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July 22, 1981 - Image 17

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1981-07-22

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The Michigan Daily-Wednesday, July 22: 981-Page 5

Fair '81: The triumph of

On a muggy July afternoon some half
dozen Ann Arbor Art Fairs ago, you
could turn the corner at South Univer-
sity and Tappan and step straight into a
fairy tale.
Descending from a large Law Quad
tree overhanging the sidewalk was a
wondrous, confoundingly intricate
mobile holding several dozen multi-
colored pane glass birds. The device
By Ch ristopher Potter
was so large and diffuse as to almost
cradle anyone who stood beneath it; if
you looked straight up, you would
swear those turning, transparent
winged creatures actually changed
color again and again as they spun and
shimmered endlessly in the afternoon
THE RADIANCE of that creation still
bedazzles. Mounted by an artist ap-
parently rejected by the Fair's major-
domos but who still wanted to con-
tribute, the mobile contained enough
luminescent beauty to eclipse a
thousand "official" entries that sum-
And yet official remains the name of
the Art Fair game. You're not likely to
see that mobile this Fair or ever again
- the rules no longer allow for such
rank imposters.
Once upon a time our town's yearly
exercise in artistic bacchanal was a
very free-wheeling affair. Though
smaller than the current edition, the
Fair was also a much more fluid and
diverse animal. Unpredictability was
the password: Coinciding with the san-
ctioned displays on South U, East U and
Ii ii== =.

Main Street, out from the cultural
woodwork would flock a garrison of
semi-clandestine painters, craftspeople
and hucksters, displaying and hawking
their various works and wares up and
down the perimeters of the Fair proper.
MUCH TO the chagrin of the licensed
artists, these extralegal entrants would
dot the Diag and much of State Street,
usually multiplying as the Fair moved
into its final hours. Some of their output
was ingenious, much of it was pure
junk; yet the varying quality of in-
dividual work paled beside the fact that
a genuine contributory happening had
begun to evolve. A once haughty, closed
affair was fast metamorphosing into a
large community festival of joyous give
and take.
The sheer spontaneity of events was
contagious: Once a year you could do
your thing in an atmosphere not merely
of freedom, but of giddy, neighborly en-
thusiasm. The Fair was becoming a
general rite of participation, a festival
of the spontaneous and the unexpected.
You could turn any given street corner
and suddenly come upon a human body
sculpture, an impromptu magic act -
or a tree-hung mobile dispatched
straight from Eden.
IN 1975 THE rite was snapped at the
jugular. Fed up with "unwarranted"
intrusions on their turf, the head hon-
chos of the South U, East U and Main
Street fairs banded together to ram
through a city ordinance prohibiting
"unauthorized artists" from exhibiting
or demonstrating their talents
anywhere within Ann Arbor's limits.
Violators were subject to arrest, fine,
even a possible jail term; special police
now patrolled campus and downtown to
shoo and scatter any and all
"poachers" - the official label local
guilds now attached to all unlicensed
The crackdown was piously defended

by the powers that be: The infusion of
the poachers was dragging down the ar-
tistic quality of the Fair, transforming
the festival into a gross exercise in
cultural mediocrity. Moreover, they
claimed, the interlopers' presence
created a mushrooming circus at-
mosphere which was turning the Fair
into an unwieldy Frankenstein mon-
ster, a mob scene impossible to control
or police..
A third, unspoken motive was the
embarrassing fear that the
illegitimates might be cutting into the
sales profits of the legitimates. Of cour-
se, to acknowledge such apprehension
would be conceding either that the
have-nots might sometimes have more
talent than the haves, or that the buying
public was too stupid to discern art
from quackery; to admit to either
seemed a distinct minus in the PR
THUS THE establishment launched
its crusade solely in the name of un-
sullied art and riot control. The Diag
was cleared, the hidden nooks and
crannies were restored to their original
pristine emptiness. The outlandish and
the unexpected were resolutely
ferreted out, and propriety and order
reigned once more. The Art Fair had
been saved from itself.
Yet saved for what, and for whom?
What a dull, gargantual affair it has
now become. Everything is or-
chestrated now, sedate and stagnant.
The Fair has evolved into a charmless,
hulking exercise in corporate overglut:
It stays exactly the same year after
year, its huge stable of artists
atrophying into booths many staked out
two decades ago. A veteran spectator
could walk through the Fair blindfolded
and blithely identify spot after spot
where given artists have set up shop for
the umpteenth time.
SURPRISE HAS been abolished from

this ceremony. The same paintings,
sculptures and crafts show up in each
booth summer after summer, mocking
the maturation process that is the
essence of any artist. Commercialism
reigns supreme: Why risk arcane ex-
periments when urns, woven baskets,
and facile cartoons sell so much better?
True, each artist still must submit his
or her work to the local Artists and
Craftsmen Guild for approval; yet to
deny entrance to an established Art
Fair regular is about as likely as Jerry
Falwell inviting Hugh Hefner to lunch.
Once accepted, an artist usually has a
home for life.
In the process, the local touch has
been lost to the out-of-towners on both
sides of the marketplace. The Fair's
much-denounced "unwieldiness" of the
early 70s was surely unwieldiness of the
most benign sort - one would be hard-
pressed to unearth any significant
physical altercation amidst the
reigning communal good-naturedness
of the time.
Those festivals were hardly less un-
manageable than the ugly, impersonal
gargantua the Fair has now become.
Upwards of 300,000 onlookers will
tromp, litter, and belch through town
this week, then pull up stakes along
with 95 percent of the artists and head
for the next fair - leaving Ann Arbor a
bit wealthier but culturally impervious.
THE ANTI-POACHER ordinance is
not totally without merit. All official en-
trants must fork over a stiff permit fee
merely to obtain a booth; why, they
reasonably argue, should the poachers
be able to market their wares when
they didn't pay for their privilege like
everyone else had to?
A utopian might suggest freeing the
Fair from such fee restrictions entirely,
yet economically reality brusquely
See SPIRIT, Page 18


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Come in and let us show you
how simple and rewarding it can
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PHONE 769-9420 e


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