Hansen: Will the last artist turn off the lights?

There is a theory that artists see things others don't.

This acute sense of observation is perhaps why distinguished Laguna Beach artist Jorg Dubin is restless.

For nearly 40 years, he has watched Laguna age — without growing wise.

He has seen colleagues leave out of frustration, their artist colony eroded by exorbitant rents and misplaced priorities.

At 58, surrounded by well-deserved accolades, Dubin wonders if Laguna is not the velvet coffin he thought it would be.

"I've lived in this cozy little bubble for a long time and maybe I haven't done myself any favors by remaining here — like maybe I've missed something," he said. "It's comfortable for me. I'm part of a community and I know a lot of people. I have a sense of belonging. But on the flip side, I also feel like I'm isolated from what the community has turned into."

In his view, it's turned into a sad caricature of itself. Chain restaurants have replaced local diners. Tourism has replaced artistry. Art has become a commodity.

"I think it's something that people are concerned about. I feel like we're losing it, or it's becoming a thin facade. Everybody's pretending we're still this thing, but under the surface we've lost a lot."

Much of the blame rests with the city's leadership and political committees, he said.

"It's like a bad wedding cake," he said. "They go, 'Well, we put a lot of frosting on that cake, so let's put a lot more on it.' I've told them you don't have to turn Laguna into Candy Land.

"You don't have to put something on every street corner in town. They continue to place stuff that's an embarrassment. Anybody who's in the real art world can look around town and go, my God, what is all this fluff? It's just candy."

Dubin has public art installations in the city, most recently the 9/11 memorial in Heisler Park. He knows the system. He has been on countless committees. This is not sour grapes talking.

Dubin is simply expressing what everyone else is afraid to say: Laguna has lost its way.

"The whole town is losing some of the things that brought us here in the first place," he said. "We're not catering at all to the local community; we're catering to the tourist community. A lot of people I know are very frustrated."

The first to leave were the artists.

"Most serious artists that I've known over the years have left. They've gone. They left because they get frustrated at what's available for them here. They get frustrated at the lack of real support from the community."

The institutions are in place, but they are not pointing in the right direction.

"The art museum has no funding or support from the city at all. Other communities support their museum on some level."

Dubin said Laguna has been lulled by the edifices we have built.

"I think we have this sort of superficial notion here that we have an art museum, we have art galleries, we have art festivals, we've got the Playhouse, we've got these things that visually make us look like we're a high-culture community — very invested in the arts and culture and performing arts — but the reality is we lack the real support and visionary leadership to move forward."

Part of what is missing, he said, is the courage to push boundaries.

"Art by committee — how good is that going to be? They've turned down so many proposals because they didn't understand what they were. And so they go for the mediocrity. Let's put some more sea mammal things out there because that's what we understand. We don't want to do anything that offends anybody."

It's not hard to see that Dubin doesn't mind offending people. He's bold and unfiltered because it's the right thing to do. And it shows in his work, which is nothing if not real, warts and all.

"The tipping point has happened," he said. "I don't know if there is a turning back."

At this point in his life, he doesn't care so much about himself. He worries about the young artists of tomorrow. The former Laguna College of Art + Design teacher knows these students will never be able to live and work in Laguna.

Cities change over time whether by design or indifference. For Laguna Beach, the distinction is important.

If artists are ahead of the curve, pointing out the shadows we ignore, then we should try to see what they see.

We should remember our roots and reestablish our authenticity.

We should stop painting an impostor.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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