Monday, December 02, 2019


Human organization is complex and layered.  This is natural as people gather according to affinity.  In the Sixties I was embedded in several communities, but we didn't make our money locally.  Cowboy art was our venue.  This is an example of a sub-culture over fifty years.

The complexity of the reservation capital of Browning, assigned to the historic Blackfeet tribe on the Montana side of the divided population, is not obvious unless you live there.  The most prominent element in terms of prosperity was the world of Western art.  It became a movement mostly in the SW that portrayed a century of development as the open range cattle business moved in over the top of the original People, so that there were many romantic depictions of horseback war and sentimental, often lonely, life in a vast terrain.  

In the Sixties many American resource opportunists who had grown very rich and done much damage, consoled themselves with this romanticism, full of stories.  Bob Scriver, my attachment in the Sixties, was raised on income from his father's Browning Mercantile and witnessed lives of early whites settling in this place as well as the gradual ending of the 19th century tribal People.  Born here, he had been protected and included by the indigenous People, so the later political and family struggles seemed to him a betrayal and desertion of the better old ways.  He cared nothing for wealth, but his father took it as a marker of achievement.  The Browning Merc, from which Bob was excluded as an adult, stayed pretty much unchanged from its beginning as a frontier "Indian" store.  But T.E.'s designation as an authorized Indian trader was useful for selling bronzes.

Through the Sixties many institutions were organized by resource-rich old  men, partly art galleries and partly historical societies, in the tradition of Carnegie libraries, and not-quite-covertly became high society celebrations of individuals.  Several formed the eventual money and status framework of Scriver's life: most immediately the Museum of the Plains Indian, the Montana Historical Society, the Russell Museum and later the Lewis and Clark museum -- all of them Montana institutions.  The two most powerful influences in Scriver's life were first the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and then the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, both of them in early development at the time, depending on major private money.  Scriver offered high quality bronze sculptures, appealing and in series that could fill an exhibit hall.  They were part of the stereotypical depictions, though he also did many wildlife portraits of simple graceful accuracy. 

To serve and manage these organizations a class of manager/administrators grew up, the people quickly became promoters and advertisers when the early endowments hit limits.  The abiding success of these institutions depended upon them becoming popular sources of reassurance for people who wished to believe themselves sensitive to art and living according to American values.  They extended their circle to publishers like the U of Oklahoma press.

The Fifties boom in TV Westerns were part of this.  The relative innocence of "Gunsmoke" with Matt Dillon's sturdy sense of justice and Miss Kitty's sense of business was very much part of de-mobilization from WWII.  So were "Rawhide" and "Wagon Train" with their plots built around wise older men.  In a few years popularity had to be hyped with more violence and self-mockery, like "Bonanza".  (I've wondered whether "Lassiter" could be morphed slightly into a precursor of "gay" culture.)

By the time the Autry Museum of the American West opened in LA, it was broadened out to include indigenous peoples, early landscape painters, and the personal estate of Gene Autry, who could have hived off into country music but didn't.  The Autry bought the SW Museum of the American Indian, which housed a lot of early pots and kachinas as well as a collection of the photos of Walter McClintock which Darrell Robes Kipp and Shirley Crowfoot traveled down from here to curate.

NA curation took a turn from traditional anthropology, which had resulted in papers and lectures, when native Americans became politicized and began to take their own future in hand.  The previous aficionados of the West as "cowboys and Indians" were disconcerted and pulled back.

At the same time the purveyors of luxury picked up the Western trope, which had been strong in the SW and blended with Spanish influence.  Most tribes are not good at merchandizing because they do not imagine they must research their clientele in order to do advertising.  To them it is more fitting to simply present who they are and what they have, assuming anyone sensible will coming looking.  Also, there is the element of secrecy and exclusiveness, which pushes back against ads.

Western art was much affected by two marketing influences.  One was the Internet which allowed galleries to advertise far and wide without being blamed for politics or individuals claiming creator's rights.  The other was auctions, which could be online but also could be treated as events.  They stepped past traditional galleries -- though it was a chance for galleries to empty their back rooms of slow selling items  -- and were often held in hotels where small private rooms were perfect for deals and for getting to personally know artists, which is the way many buyers operated.  This fits with the practice of buying books autographed by known writers -- so that it's not necessary to actually read the books.  Celebrity became key to success.

All this created something like Edward Said's insight into "Orientalism," which skims off a fantasy and makes it a desirable dream.  We feel as though we know that creak of saddles, the smell of horses, the honor of cowboys like John Wayne.  The real herders of cattle who came up from the South on cattle trails were often dark, small, drunk, and incapable of doing anything else.  It was a sort of land equivalent to being ship crews in the days before scurvy was understood, but at least they had plenty of beef to eat.  Slick magazines sprang up to shape and promote all this.

Then a shadow reversal took over, one that concentrated on ghastliness, like the tales of Cormac McCarthy, with an historical gloss for an excuse.  This was to show that lovers of Westerns were not just gullible guys who merely learned the guitar.  Babies impaled on dead trees . . .  etc.

Then there are the ethnic stories, the Jewish egg peddlers, the Chinese railroad builders, the Norwegian homesteaders.  I have yet to see a painting of a man selling eggs from a handcart.  Maybe Jewish people are more into writing, like the Jewish lawyers who have made alliances with tribes.  The Chinese artists educated classically in their own countries have created many fine cherishable masterpieces.  I once stood in an exhibit in Helena, MT, listening to two Chinese artists speaking their language together. was a society for cowboy artists that wanted everyone to at least look like a cowboy, though people like John Clymer were certainly not.  Bob Scriver was an early member.  The group was terrific for sales and for defending members and has persisted, but the early members have faded after death.  They aren't listed on the website anymore.

More in a new post."

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