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A serious category of fine art?

Surf art debate

In June 2009 the Surfing Heritage Foundation in California posed the question "Has surf art actually evolved into a serious category of fine art?" to an experienced panel of surf artists and other esteemed surf industry panelists and moderators at a special event. The PR for this event was interpreted by one surfing website quite 'literally' as "Is surf art serious art?".

So, has 'surf art' evolved into a serious category of fine art?

We put this question to the surf artists featured on this site and a leading surf art gallery in California, to get their view on it, and below are some of their responses (in no particular order)…

There's no denying surf art has grown in popularity in recent years, but has it gained recogniton as a serious category of fine art? If not, could it ever? Do surf artists (or surfers) care whether it does or not? Below are a range of opinions on this subject from surf artists featured on this site…

Spencer Reynolds

I feel like it's on its way. There seems to be more diversity in style and artistic approach these days. People are using new creative ways to express their passion for the ocean, surfing, and the lifestyle. If people don't take it seriously sometimes, maybe it has to do with the lack of conflict in a lot of surf art. It's all good times and perfect surf. The subject matter at times is the surf version of a Thomas Kincaide painting with a perfect house and perfect garden. I'm all for portraying beauty in art, but in order for it to be a serious category it should be more dimensional than that. I have a love/hate relationship with the term 'surf art'. Surfing and the ocean are my typical choices of subject matter. But they are metaphor for other things that are common life experiences. So I feel my art has everything and nothing to do with surf art.

Steve Cook

Surf art is more likely a short lived phenomenon which will evolve as surfing for pleasure and passion evolves. Some of today's best fine artists started as 'surf artists' and merged the compulsion of surfing with the passion of being an artist, did 'surf art', and grew into fine art, bringing the passion and compulsion along. We all move in different directions but we all return periodically to our embryonic roots in "surf art". The true test will be how many 'surf artists' will be remembered after they pass on… Rick Griffin is one artist who has made this passage with a legacy beyond just the concept of 'surf art'.

Matt Beard

Has surf art become serious fine art? Lord, I hope not. That just might ruin everything.

Michael Lorenzini

I actually work in a dedicated surf art gallery (the Green Room in Astoria, Oregon) and get a chance to observe peoples reactions to surf art on a regular basis. When considering the SUBJECT of surf art people have a range of responses.

a) If the person surfs they invariably love it, and pour over it the way they would over a magazine… studying the wave, surfers form, discussing location, epic sessions past, etc.

b) Don't surf, don't get it - why paint a wave?

c) Instantly recognize and feel alienated from the culture and can't get past this when looking at the art (if they even stop to look). I might not enter a gallery showing NASCAR art, though the art inside might be beautifully and passionately rendered.

d) (The rarest) They don't consider the subject at all. They simply take the art at face value, without the influence of stereotypes, and preconceptions. Only consider the image before them.

A person doesn't have to surf to appreciate surf art. The subject is important to the artist, and that is what really matters. If the subject is near and dear to it's creator, they can draw from their own experiences and feelings and really create something special. I think that is why surf art holds such an appeal. People are OBSESSED with surfing, and it usually comes through in the work. I don't really have a thing for water lillies, but I appreciate a good Monet when I see one. Plus, it helps that the surfing environment is inherently beautiful.

But nobody defines an art movement by the specific SUBJECT being depicted, and there is such an incredible array of styles and approaches within surf art. It's almost too diverse to be considered a unified group. (?)

I think surf art will always occupy the fringes of the mainstream fine art world. There are too many hang-ups and associations with the subject for people to take it seriously. Plus, surfing and the surfing lifestyle have been bastardized and pillaged for years now in the name of profit. It makes everything related to surfing seem…commercial. The fine art world is always trying to distance itself from, and stay a step ahead of anything mainstream or commercial, though there is definite crossover at times, with people like Warhol, Koons, etc. We've seen and will continue to see, surf artists break into the fine art world, but as a genre, I don't see it ever being embraced by the art forum set.

Erik Abel

Yes, "Surf Art" is already a serious category of fine art. It's blowing up and we're living in it's limelight right now!

What's it take to be a serious category of fine art? Selling a painting for a million bucks? Would that be serious enough? The big dog companies in the surf industry (as well as non-surf companies now) have been selling "Surf Art" on their products all across the world for far, far, far more than that for many years. "Surf Art" has been making a lot of people a lot of money for a very long time. And big bags of cash is what "Fine Art" is all about right? Isn't that how we measure the success of an artist? By how much mula their work is selling for? Sad but true. Makes me sick to my stomach. I think "Fine Art" is a complete joke for this reason alone.

We have to remember that "Surf Art" is more than just some paint in the form of a wave on a piece of driftwood or an old surfboard… it's also the style and vibe of the marketing and branding that companies use. It's the graphics and illustrations on the shirts we wear, it's the punky-grungy-paint splattered-rough edged-fluorescent coloured ad that Target uses to market this seasons "Youth" line. It's everywhere we look these days. The "surf" style has infiltrated every visual outlet around. Our culture has had a larger influence than we can imagine. Just think, surfing was first, it inspired skateboarding which inspired snowboarding and wakeboarding… surfing is responsible for creating an entire global culture which has branched into several multi-billion dollar industries… serious indeed. I think "Fine Art" has to begin to be redefined and broadened beyond the gallery walls and take into consideration the effect that a category of art has had across different platforms and industries.

