Sunday, February 15, 2009

a book review imitative of George Steiner's habit of embedding the title very deep in an essay seemingly about something else: in re Gary Monroe

There is a book remaining to be written that the world is still not ready to accept.

Actually, there are many such books, but the one I have in mind is one that involves a topic which global society, and Anglophone-academic even more than global society, is unlikely to contemplate without the effort being derailed by prior assumptions.

The book would involve some of the worse mythicizations of relationships of art and power and money and human behavioral mechanisms. The mythicizations in question are usually perpetrated by academic theorists, but the issues stir up passions and oversimplifications among all levels of education and temperament.

The book would be about the role played by art-school-educated artists in reviving traditional arts, or in creating new schools of largely self-trained artists.

Parts of the topic shade off into the preservation of never-extinguished forms of traditional art, and that preservation is as much a matter of creating foreign markets as it is one of stirring fresh interest among artisans who no longer find much purpose in replicating the old ways. Anthropologists and missionaries (and missionary anthropologists or anthropologist missionaries) have revived such basically extinct forms as Palauan storyboards, and have revivified practices that were in the process of transformation, such as Asmat carvings, in need of repurposing after they no longer served their original function.

We can exclude from our hypothetical book any cases in which the community itself, or the artisans/artists in it, find their own ways of transferring from tradition to the marketplace.

Even there, the structural similarities between unrelated transactions would be of interest. Several recent and no-longer-recent books on locally generated conduits for the sale of contemporary and semi-traditional African art deserve to be contemplated and written about in tandem. It would be even more interesting to write about them in conjunction with the studies of traditional African-American and white Appalachian folk artists who negotiated their own self-generated points of entry into the ways of global marketing.

It is the “self-generated” part that is in contention. “Outsider artists” who figure out by themselves how to become artstars have been judged by the romanticizers as lacking “authenticity.” Others are deemed to have been contaminated by the proddings of patrons, or worse, taught how to do things “the right way” by certain graduates of art schools.

But we have a desperate inconsistency here that remains too touchy to be discussed.

Community involvement has been all the rage for a full generation now; you aren’t really grant-worthy if you aren’t teaching all sorts of folks how to use art processes, and then keeping hands off and letting the genius of the individual have its way. And sometimes, wonderful things happen as a result of this.

But Tim Rollins was widely condemned for turning K.O.S. into a moneymaking art collective with himself as its head. And in general, artists who take too much interest in the financial success of their protégés are regarded as somehow poisoning the wells of authenticity.

But authenticity is where you find it, and it is one of life’s interesting ironies that the globally successful Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe had their origin in an art school that encouraged the use of a medium that was not part of their uninterrupted inheritance. (I omit vexed questions of history here.) Once prodded, the artists encouraged and educated one another in an explosion of creativity that today is known to audiences throughout the world, including the transit passengers who use the moving sidewalk between concourses at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where there is a permanent installation of monumental work by a wide variety of Shona sculptors.

The passions and the politics still run too high to permit discussion of which of the community-oriented efforts to empower artists produced autonomous individuals who accomplished the creation of a set of aesthetics that would not have existed in that form without the initial intervention. (Something would have existed. But not exactly that, and that is where the controversy arises.)

I have used a variety of left-wing and right-wing shibboleths here (“empower artists,” “creativity,” “aesthetics,” “intervention,” “autonomous individuals,” “community-oriented”) to indicate why, to put a nuanced spin on Henry Kissinger’s familiar description of faculty politics, the passions run so high whether the stakes are low or not. The nature of the stakes is part of the problem arousing conflict.

The motivations of the young African-Americans who became known as the Highwaymen (fifteen years after they were no longer a group) were uncomplicated. They wanted to make money, and an artist was willing to teach them how to make it.

It is worth contemplating, in terms of our book that cannot yet be written, the fact that while we know the names and the work of the artists who arose from these initial interventions, we are seldom as familiar with the artists who served as the catalyst. In this case, it was Florida landscape painter A. E. Backus, who is well known to those who have visited his museum in Fort Pierce, but is famous only in specialized circles of the global artworld.

