then we ogle vintage cars with massive tailfins, vehicles resembling spacecraft of the fifties; then flamenco dancing performed by a troupe with a generation gap seemingly excluding anyone between the ages of about eight and sixty, so it's mostly old women and toddlers. I seem to be the only one confused by this.
Finally we head back to the car. We have the knowledge we need for the craft fair at which we'll be setting up shop in May, and if it all goes tits up, then I can always fall back on Frida Kahlo…
Frida Kahlo as Ariel from Disney's Little Mermaid, and big swirly letters running along the foot of the canvas: Go Spurs Go...