Mentioning Thomas Kinkade is an excellent intro to the next step for success in art or writing: PLATFORM. That is, knowing who your audience is and providing a sense of identity that they can comprehend as relevant. Some people, a little too clever maybe, can design a platform for a specific demographic group where they think there is money. Kinkade seems to be this type. He creates sweet, pastel, greeting-card images of “home,” as envisioned in a dream world where such a home is absolutely safe, warm, and honorable. That this is not his natural mode is tipped off by his recent troubles with the law. There are plenty more examples, some of them very famous Western artists. Some people don’t think Norman Rockwell was anything like the folks in his paintings. Whether it’s valid as a criticism to say an artist or writer is or is not “like” his work is an old issue that will never be resolved.
Platform as a selling gimmick is something else and has become very intense in recent times. The public is sometimes only interested in the art or writing as a way of connecting to what they fancy to be the artist or writer. Why else would they get so outraged over the idea of a hoax? Identity politics are intense and hard-bitten. Thus, when a modern journalist, John Taliaferro, wrote “Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist,” he found out in a hurry that the fans and especially the promoters of the “brand” called Charlie Russell didn’t want to know the “real truth.” They didn’t CARE that both Charlie and Nancy had been sterilized by syphillis or that Charlie had a goiter bad enough to interfere with his heart and a hernia that meant his Metis sash had to do double duty as a support, but he would not go to a doctor. They were more willing to understand that Nancy, after Charlie’s death and after she had moved to Pasadena, had a very close male friend. (I’ll get kickback for this.) Taliaferro was not thanked and his name is not mentioned at the Great Falls Auction or Museum. All his books disappeared from the shelves. (So did mine.) Neither was Thomas H. Pauly rewarded for unveiling the romantic life of Zane Grey. Revelations about beloved figures, however deceiving their platform personas, fall on deaf ears. Anyway, they’re bad for sales. Commerce can vanquish even scandal.
Thus, when my book about Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” was submitted to the University of Oklahoma Press, the acquiring editor, Chuck Rankin, did NOT like what I said and, in fact, B. Byron Price -- one of the supposed objective secret evaluators -- recommended that it be severely shortened and all the women be taken out. (Something like the editor who refused Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” because it had too many trees in it.) A different author might have agreed. I pulled my manuscript. Chuck Rankin had done an earlier hatchet job on Bob when he was editing “Montana: the Magazine of Western History,” so I had hated to send the manuscript there anyway. Earlier it had been rejected by the University of Minnesota Press, I suspect in part because of Native American politics over the sale of the Scriver artifact collection.
The general bourgeois public looks for platforms that are reassuring or adventurous in a non-threatening way -- crocodiles in Australia but not dog packs in their neighborhood. Tales of rescue, endless tales of rescue, and no photos of the piles of dead dogs at the end of the day in shelters everywhere. “That’s morbid,” they say. “I can’t face it. Why make me?”
Well, because that’s the way change and reform come about. If you can shut things out of awareness, the profiteers and the death-mongers can go right on with their horrid business. Luckily there ARE tough-minded people who stare straight into the black sun no matter what it costs them. Those who address the nineteenth century prairie clearances of the native Americans stick to paintings of beautiful maidens and the horse-and-feather moments of raids and battles. (HOORAY for today’s decision finally to pay back the embezzled funds of American Indians!) Customers like some romantic but totally unreal lodges in sunsets against idyllic scenery, painted by someone who once worked for Walt Disney. That’s what the rich bourgeois buy. (The truly rich don’t buy anything at all in Montana. Maybe ranches.)
But why should art be all the same? Saying that Kinkade is NOT a legitimate art platform because one is too sophisticated to like it, doesn’t mean that the housing inspector I knew in Portland who covered his cubicle with Kinkade images from calendars wasn’t sincere. He had learned that what his people liked was candy-sweet and safety-based. That’s what he liked, too. The black Imam a few cubicles down whose mosque had recently been burned out and whose son turned out to be a leopard, had NO images in his cubicle. That the men could get along, at least at work, is remarkable. Great art is always in a context. Some people are always going to prefer the Vargas girl to the Mona Lisa, no matter what the “experts” tell them. (Whoever makes the arrangements in the warehouse of Scriver bronzes has hidden his little nudes. He had enormous fondness for Vargas, though there wasn’t a Playboy or Penthouse in the studio. At least not a copy his mother might find. She DID come up and look.)
There ARE legitimate curators of Charlie Russell’s work, definers of genre who try to understand why this platform “formed.” It’s always an interaction of the culture with the individual. These people are generally academic and unknown to the general public, so they make a kind of meta-platform. At the roll-out of the comprehensive list of all Charlie Russell’s work, generally referred to in French as a “catalogue raisonee” to give it a little class, the real experts were brought in for a legitimating seminar and they were wonderful to hear, but it’s tough to get a publisher to commit money to the creation of their books, especially since they will require expensive photo plates. People don’t want to have to work so hard to be able to explain to their neighbors how important their possessions are.
Most confusing of all to many people are the artists or writers who occupy several platforms, for instance, the Connecticut illustrators like John Clymer who later became an easel painter of Western art. Of course, besides his beloved Saturday Evening Post covers (as well-loved as those of Norman Rockwell), he had always done illustrations of the West like his series about the Northwest Indian Tribes for National Geographic and portraits of Western animals. He was lucky to be seen as “double” partly because he was a Westerner by birth. Howard Terpning, on the other hand, has not exactly pointed out his early career painting pretty Jon Whitcomb girls for short stories in Colliers.
When one sweeps back the Oz curtain that obscures art, the scene is confusing and multiple. It pays to hold still and ponder for a while. Unless you’re trying to close a sale.