The photographer Gary Monroe has become the chronicler of the Highwaymen since their rediscovery in the 1990s. Scheduled for publication in late April, The Highwaymen Murals is the latest of his books published by the University Press of Florida. Its introductory essay provides a condensed overview of the story of this remarkable group of 26 largely mutually educated artists.

Although some painters now insist they were never really anonymous Highwaymen, the group that formed in 1960 was united by the techniques originally taught by their mentor, and by technical modifications developed by one or another group member and taught to the others. But they worked as independent artists who marketed similar forms of paintings together, sometimes signing their production, sometimes choosing not to do so.

Speed and quantity were the point, but composition and palette were controlled by what the market would bear plus their own creative impulses. The paintings evoked an older Florida that in 1960 was still readily visible from car windows on two-lane highways. Most of the marketing was done out of car trunks by the roadside of tourist-frequented routes. Flame trees, palms, lakes, cypress swamps, and egrets abounded in the paintings. (They also abounded on the main roads frequented by the tourists.) The luridly shaded or shadeless commonplaces of beach-town surf art were nowhere to be found, but idyllic scenes in a vivid yet surprisingly understated palette were de rigueur.

In other words, the paintings were meant to stir the emotions of souvenir-hunting passersby or wall-decorating newcomers, and they succeeded brilliantly on that count. Before the decline of consumer interest in scenes of subtropic and rural Florida during the Disneyfied 1980s, the various Highwaymen artists created upwards of two hundred thousand paintings.

What distinguishes their readily recognizable productions from frame-shop offerings of the period, or from the more serious creations of such locally popular genre artists as E. B. Stowe—that is an art historical question that ought to be tackled by a formalist critic. It would raise the whole issue of what distinguishes good “bad art” from bad bad art, and from bad examples of what has been deemed to be “good art.” The Highwaymen have been rediscovered because their aesthetic strategies borrowed from but did not copy the shorthand techniques of the truly disposable and/or merely provincial painting of the Florida of those transitional decades.

But the Highwaymen unabashedly admit they were in it for the money, and the rise in aesthetic complexity was all part of the process of pushing product. Al Black was the most successful salesman of the group, to the point that he was forbidden to paint in order to devote his time to making visits to the offices of the professionals who sometimes allowed the group to hang their paintings in lobbies and waiting rooms. He regularly found buyers for the paintings left over from individual members’ selling trips.

Black apparently developed personal difficulties in the era of crack cocaine. Coming in the wake of the collapse of the Highwaymen’s art market, his difficulties earned him a prison sentence.

What happened next was the return of Black’s capacities as an artist. Asked to paint murals on undecorated walls (a practice that apparently is the rule rather than the exception in correctional institutions nationwide), he created evocative Florida scenes that returned inmates to the natural world from which incarceration had cut them off (in fact, it was a natural world that increasingly existed only in older tourist-brochure photographs).

Eventually Black was transferred to various facilities specifically for the purpose of producing new murals, and despite threats to the murals’ existence when less art-interested wardens took over, thus far none of the works have been painted out or destroyed in prison expansions. Monroe has presented them in situ rather than as isolated works of art, documenting their sometimes disconcerting juxtaposition with general prison architecture.

In 2006, Black was released from confinement, in time to enjoy the fruits of the renaissance of interest in the Highwaymen.

The issues that this seemingly simple book raises are, as I’ve indicated, entirely too numerous and complex to be dealt with in a single essay. These are diverse murals that, like the original Highwaymen paintings, were executed with astonishing rapidity. They were sometimes created in tones specifically intended to be soothing. These are among the reasons why large segments of the art world would be expected to treat them with contempt, or more likely, simply ignore them.

But they shouldn’t. Just as the Highwaymen transcended their original motivations, and created an oeuvre that elevates the category of “roadside art,” these murals are anything but “prison art.” And the problems that they, shall we say, problematize extend far beyond the cramped categories of “folk art.”

—Jerry Cullum, February 15, 2009


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