Friday, April 12, 2013

Back in school -- cultural identity in art

This week in art history class we read about cultural identity and how artists in the third world may have a hard time deciding which elements to incorporate into art.  Should they use their traditional religious or tribal symbols or the more recent historical artifacts and political ideas that stem from colonial or post-colonial days?  In a world of global connections and universal communication, it's hard to separate out what the artist wants to say about his own culture from the influence of other cultures.

Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist and scholar, wrote, "In such a state of things, the very notion of cultural purity can seem like something of a nostalgic fantasy...  No longer bound to a sense of having to restrict one's focus, materials, or genre, many contemporary artists of color move back and forth between past and present, between history and fiction, between art and ritual, between high art and popular culture, and between Western and non-Western influence.  In doing so, they participate in multiple communities."

I am not a person of color, but it occurs to me that the same observations apply as I think about my own cultural heritage -- white flyover-state Protestant -- and how it affects my art.  And one of the things I wonder about is how rarely I see that cultural heritage expressed by contemporary artists in non-ironic terms.

Hundreds of artists have sneered or laughed at the white-bread American culture; almost the entire genre of Pop Art in the United States is based on simultaneous fascination with and disdain for the familiar stuff of our childhoods.

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #35, 1963

But do any artists deal with this material in earnest?  In the 1930s Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and other Regionalist artists did, depicting small-town scenes and heartland values, but Regionalism went out of fashion after World War II.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

(When American Gothic was first exhibited, some big-city critics assumed it was meant as a satire of narrow-minded rustics, but Wood said it wasn't.)

Norman Rockwell, Teacher's Birthday, 1956

More recently, we can point to Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, but neither of them were totally embraced by the High Art establishment.  Rockwell was generally dismissed as an illustrator, and Wyeth because he seemed dangerously close to illustration.  And of course who can forget Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, who became fabulously rich and later went bankrupt producing sappy scenes of little cottages in the woods, sold through franchised galleries.  I'm not sure there's anybody more despised and reviled by the art establishment.

And yet, if High Art frowns on earnest depictions of heartland America, heartland America returns the favor.  Another of the scholars we read this week observed that the concept of art as a self-sufficient activity based on aesthetics is peculiar to Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In other cultures, the visual tradition is determined by religion, commemoration, representation and other factors.  I would argue that heartland America is more this way than it is like Europe in terms of art.

In heartland America there is some reverence for the pretty landscape painting, the picture of Jesus, the wedding photos and the family portraits, but a great deal of suspicion of Artists and Art.  Those artists aren't decent guys like us -- they smoke dope and have nude models!  Hey, my kid could paint that!  Heartland culture never did embrace abstraction, thus skipping the large part of 20th-century art, and is even less accepting of performance art, conceptual art and other recent genres.  Do you remember the hysteria 20 years ago over Karen Finley's nude performances or Robert Mapplethorpe's photos?

There are a gazillion artists who grew up in heartland America, couldn't wait to move to the big city and put that white-bread world behind them, and became famous and successful after their escape.  Many of them used their native culture as grounds for irony or condemnation.  But I wonder whether that culture will produce any artists who will become part of the global High Art world by using the heartland culture in earnest -- or even any who aspire to do so.

What do you think?  Opinions from those of heartland heritage especially welcome.


  1. 'Fraid I'm not of heartland heritage, so this may not be the opinion you're seeking. The suspicion and even disdain that white-bread America has for many artists is similar to the sentiments they have toward intellectuals. They do not desire conversations, orally or visually, with folks who see the world differently. --Connie in AL

  2. It seems to me that a Sense Of Place, as in one's heritage and milieu, and one's roots, is so essential to the soul of the Art, that it cannot be denied.. I feel that particularly in my Spirit work, which does not have roots in my country, although the practice is firmly here.. When I make Art for the Sun Moon Dance, I do not wish to plagiarise the Pueblo Indian traditional style of my teacher, but to make the representations my own and from my own background.. I live in the Low Lands of Britain, have roots in the Midlands, the Fen, and to a degree, in Scotland.. All these things colour and influence and shape all that I do..

    Helen Howes

  3. David Hockney is from the provinces in England (Yorkshire). He recently spent 6 years painting huge canvases of his native landscape. They hung in the Royal Academy, and they are magnificent beyond words. If a heartland artist did great work like this it would be recognized and embraced. But it's hard for any artist anyplace to get recognition. I think it's this general difficulty rather than prejudice that's in play. Being from Chicago and proud to be part of the midwest, I do take exception to your characterization of 'heartlanders' as yahoos. Every suburb and small town all over the country has some people like this and some people who are quite sophisticated. I don't think your generalizations are fair.

    1. Beverlyanne -- as a midwesterner myself, I didn't mean to characterize that entire population as yahoos, although there certainly is a prominent subset that deserve that name. The people of sophistication that you mention are probably pretty well represented in Chicago and perhaps a lot of other places. But in many cases and places they seem to be overruled and outvoted by those who are less broad-minded.

      That said, I appreciate your bringing up Hockney as an example of a big name in the world of High Art who is pulling off a non-ironic take on pretty things. I will stay on the lookout for others, especially in the US, so I can test my hypothesis.

  4. Well I would definitely say I'm from white bread small town USA and love it here. I caution my teen - a budding artist in her own right - that its not what you wear, what you act like and where you create that makes your art better and more acceptable. Now this might be a mother making sure that her 15 teen year old ginger doesn't come home with dyed black hair and piercings. But its also about what happens a lot in the art world today. I don't want her to think that (like a lot of big city coastal galleries) that art is what you can get away with. That its a big marketing game. I think it should express what you want it to express in a well thought out manner. Now does that mean that my art will be the same as yours - probably not because I do believe it comes from our heritage - at least I know that mine is truly effected by it. I do think that lately - that my whitebread heritage doesn't seems as "important" in the art world - just because I'm in the majority. But then it always is easy to feel disdain for the majority.

    1. I agree that the whitebread heritage doesn't seem important in the art world except in an ironic way. But why is that true? That's what I'm perplexed about. Is it because the art world thinks whitebread culture is bourgeois, boring, unimaginative, dull or because whitebread people think the art world is outrageous, irreverent and dangerous? Or both? Or other?

  5. Being a troglodyte, what is wrong with being a great illustrator?

    1. Nothing -- except that the High Art world considers it not to be High Art. Easy to understand how commissioned art (for instance, Saturday Evening Post covers or paintings made to illustrate scenes from a book) ranks slightly lower than art where the artist uses his own ideas -- kind of like the way fiber artists regard work that's made to match the client's sofa.

      But the whole idea of art as faithful, realistic representation has passed out of fashion in the High Art World in the last half century or more. (Unless it's in an ironic way, appropriating images from art history to use in a postmodern way.)

      Not saying I agree with any of this, just reporting on what the High Art World thinks and rewards. Don't beat me up, only the messenger.