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Gabriel Garcia exhibits new work at R. Tatum's Art Lounge during CAM
Contemporary Art Month is an extended block party for the hipoisie

July is, according to a 1984 presidential proclamation, National Ice Cream Month. According to a 1985 mayoral proclamation, it is Contemporary Art Month here as well. The seventh month of the year has also been certified by various authorities as National Baked Bean Month, National Bison Month, National Hot Dog Month, Cellphone Courtesy Month, National Blueberry Month, and National Picnic Month. With blueberries, bisons, and baked beans to keep us distracted from cell phone rudeness, it is no wonder that July has also been designated Anti-Boredom Month.

James Smolleck's "A man of much learning" is among new pieces at Finesilver
San Antonio's practice of singling out one month for celebration of contemporary art would seem ludicrous in New York, Paris, or Berlin, where cultural commotion overflows the calendar. A solitary month of sundaes might suffice to justify the honor bestowed, like hot fudge sauce, on ice cream, but dubbing July Contemporary Art Month is as inane as naming any 365 days in the violent 20th century as the Year of Living Dangerously. But even more perilous than confining art to a chronological ghetto is forcing it into a geographical one. Although some of July's events are scheduled for ArtPace, the Carver Cultural Center, and the University of the Incarnate Word, most of Contemporary Art Month is a South Town affair, quarantined to a few blocks on South Alamo.

Separating life from art poisons each. Without painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, theater, film, and literature, existence is barely breathing. And art that loses contact with the vibrant verities of its own time is a stillborn formal exercise. Isolating contemporary art from the rest of San Antonio and the rest of the year conveys the message that it is something exotic, perhaps even toxic. Does creating a carnival of unconventional images in the Blue Star barrio justify the dreariness imposed on so much of the rest of the city? The strip malls, neon signs, billboards, and parking lots that taint our vistas are not only an environmental blight; they offend the eye, insult the intelligence, and corrode the soul.

Joey Fauerso shows her work at Blue Star
Boasting that Contemporary Art Month is "the only month-long contemporary arts celebration in the nation," San Antonio conducts its ugly business in other months and other neighborhoods. But artistic taste is not like a baseball cap, something to be donned when the weather is warm. A community that genuinely respects the Muse refuses to allow Mammon to disfigureits physical environment, to trade its ancient trees for branches of chicken and burger businesses.

To paraphrase Robert Frost: Something there is that doesn't love a Wal-Mart - and what it is is aesthetic sensibility. The grotesque stretch of I-10 west of 410 mocks the pretensions behind Contemporary Art Month.

National Hot Dog Month is a clever marketing device, and so is Contemporary Art Month - a way of selling the city, if not its art. San Antonio has been mingier than most in supporting the arts, and its limited interest has been limited largely to exploiting art to promote tourism. If a poetry workshop or a cello recital is not likely to boost hotel occupancy, it is not likely to receive city funding. Amherst, Massachusetts, is proud of Emily Dickinson not primarily because out-of-towners flock to its streets to buy T-shirts silkscreened with her image.

Blue Star features an installation by Henry Rayburn
San Antonio's Blue Star, a converted but unfinished complex of abandoned warehouses, perpetuates a mystique of scruffiness. If traditional museums seem to believe that the only good artist is a dead artist, Contemporary Art Month, centered in Blue Star, suggests that the only live artist is a starving one. Despite fabulous fortunes accrued by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, and other gallery celebrities, a novice is more likely to prosper by painting houses than still lifes. It is in part a consequence of the myth of the starving artist that artists starve, called to a vocation in which it is easier to make a killing than a living. The raffish charm of art draws affluent professionals to go slumming in Blue Star once a year.

In 1985, Contemporary Art Month was a novelty, and large crowds showed up at its opening to satisfy their curiosity. During the last 18 years, attendance at First Fridays has generally been dense, but a visitor during first Thursdays, second Tuesdays, or fourth Fridays could count on solitude. Work displayed has ranged from wretched to sublime, but the annual ritual of cruising past the installations seems less about the work than another chance for schmoozing. Contemporary Art Month is an extended block party for the hipoisie, Fiesta without tacky parades. In a city that drops everything - including the ball - to hold a party, Contemporary Art Month celebrates art as fun. A theme park of art open 31 days a year, it is contemporary with SeaWorld and Fiesta Texas. But not all art is revelry. Sometimes it is formalized misery. Sometimes art brings poop to parties.

The Center for Spirituality and the Arts features digital work by Conan Chadbourne
Contemporary Art Month was conceived during the heady days of the San Antonio Festival, when Rudolf Nureyev, Wynton Marsalis, and the Berlin Opera filled summer nights with glorious sights and sounds. The San Antonio Performing Arts Association brought in the Joffrey Ballet, Meredith Monk, and the Kronos Quartet during other months. Both the San Antonio Festival and the Performing Arts Association have long since vanished. So, too, have the San Antonio Art Institute, the Early Music Festival, the International Theater Festival, Shakespeare in Brackenridge Park, and countless dance and theater companies. The San Antonio Symphony is bankrupt, Lyric Opera is silent, and both the Carver Jazz Festival and the Inter-American Book Festival are feeble versions of their former selves. Arts education has been cut from local school curricula. In 1985, when a buoyant Henry Cisneros inaugurated Contemporary Art Month, we seemed on the verge of becoming the Athens of Aztlán. San Antonio entertained credible ambitions of being Santa Fe with a River Walk, and an NFL franchise. Now it merely entertains. •

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