"What is art anyway?"

Now there’s an opening for endless discussion.

As seen in Rug Insider Summer 2012 issue.

            Picasso said, “Art is not truth, it’s a lie. But it awakens you to the truth.” “Art is a criticism of life,” said Matthew Arnold, 19th century poet and cultural critic.

            “Art is anything you can get away with,” said Marshall McLuhan, 20th century Canadian philosopher, futurist and communications theorist.

           Thinking of my own efforts as a visual artist, I agree with the notion that, ”art arises out of need, lack and deprivation” (R.G.Collingwood?) and Nietzsche’s comment that, “no true artist will tolerate, for one moment, the world as it is.”           

 I say art is anything the artist says it is and everyone is an artist. Any expression of one’s creative impulses results in art―cooking, gardening, dressing up, and even making love. Creativity lives in all of us as a form of energy which must be used and we all have different ways of accomplishing that.

            Just as having a sense of humor can mean being funny or enjoying someone else who is, being an artist can mean creating beauty or collecting and arranging beautiful objects created by others. For rug snobs like me who try to only buy what we love, selecting and exhibiting a collection of Oriental rugs from the innumerable choices available can be a lot like reduction sculpture.

            When I first opened A Candle in the Night in 1973 I knew next to nothing about Oriental rugs. I was determined to bring the best and most beautiful handcrafts I could find to Brattleboro, VT; rugs soon became my favorite category.

            After selecting a few pieces on early buying trips abroad, I was smitten. Fascinated by the variety, history and provenance of Oriental rugs, I began what would turn into a life-long study of the subject, as well as the building of a collection for sale.

            As I picked my way through the stacks in New York, a few old-time dealers (Aram Avakian and Herb Beshar come to mind) helped me find sources for what I liked best. And as my tastes developed and meshed with those of our customers, A Candle in the Night became a player in an industry that had traditionally been dominated by a few ethnic groups of which I am not a member. However, I immediately felt welcomed by many established dealers who recognized our common denominator, our shared love of the product.

            Most of the producers and importers I met were from families that had been involved with handmade rugs for generations and many were related to one another or at least knew each other. As a newcomer, I had to learn the fundamentals of quality, construction and value that I had not grown up with, which took time and was not without blunders. I found this process exciting and gratifying.

            As it turns out I was not alone. In the 1970s and 1980s a lot of outsiders were entering the Oriental rug business, and a few were responsible for a veritable renaissance in the production of these remarkable creations. One in particular, George Jevremovic, who founded Woven Legends, helped to reintroduce the use of natural dyes and hand-spun yarns to the world of hand-weaving, which had mostly abandoned these time-honored techniques by the 1930s. He also revived forgotten designs seen only in costly antiques that were scarce and out of financial reach to most customers. By allowing his weavers some latitude to interpret those designs on the loom, they participate in the process as artists rather than mere technicians.

            The previous half century had seen the emergence of clumsy, formulaic patterns that lacked spontaneity and reflected the boredom of uninspired weavers. The revival of old techniques and patterns injected new vitality into the rugs coming out of the weaving centers of the East and captured my attention at a time when I was finding the available inventory tiresome. Thanks to Woven Legends and others that followed, by the early 1990s it was possible to offer a wide selection of new rugs with the charm of old ones but without the sticker shock associated with antiques.

            Having spent the last 38 years presiding over my assemblage of Oriental rugs, I‘m hanging it up. I don’t plan to work at selling them anymore. The store is now in the capable hands of my wife, Donna, and the staff she has assembled, and I am finally free to be away from it without feeling that I should be there. But I’m not headed for a hammock and as long as I’m on the green side of the grass, I’ll be available to my favorite customers by appointment.

            Just ask an old Vermonter if he’s lived here all his life and he’ll probably answer, “Not yet.” In fact I’m busier than ever. I have 42 acres and flocks of poultry and game-birds to tend and an active career as an artist making assemblages from found objects.  (You can view my work at www.acandleinthenight.com by clicking on the ART button and then my name.)  

            What, I wonder, is the future of this business which has been the focus of my working life for almost four decades? Can it survive in this era of dramatic political events roiling the world at large and Asia in particular? The economies of third world countries are facing serious headwinds that are likely to impact heavily the lives of anyone doing handwork, as the costs of food and raw materials escalate. Production has dropped off a cliff in some areas as weavers decamp for less demanding livelihoods, and designer-driven tastes have clear-cut vast swaths of the traditional design landscape. The language we grew up with in this business is no longer spoken outside of our small circle and it seems bound for extinction.    

            The drop in demand has wrought a corresponding drop in output and while it’s not the first time this has happened, I wonder if it is reversible this time. The dedication and cooperation which are necessary ingredients in the production of handwoven rugs are becoming harder to sustain in a world increasingly torn asunder by culture wars and income disparity. 

            With fewer rugs to choose from and customer demand that favors simple, repetitive, tone-on-tone designs over the traditional styles of the past, will it still be possible for a retailer to build a collection that expresses his or her own aesthetic? Or will the only road to success in this business involve presenting a catalog-like inventory of bland floor coverings with little regard for one’s own taste? The rugs are not all that has changed―so have the customers. For many of them, beauty seems to have taken a back seat to discounts―not my comfort zone. 

            Thus concludes my fifth and perhaps final article for Rug Insider, an endeavor I began when the recession rolled over our industry in 2008 as a counterpoint to the unflinchingly optimistic view at the time that, unlike every other field, we weren’t being affected. Published reports about sales at trade shows made it sound like things couldn’t be better, but privately, importers were telling a different story. Anyway, enough said on that subject. I have enjoyed the feedback I’ve gotten from both wholesalers and retailers, many of whom I was unfamiliar with before I received their unanimously supportive emails in response to my unsolicited views, for which Rug Insider has so accommodatingly made space. Thank you all.