Afterwards, I went looking for some more modern Cincinnati painters: live, local ones. The artsy neighborhood Over-the-Rhine was so named because that's what crossing the canal out of downtown felt like to the newly arrived German immigrants in the mid-1800s, when Cincinnati grew faster than any other American city, and established itself as the leading city in the "West." Originally named Losantiville when founded in 1788, it was renamed in honor of the Society of Cincinnatus, a Revolutionary War officers' organization. An extensive steamboat trade helped make Cincinnati the nation's sixth-largest city, third-largest manufacturing center, and home to the nation's pork-packing industry, which earned Cincinnati the moniker "Porkopolis," though locals preferred Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's nickname "Queen City of the West."
Though now carrying tourists rather than commerce, steamboats still ply the waters of the Ohio River below the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge to Kentucky, which at its opening in 1866, was the longest in the world. It was also the first to use innovations that helped its designer eclipse the length of this bridge in his next commission: the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge remains a symbol of Cincinnati, and images of it can be seen today as backdrops for the local television news or hanging in the city's many bars, restaurants, and chili parlors. Cincinnati boasts America's largest number of chili parlors per capita. This is the place to order a "three-way" with spaghetti on the bottom, chili in the middle, and cheese on top; four-way gets you onions added and five-way kidney beans.
Located on the northern edge of the central business district, Over-the-Rhine claimed to be the largest national historic district in the nation and to have a "turn-of-the-century" aura. It also retained that era's squalor. Narrow alleys sloped up hills lined with thin, brick-faced row houses. (Nearby Findlay Market was advertised as an "authentic, European-styled open-air grocery" but felt more like a flea market.)
A sign for Kaldi's Coffee House and Bookstore advertised live jazz and vegetarian entrees. Inside, beneath an ochre-painted stamped tin roof, the walls held abstract paintings of green and purple blobs with titles like Opening to Bliss. The books cramming the walls had old and worn spines. A glass panel, Chagall blue, studded with white coffee mug shapes, hung over the door above a drawing depicting the regulars. At the bar, two of those regulars, with spines as broken as the books' on the shelves, slumped over their morning coffee and cigarettes.
One was tall and lanky, with curly blond hair. He wore a Newport Blues T-shirt, and a big set of keys dangled from his belt loop. A pair of sleek sunglasses rested on the bartop beside him. He looked like a Randy. The other was short and squat, wearing a hemless gray muscle T-shirt. He had a sunburned collarbone, big nose, and pale green eyes. His hair was rambling, graying, and thinning, and his beard was the same. He reminded me of the character clutching his head in Van Gogh's Old Man in Sorrow. I called him Hugo.
"Well, Cincinnati is pretty much dead," the lanky Randy declared. "It's not even functioning as a city. It was more of a city twenty-five years ago than it is now. When I moved into Cincinnati there were still, you know, little restaurants that stayed open all night [like the ones in Hopper's paintings]."
"Now, it's an industrial park," squat Hugo chimed in.
"Cincinnati is run by a bunch of fascists," Randy continued. "It's happening all over the country. It's here especially 'cause there's only a county board, run by suburbanites. The only thing they can think to do to the city is make it into some kind of mall. They don't want a city. They have done everything they can to get rid of any of the character, any of the texture, any of the vices. Out in the suburbs, they're doing everything they can to create an artificial world and put their children in an artificial world. It's not dealing with reality. It's dealing with a mound of artifice, of money. It's deadening. They drive from their air-conditioned bubble in their air-conditioned car to another air-conditioned bubble and just drive past everything. They know in their hearts," he sneered, "what a cold-blooded bunch they are. They realize that, after a point you get old, and you're gonna be under a trestle some place, and so they live in fear of their self-imposed vision. It's this whole idea about making a family-friendly city, and it's not, you know. It's a city. And that's sort of an oxymoron: a family-oriented city."
"That's what it is," the older one laughed. "It's family-orientated. If you're single, forget it. And they don't understand artists' lifestyle. I have brothers and sisters that don't understand my idealisms. they can't fathom living without insurance or not having enough money for your yearly visit to Disney World. My brother wants me to paint flowers," he snorted, "so I can sell things to make money. He doesn't understand that that's just not going to happen. That just shrinks my soul and will reflect in my other work. It just doesn't work that way. Artists [painters] work with solitude," he mused, "finding themselves alone in their studios so much. It's almost like it becomes a religion. We're almost like monks." He paused and took a big puff off of his cigarette. "This is what we're all feeling," he continued, flinging a wrist in emphasis. "It's something about our time. If I'm feeling it alone in the studio, it's not coming from nowhere. And it's not coming from only personal stuff. Artists are seen as people who escape reality," he emphasized, "and artists are people who deal with reality."
"And live in reality," Randy tacked on. "To this day, the artist has the ability to make people connect with their own innate ability to see the world. You look at something that all of a sudden you can see. In the painting of a tree, you can see growth. The artist has an ability to squeeze it out of a tube, whack it onto the canvas, and you look at it and go 'WOW, man.' You can actually not only see the paint and the incredibly intelligent clever way that he combined paint, but he shows you the essence of the thing that he was looking at. And people no longer see the essence of the world they live in. I mean we've had two thousand years of Christian crap which alienated people to their own bodies in the first place. And now it's gotten worse, with computers. I just recently was at the art academy, and all the money was coming from corporate funding buying new computers for the designers. Whereas, as a painter, I was painting on the same easel they'd had for twenty years. I was probably painting on easels that Jim Dine painted on."
"It's a dilemma throughout society," Hugo mumbled, "because of the way we live. It's not just art. It has to do with what art is a part of. We live in a society where people do not see. They see in totally general terms. Their whole world is full of more and more generic products. They move through the landscape at eighty miles an hour. They watch television. Everything is based on not having an attention span.
"Our actual physical senses (let alone the spirit, the intellect, or anything else) are shutting down. Our national civilization, especially commercial civilization, it's just sick. Anybody who works in the area of the visual senses is working against the tide. It's the antidote, at this point, the medicine that society needs. Increasingly, people who function within the system think and organically function like the system demands. So, from the get-go, they have nothing to tell you. The only thing we're doing right now is generating money. It has nothing to do with quality. It has nothing to do with the essential form. It has nothing to do with the philosophy of the function that it's trying to fill. It has to do with generating money. And the problem is, artists buy into that, too. One reason Van Gogh does have power is that people equate it with money."
Randy posited, "Down in New York City on Wall Street, you have some big time stock trader living up in a penthouse full of African art. There has to be that balance because the techno-world is so empty. He'll go primitive with his art, but he wouldn't give the time or money to the starving artists down in Manhattan. About the only way you sell art to people is you sell people a sense of their own sickness. So they're involved with it. I've been lucky. I have one collector here in town who really looks at the work and responds to the visual experience."
"Those people are as important to the art scene as anything," Hugo interjected, "the people who know, a good audience."
"Well," Randy nodded, "they're the only thing that's ever been important in the art scene."