Ron Croci

What is a serious category of fine art, anyway? However, I think not, because surf art seems purely decorative. It's beautiful, yes. It's filled with imagination, and craft, yes. However it lacks psychological depth. The artists, myself included, stay away from what modern art calls for, that is pain, and its sociological implications. Also, I don't think that the artists themselves, again me included, have the rare ability to express, in such a way that viewers respond, to the greater topics of Life, Death, Marriage, Children, War, Famine, and the myriad of human conditions that the great artists, such as Goya would tackle. Just visit MOCA in Los Angeles. Lots of shock and pain there. I think that the expression by the artists who are involved in this form is also closed to anyone who doesn't surf. Whereas, still life painting, landscapes, and seascapes, are open to everybody, regardless of their activity within the subject matter. Just read the comments on COTW and you will see that surf artists just wanna have fun.

Peter Pierce

In my life I've studied art, owned/operated a gallery, and mingled with the 'fine arts' crowd. What have I learned from those experiences? Basically, that I could care less how the intellects label my works… I am going to do art regardless--just like surfing--such activities are for my own fun! The labelling and categorizing of creativity belongs in the realm of the political--and we all have our opinions about politicians!.

John Holm

If Gauguin had lived in Hawaii… Surf art is similar to marine art and seascapes but has the potential for a more intimate portrayal of man's connection to the sea. The genre is in it's infancy. Surfing was introduced to the world only a century ago. It captured the imagination of the West and was depicted in art but usually for commercial and editorial illustration. Hawaiians made the surf, a place of danger and toil, into place of play. At the turn of the century painters like Edward Potthast of New York captured happy bathers on the Long Island shore. But the athletic, naked, bronze Polynesians riding waves on wood planks was new and astonishing. If only Gauguin had lived on Waikiki we might have had a much earlier acceptance of surf art. Athleticism, soul and grace on translucent of waves. What more compelling subject for artists, photographers and collectors? The subject has not drawn many non-surfing marine painters and photographers. Maybe only full immersion is necessary in order to capture all that beauty.

As the art world was concerned, a surfer in a seascape was akin to inserting peasants in landscape paintings in the eighteenth century. Too common for the establishment. But after 50 years, the sport, the culture and the art are beginning to be recognized and appreciated.

Robb Havassy

I guess it depends on who you ask and what you mean by serious… I think objectively that it does represent a serious movement in art just because of the massive range of expression that has come out of the surf culture and it's creative components: i.e. the artists, photographers, writers and even surfers. There is no doubt that this has captured the hearts and minds of the larger culture. Whether or not some in the "art culture" want to recognize the importance, value and beauty is irrelevant… The truth exists outside this detail… The surf culture has never asked for the approval of the larger culture and has always been content to exist as a sub-culture until recently (the last decade or so) when the surfing culture started to influence the larger pop culture in fashion and lifestyle like never before… The only reason that I think that it hasn't taken a more important role in the art culture has to do with the fact that most of it is disconnected from an organized movement. It exists in every corner of the world where surfers live and surf… Consider that there are artists who create meaningful folk-like art about surfing and their individual experience as a "local" at some beach or wave. Now imagine if you could collect and present the more meaningful, beautiful and significant representations and artists from this global surf culture. All of a sudden the movement is clear… It's like looking at an iceberg from above the surface. Most of the world and even the surf culture is only aware of the tip of the iceberg that IS "surf art"… which in my definition is any art that is inspired by or connected with being a surfer.

Bonnie Preziosi

I personally believe that everyone is drawn to the sea. It takes up so much of our planet. Even if they don't surf, there is a universal love of the sea. If you do surf, you probably appreciate it even more. I think that surf Art will remain in it's own category of art and those that seek it will find it.

Mike Dismukes - Curator, The Waveriders Gallery

Now I have to say my opinions as to the seriousness of "surf art" are biased to be sure. I love the art form, and it provides me my living. I started surfing back in the mid 70s and have been doing it nearly everyday since. In addition I have worked in and around the business end of surfing off and on since the early 80s, mostly loving every minute of it. I have grown up immersed in its culture and so likewise in all of its art forms. I make my comments however as a surfer first and a businessman second. So here we go. After reading your correspondence I mulled your question over a bit and bumped up against a few things. Most but not all "surf art" is landscape and or representational work. It puts the viewer into a certain place and time as with all good works outside the heading of surf art. This is where the art we love moves us further however. The surfer begins to move within the work, carve the long walls, feel the sun etc… I'm not sure, but I think that this is unique to our sport.

Surfers participate in the aesthetic pursuit of life as someone much smarter than me said, and this fact is what leads to all the incomprehensible naval gazing and numbing commentary by surfers about surfing. We have all heard that only a surfer knows the feeling. This said, surf art to surfers is as serious as can be, however to the non-surfing art community, not so much I think. That is not to say that a non-surfer will not enjoy a piece that represents our lifestyle, we who sell the stuff in droves to the non-coastal community understand that. How much is Decor or a thematic addition to a beachy cottage in a suburb who knows? Surfing has become so popular as a lifestyle that the market is now able to support Surf Art Galleries and declare it it's own art form thus driving prices up with this demand. Serious right? I guess what it gets back to is ones definition of "seriousness". Is it how much a piece will fetch at auction? Is it related to where the work can be viewed? Folk art has outpaced the Classical in the marketplace however still carries with it the notion of being "simple" and accessible, even common among elitists within the art community, yet I feel these same academics would say that Folk Art is "serious".

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