Sunday, July 29, 2007

American Folk Art

If the folk art show that's landed at the Phoenix Art Museum is an awful fraud -- it is -- and it is -- you'd never know it from any of the immediate appearances. Or from the neat and precise installation placards that confirm the exhibition's grand and grander and grandiose conceits, or the warm publicity that spreads the officialized word, nor from the press that follows tidily along behind, street-sweepers on the late afternoon of an All-American-styled parade full of horses, and the occasional goat.

(Ever a parade, rarely a rodeo.)

[In the Valley of the Sun, in the veritable home of the Parade Del Sol, in the hillbilly home of Rodeo Days, when all were alleged to have dressed Western, when little kids were urged to Dress Western and then , having done so or failed to do so, were released, let loose, from school, scooted in the direction, roughly, ass-slappingly, rodeo-style, all the way in the direction of The West. So's they could go support rodeo, you know.?]

There's a large and willful arrogance in even the name. Titled American Folk Art; Expressions of a New Spirit, it assumes you're going to swallow it's colonialist prejudices whole -- it presumes you're so naturally ignorant, so easily cowed by authentic black-and-white museum printed pomposiites that you can't help but swallow them whole.

You could fill a phone book with a list of the ways in which this exhibit doesn't comprise, as its name would claim, "American Folk Art." Just to note a few of the most glaring absences is to construct a laundry list of ever-so-embarassing and apparently entirely intentional omissions. Among them: Hopi kachinas; [kachina: a word so astonishingly evident to all Arizonans, to All Arizonans, that no italics nor explanatory sub-set was necessary; every Arizonan, from every element of society, every level of Arizonan culture had exposure to kachinas, to Kachina-named movie theaters and drive-ins dry-cleaners, to key chains and airport lounges and all the rest, and Eskimo masks and carvings; santos and bultos from the Hispanic Southwest; totem poles and animal fetish carvings from the Pacific Northwest tribal clans; Navajo blankets and weaving; Plains tribes tent, clothing, and ceremonial decorations.

These aren't interesting or important to us merely because we live in the Southwest Indian arts-and-crafts belt, but because an understanding of them is deadly crucial to any real understanding of folk art in America. And they're not even half of what American Folk Art manages to skip, only and merely the most blatant, the most transparently obvious.

There is a single bulto included here, a bone flung over the shoulder in the direction of the Southwest, but aside from that one small token --- that and an exceptional construction from a New Mexican "folk" artist of this century --- there's nothing here that will admit that American folk artists are or ever were anything other than rural white people who resided near the Eastern Seaboard of the Northern States, or who very occasionally migrated as far as the Midwest. Everything about the way this show has been assembled argues the big fat fatuous lie that the folk art of America is an essentially nationalistic expression of mostly derivative Eurocentric values, clumsy at worst, and curious at best, created anonymously by someone who's long been dead, and whose identity was never important anyway. [Care to micturate on a a grave or two?]

Let's look carefully at some of the declarations of the show's curator, Robert Bishop, in the accompanying catalog --- but as we dol let's also remember that Bishop is director of New York's Museum of American Folk Art, an institutions endowed by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and formed around her collection (from which this show was assembled) and that emphasizing the importance of his museum's collection while ignoring its severely restricted scope is precisely what he gets paid for.

Bishop wallows a while in the work of others who've attempted to define folk art but rather an venture a timid guess of his own, he prefers to pile up the various arguments and then scuttle nervously away from anything like a conclusion. Decisions, he tells us, are difficult, ". . . and few, indeed, are brave enough to speak out with conviction."

No sooner has Bishop avoided defining his terms than he stumbles over their absence. Folk art is popular art from the period before the printing press and thus never mass-produced?

Then why the inclusion here of manufactured chalkware and ceramic novelty figurines and the Uncle Sam whirligig? Folk art is necessarily confined within distinct time boundaries?

Then why ---why, why, why? -- the atrociously sentimental 1979 painting of a circus parade down a Main Street every bit as authentic as Walt's Disneyland, and why the cute-unto-death, "Gingham Dog and Calico Cat" quilt, complete with hideously coy "childish" reversed lettering (ala Punky Brewster) from 1910? American folk art must be distinct and separate from that of Europe, truly, says Bishop, an "Expression of a New Spirit"? Then why the inclusion of German-derived frakturs, an Italian immigrant's hand-carved Pinocchio, a sgraffito plate, a dower chest with German mermaids and Dutch flowers?

Worse than the exhibit's clumsy articulation of what is and is not properly accepted as folk art is its misguided set of values. Attending a piece from the ever-popular "Artist Unknown" (and we might want to compare the scholarly efforts extended on the identification of centuries-old work from obscure artists of the Western "high art " tradition with the shoulder-shrugging indifference toward the identification of a folk artist just a generation or two past) we read "Carved in the form of a standing woman, this wool winder has the simplicity and boldness of modern sculpture.

