Saturday, December 22, 2007


Christmas often brings some unanticipated delights -- or at least one hopes it will! This morning arrived in my PO Box a little privately published book called “Remembering Louis Bunce.” The subtitle is “Recollections and reflections of friends and admirers on the 100th anniversary of his birth, August 13, 2007.” Phyllis Johanson, who was a collaborator when I was at animal control, sent me the book because she knew I’ve always been interested in Bunce, partly because of a huge flap over a mural he painted for the Portland Airport. It was cubist and set off an uproar heard clear to Paris!

People claimed they couldn’t understand it, but some pilots said it looked just like flying, and I never had trouble “understanding” it. It was vaporous planes of blue and green. One airport electrician kept going by and exclaiming that it was just a mess, until one day Bunce went down to the electrician’s bailiwick and walked around looking at the tangle of wiring, remarking that he “couldn’t understand it.” Luckily the electrician had a sense of humor and converted to figuring out the mural and then even explaining it to others.

I think the reason some people take offense is that they feel excluded, as though the artists and the cogniscenti know something that their own incomprehension makes them feel is stupidity. It’s a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes story in which the observers think that everyone else really IS seeing something, and they don’t dare ask what for fear of revealing that they are falling short. Certainly the Art Revolution since the turn of the 19th century into the 20th has depended very much on explanation -- as much discussion of how and why the painting was made as raw experience of what one of Bunce’s friends called “something that hangs between you and the wall.” So the people who don’t “get it,” maybe because of lack of education which they think renders them stupid, form their own Scoffing Society and say, “I don’t know nuthin’ about art, but I know what I like.”

I don’t have a close relationship with Louis Bunce’s and George Johanson’s circle of friends but I never found them exactly a closed society though they were based on their relationship to the Portland Art School as students and teachers. But they did understand each other in the way that people always do when they’ve know each other a long time. These guys (a few women, mostly spouses) lived through the Depression, when many of them worked for the WPA, and then WWII though many were 4F and then again the Fifties, which are still not quite available for analysis for some reason. It was sadder than the “winners” of the war want to admit, maybe. People drank hard, smoked a lot, took risks and admired Jackson Pollock whom some of this group knew rather well. By now they’ve mostly settled into being senior citizens, but they’re still tricksters and survivors -- which are the salient qualities that pull them together into a kind of culture.

I gather that some philosophers have been trying to set out the relationship between culture/status and the valorization (valuing and meaningfulness) of art. These are communities based on consumption, rather than the artists’ societies based on ideas and production. The critic, the gallery-owner, and the patron form interlocking relationships that have nothing to do with tricking (pun intended) and surviving -- and everything with demonstrating good taste at the same time as hopefully turning a profit. If bad taste will turn a profit, well, so be it. There are periods when shock and offense are worth more money -- then the pendulum swings and all of a sudden indiscretion will be bargain basement, except that there is always a little residual underground whose attachment to the art has been too visceral to give up. With luck, those folks have money they will spend on art.

So it’s possible to separate two kinds of “art groups,” one based on the artists’ relationships with each other, often through shared experience or a relationship to an institution, and the other based on the marketing of the products. In the “Cowboy Art” context, there is a kind of hybrid group: the Cowboy Artists of America. Beginning as an affinity group of artists who helped with a roundup, the association became a self-promotion business that broke with the original institution (Cowboy Hall of Fame) and then lost contact with its roots, by now partly because of the deaths of the founders, and partly because the annual group ride began to be seen as a hardship for older and less Western members. The group shifted from mutual support to being plagued by internal politics and competitions.

This was partly because of what I called the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, the loose and unofficial network of “experts,” authors, administrators, gallery-owners, and the like who arrange shows and create reputations. One of the interesting and probably positive results of their efforts is the broadening of the field to include more than Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington. Now they think about the Taos Seven, the great scenery artists such as Moran and Bierstadt, the early Indian portraitists like Catlin and Bodmer, and even the California Impressionists.

It’s fascinating to attend Western art auctions, a national string of events rather like rodeos, and study the people, which form a group of their own. Some travel in a group to events, chartering a plane. Many are rich from extractive industries in the West -- oil, coal, mining, dams. Some become admirers of a certain artist and acquire everything about him (usually a "him"), including trivia, as though the person were a movie star. Part of the identification may be historical, since in the West “history” was just yesterday. People dress up in old-timey outfits or in unsophisticated glitz: a remarkable number of beaded chiffon dresses and bleached blond up-do hair. They are a culture of their own, sometimes leathery from outdoor work and glittering with diamonds to show the work was profitable.

Manhattan barely understands that so much action has moved away, in much the same way that the art action moved out of Paris during WWII and made Manhattan the new scene. One must go to the glossy newsstand magazines about Western art and what they call “the lifestyle.” Interestingly, these people who giggle about frontier brutality and sex, make it clear that they are easily offended by any bad behavior in the here and now. And they are patriotic, though the Cowboy Artists of America have dropped the “of America” part, shortening CAA to CA.

There’s a terrific story in this Louis Bunce book about his wife and him at an impossibly pretentious and stuffy dinner party. A lemon meringue pie was brought to the table. Bunce’s wife, despairing, looked at Louis and smashed the pie in her own face! I know just how she felt.


Anonymous said...

You are so good at this -- writing about something I know nothing about, in a compelling and intriguing way -- and so teaching me, broadening me...

& I thank you for it.

SB @ Watermark

prairie mary said...

sb, at first I thought your comment was false modesty since your credentials in terms of culture and art are impeccable! But then I figured you must be referring to cowboy art and maybe early 20th century abstract revolution art. Both rather mysterious to "outsiders."

So... thanks.

Prairie Mary