Sunday, July 08, 2007


This is from www.slog.the “The Stranger” is a Seattle newspaper, I assume an alternative paper, which I haven’t ever read.

Know Who I Like Reading?

Posted by Jen Graves on June 11 at 18:15 PM

Joe Nickell, the Missoulian writer who is part of a new blog on ArtsJournal called Flyover: Art from the American Outback. Nickell writes at the heart of his subjects (chiefly music), he’s mellifluous in print, and, in person, he has a hell of a way with old-timey shirts.

The blog is a group portrait of art in smaller cities by arts journalists of all kinds. It’s exactly the sort of thing I wish had been around (Nickell and co. invented it several months ago) when I was writing about art in Denton, Texas, and in Tacoma, where my boss once asked me whether the dancers at the ballet also sing while they’re performing.

These writers have tough jobs, jobs with high highs and low lows, jobs where cynicism is not an option. Read them. Throw in your comments.

Poor Joe Nickell, I read his blog for the first time through Arts Journal, which comes to me as an automatic daily newsfeed and which often points me to really useful stories. But, as is often the case when one expects one thing and gets another, I was upset because I thought that Joe would be writing about Montana arts, the whole state, but he sticks to Missoula. Missoula is NOT flyover country -- it’s a destination for global hipsters. What he’s picking up is the hem of Seattle, not the robes of the prairie.

But Joe’s only been there ten months and his specialty is music, so he must be forgiven for not understanding what the arts in Montana really are. He could start his research -- should he be interested -- by contacting Arlynn Fishbaugh, the executive for the Montana Arts Council. (Her background includes being staff for the Metropolitan Opera -- I haven’t asked her whether she has any “Bubbles” Sills stories.) But even Arlynn and the MAC have little consciousness of the 500 pound gorilla in this state, which is the legacy of Charlie Russell.

I jabbed Joe with a sharp stick in the comments for “Flyover Country” saying the Montana art world needs some REAL criticism, distinguishing good art from schlock. The response was not “ow” but “huh?” His assumption seems to be that he never writes about the annual March Russell Auction so therefore he never writes about art schlock. But he mistook me (and I did a bad job of commenting) because in my opinion and that of expert others, the auction often includes fine examples of American Impressionism which simply have Western subject matter. The point I was chasing is that most of the people who attend the auction and the complex of accompanying auctions where the schlock is most often found (the Russell auction itself is formally curated/juried) can only tell good art from bad by looking at the name of the artist and knowing how much money it is thought to be worth. (This is why bad art sells better if it’s priced high.)

That flashed past Joe like a pursued fox. But I regret using the term “schlock.” It means tawdry, inept, poorly done -- which is too much of a pejorative for a genre that has steadily improved and took a major leap with the newest influx: classically trained realistic painters from China. (They show regularly at the Western Art Rendezvous coming up in Helena. It’s really a kick to stand close enough to small groups of them to hear their chatting in Chinese. Can it be called eavesdropping if you can’t tell what they’re saying?) But even these fine artists, who make all the self-taught cowboy painters look desperate, are rather prone to “schmaltz,” which means over-sentimentality. The core of East Coast illustrators who galvanized the Cowboy Artists of America had the same combination of fine technical skill with a sort of sweet vignette sensibility drawn from the short stories they enlivened in slick magazines.

“What’s not to like?” many of my friends would ask. Well, I dunno. I have this sort of crazed romantic idea left over from my undergrad training in theatre: stuff about the heart of human meaning, a distinctive vision of the world, and all that.

Joe’s background sounds also romantic but more from a later generation than mine, the one that found their soul in music, oddly parallel but not the same as Bob Scriver’s “swing” generation. Bob’s kind of music got the soldiers through WWII. I think Joe must be from the Vietnam Era.

Those people don’t respond to sharp sticks, so I will try -- as here -- a little more courtship and networking. Part of my reaction to Joe is really about Missoula. On this side of the Rockies we see them as the home of snobbery, xenophobia, and fancy drugs. For the music freaks, it’s much closer to George, the fount of hip music. (The name is a play on the location in the Columbia Gorge. It’s an ampitheatre rather than a dive.)

The “pitch” for flyover country is that it is about the arts in “small cities,” but too many Montana small cities appear to be beneath notice here. Somebody send Joe Nickell some gas money.


Bitterroot said...

Very interesting cogitations, Mary. I do so enjoy this blog.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Bitterroot. I think we're all sort of feeling our way towards something really quite good! Might not be rich in terms of money, but in other ways.

Hope there is no fire where you are. A sweet cool evening here.

Prairie Mary