So be it. We're plainly expected to admire the artifact because it meets or matches the aesthetics of modern sculpture; the reverse of the proposition, that modern sculpture at its best only very occasionally achieves the simplicity and boldness of folk art, is never even begun to be considered. In actual fact, this circa-1875 artifact long pre-dates the arrival of "Modernism"; moreover, as the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit "Primitivism And 20th Century Art" so firmly reminded us yet again, modernism was founded largely --- and occasionally directly -- in imitation of non-European "primitive" artworks. If we admire this homemade appliance, this winder of wool, for its brilliant juxtapositions of symmetry and assymetry, for its directness and force, for its gimcrack eccentricity, we should rememmber -- as the catalog's author does not -- that it had those qualities long before modernism arrived to deliver its belated imprimatur of acceptance.

And despite its absolute and total attempt to ignore both The South and urban centers alike --- and thus dismiss the pretty much the entirety of the fantastic, forceful, surperlative culture-crossing visual arts of Black Americans -- this show was clearly designed for its contemporary political "correctness," designed to leave the typical prejudices of the educated, Eastern, Eurocentric, museum-going classesfully intact and entirely undisturbed.

Thus the inclusion of an anti-Klan fraktur from a post-Civil War obsessive and the inclusion of a game featuring auctioneer and dolorous slaves. Thus also the exclusion of Ku Klux Klan robes (and no matter what we may think about those particular and peculiar politics and their correctness, Klan robes are a potent American expression, brilliantly devised as pure symbols of visual menace and since borrowed for counter-purposes by such noted modern American artists as Ben Shahn and Phillip Guston) and more importantly, above all, ever so perfectly evidently the absolute absence of the myriad variations of widely-collected and documented golliwogs.

The golliwog, like the kachina, like the totem carving, is an essential part of America's real folk art and to pretend for the sake of current proprieties that it never existed as this show certainly does, is to paint a postcard backdrop behind a false-fronted history. The golliwog was any of a hundred thousand wildly racist representations of grinning, goggle-eyed, watermeleon-eating black Americans by whites, and it was the one area where the restrained visual arts of a a Puritan culture were turned loose. Golliwogs were carved, painted, cast, sculpted, drawn, and sewn, and up until very, very recently could still be found decorating all manner of mass-produced American packaging. We may not care to remember so recent and so common and so fierce an expression of xenophobia, but that makes all the more of an argument that we must.

Purposely forgetful of American's flawed obsessons, Bishop's show is all too willing to march in step with our newfound patriotism. Emphasizing the effect of the Centennial celebration in 1876, he claims it "heightened the national consciousness of Americans." We need look only to another of the show's pieces, an 1861 quilt titled "Baby," for a firm dismissal of so convenient a categorization. The quilt's simple declarative starts and stripes easily prefigure Jasper John's proto-pop flag deconstruction (and all the rest of the pop-art flags to follow); it also predates the Centennial by 15 years.

The eye that designed this quilt was plenty conscious of its nation's special destiny and needed no ceremonial shepherding toward "patriotic themes." Moreover, in the year 1861, as pivotal a year as the United States has ever known --- more pivotal than 1968, more pivotal than 1941 or 1917, as unpredictable and even more frightening than 1776 -- in the jay-hawkin' border state of Kansas, a red-white-and-blue quilt was nothing or was everything up-to-and-includin if not a volatile statement of political line-drawing.

And beyond all that --- or at least smack dab in the middle of it is is the simple fact that this non-figurative quilt is wiithout question the work of a blazing visionary, another in the unending line of truly great American willful eccentrics. At the very center of the star at the very center of the quilt is a little sweet-pea style embroidery that spells, with all the almost demonic single-mindedness of a mother's instinct, "Baby." It urges us to race for the reference books to see which great statesman, which great actor, which great assassin, which great mother-ruled fanatic, was born in the middle of Kansas in 1861.

There are other great and telling pieces in this show, among them a boldly graphic valentine consisting of deftly-cut paper hearts wedded to paper hands; a view of the Oswego Starch factory as looked upon and approved of personally by God himself; and a painting of General Washington as a foppish South American dictator riding Boy George's own horse. The mechanical whirligigs and flag gate and the figure titled "Zocobra, Old Man Gloom" by New Mexico's Poppsy Schaeffer are each in their own way striking representations of the boldness of the American folk artist, but for the most part this show would argue that Americans are a rather tame and untroubled species, a people whose leavings are both serene and stodgy. How lovely for the juanty, jaunty needs of the decorators of the interiors of the much-multiplied homes of Rockefellers!

But we all of us know different than that. We can ignore the repeated insult to our heritage that this show offers, we can even avoid wondering why in the baked parking acres of Central Hell the Phoenix Art Museum would attempt to waltz such an institutionalized set of insults into a town (not truly a city, despite it's Gargantuan-size) filled with truly great collections of Native American and Hispanic folk art, and at a time when a more sensitive awareness of "primitive" and folk art is growing so rapidly. If we try hard enough, we can even pretend that none of this matters.

The folk of this show are from a country that never even slightly resembled the United States of America. It was a quiet, turgid, homogenous place made up of simple-minded, pure-thinking white folk of the under-classes , they who created so that Rockefellers might gather up the leavings of their uncredited lives, marvel at their quaintness, and display them on coffee tables and then, next, in museums. We too might marvel at the best work in this show, as w e wonder how it really fits into our puzzling American spirit, but we might also want to remember that the real point of this show is to display and promote and proselytize for the shopping habits of a capitalist princess as she toured her immediate provinces. We can wonder that we're expected to buy into so contemptuous a concept, but we're by no means obligated to do so.

No comments: