The Boston Arts Festival

At the Public Garden through Aug. 5

The Boston Arts Festival marked the half-way point in its thirteenth season yesterday by closing one show of visual wares and opening a second. For the two weeks past, those brightly colored tents in the Public Garden have housed a collection of paintings and sculpture furnished by local galleries, and for the two coming weeks they will hold some 180 works judged best of an open competition by the Festival Jury.

That both these exhibitions reach uncommon heights of mediocrity should affect the success of the Festival only slightly. For this is not really an arts festival at all but a peculiar sort of New England circus to which people go to see other people looking at pictures. The only thing that darkens the happy atmosphere of this carnival is the realization that a city which saw some grand times as an American culture center produces an annual show of visual arts that gets worse every year.

Among the paintings in the present display, not more than one-ninth could be considered good, and not one is truly outstanding. It can be said for the judges that they gave their top prizes to some of the most interesting artists in the show--James Charles Wright, William Christopher, Gyorgy Kepes, Anthony Childs, and Leo Waldmann--but it is nonetheless difficult to believe that the 180 pieces they selected to hang in the Garden are the best of more than two thousand entries. Surely somewhere in that pile of rejected canvasses there are a few items which are better than the dozens of unimaginative abstracts and phony Wyeths that now line the Garden walks.

Of the sparse selection of sculpture even less can be said; such is doubly sad since sculptors once provided the Festival's most exciting works. Of the twenty-odd pieces only John Bergschneider's Lucifer and Kahlil Gibran's Torso are particularly good although Eleanor Koplow's amusing ceramic of Miami Beach will be the chief crowd-pleaser. The only notable ink drawing is one by Alexander Robert McDonald, and there are no memorable woodcuts or lithographs.

The photography exhibition selected by Carl Siembab, is unusually prosaic. Clemens Kalischer and Gordon Converse have furnished a few interesting photographs but not nearly enough to rescue this section of the Festival from unspeakable dullness.

Why the Boston Arts Festival people cannot put together a respectable exhibition of contemporary visual arts is difficult to say. Probably the most basic problem is the Festival's apparent desire to please the whole of Boston; every year the judges insist on including large numbers of unimaginative realists while neglecting some of the bolder reaches of modern art. And at the same time, the Festival's system of judging (a painting requires the approval of only one of the five judges to be included in the show) increases the likelihood that much undistinguished art will be displayed.

There is a line in Goldsmith's Retaliation which goes "When they talked of their Raphael's, Corregio's and stuff, he shifted his trumpet, and only took snuff." This Arts Festival takes snuff.