“The real American spirit,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright, “capable of judging an issue for itself upon its merits, lies West and Middle West.” Today, in a world in which every shopping mall, supermarket, and local television station offers evidence of the homogenization of culture, one wonders if Wright’s America is not just a romantic fiction. Does Frank Capra-style individualism still exist west of the Hudson? Is there anything special about that vast area of the country that separates Los Angeles from New York City?
Such questions are particularly pressing for artists who have chosen to live and work outside the acknowledged center of culture and who must confront difficult questions about their place in the art world… What of artists outside New York who still believe that art is an expression of one’s unique experiences?”
--Eleanor Heartney, in the introduction of the exhibition catalogue for “Made in America: The Great Lakes States,”a show mounted at the Alternative Museum in New York (June 7 – July 5, 1986).
On January 17, 2004, nearly twenty years after the above show was mounted, I was asked to step in as a last-minute replacement host for a discussion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on “What is a Minnesota artist?” At the time, attempting to force a definition on so vast a subject seemed normal to me; after all, it was a question I’d pondered myself through the years working as a local critic, and if the above exhibition catalogue passage by Eleanor Heartney—a great critic on the national scene who was born in Iowa and once lived in Minnesota--is any indication, the question was not new. While I was nervous to emcee a meeting of what amounted to upward of 100 people, I figured I at least could offer a few insights to the subject.
In reality, however, the direction of the actual discussion caught me almost completely off-guard. While there were a few scattered art critics and one or two arts organizer-types in attendance, the vast bulk of the room’s bodies were artists who seemed riddled with anxiety. Instead of grappling with the question, they were more interested in justifying what artist do and taking issue with anyone else who did not fall in lock-step behind their efforts. That is, there was a lot of complaining at the “What is a Minnesota artist?” event about how difficult it is for artists to attract attention, to make any sort of living at art, and to get professional respect. There was some amount of dissatisfaction leveled directly at the critics and curators in the room. People complained there is no good arts writing to be found in Minnesota and it was the critics’ fault that so little art gets written about, and they complained how hard it is to get local shows. A few speakers got quite incensed, defensive, or whiny; speakers began cutting each other off. Some droned on and on.
In retrospect, it is clear that most artists who came to the “What is a Minnesota artist?” discussion had little interest in actually addressing the question. Instead, they were seeking answers to “How can I improve my lot (as a Minnesota artist)?”They wanted descriptions of what makes them important, unusual, interesting, and noteworthy so they could then sell themselves to the world. And while this is classic marketing, it wasn’t what I expected from the event—at least not from the face value of the original question.
People, depending on their outlook, background, belief system, job, and so on, often read different meanings into the same words. Such was the case here—where the artists read something different into the question than did the critics in the room. In contrast to the artists, attending critics actually attempted to analyze the question in order to begin to formulate an answer. It would have taken weeks to make progress following this method, and the artists in the audience would have none of it, turning the discussion back around to complaints and dissatisfaction.
In retrospect, it was—because of the competing agendas and outlooks of artists and critics—likely an impossible question to ask. There are two great passages that reveal something about this in two of Chuck Klosterman’s recent books. In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, in an essay called “Appetite for Replication,” Klosterman describes his travels with a band called Paradise City, a Guns n’ Roses tribute band made up of aging semi-hack musicians. In one passage, they’re tooling around the countryside in a van, going from club to club and listening to the radio late in the evening. “The guys in Paradise City,” Klosterman writes, “seem to care about all music … There is no elitism. As we roll toward West Virginia, the truck’s stereo never plays an artist they dislike. They have positive things to say about Aerosmith, Nickelback, Celine Dion (!), Black Sabbath, White Lion, Pink Floyd, and Alabama.”
Klosterman finds the musicians’ behavior worth noting because his view --that the music on the radio mostly sucks--is precisely the opposite. In his earlier book Fargo Rock City, Klosterman says as much in discussing the hair-metal bands of the 1980s. “That’s the reality of rock ’n’ roll:,” he writes. “Just about every band is absolute shit. Listen to any disco compilation or punk retrospective. Listen to 98 percent of the ska bands that emerged in the mid-1990s (or most of the originals, for that matter). The overwhelming majority of what you’ll hear will be wretched. And it generally seems that fans know this, even though they might not feel comfortable admitting it. Few people listen to entire albums, even when they’re released by their so-called favorite band.”
The basic fact is critics and artists each approach art from different angles. Artists define themselves through art, so all art is assumed by them to be good at least at some level (and often only at one level). As a result, artists look for what they love about art in every work they view. That is, a painting by Cezanne is good for this reason, while a sculpture by Serra is good for this other reason. It is sort of like the old parable of the elephant and the blind men. Each blind man describes the elephant based on what he knows. The man touching the leg says the elephant is like a tree. The man touching the trunk says it’s like a snake. Each artist approaches art, loves art, with tunnel-vision based on the little sphere that he or she knows. Jerry Saltz once told a story of bumping into Matthew Barney at a Damien Hirst exhibition. Saltz said hello to Barney as he was contemplating one of Hirst’s sharks preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. “This piece works when you look at it only from this angle,” said Barney, pointing to the one view of the tank from which you could not see the shark.
No critic, of course, would ever look at a work of art from one angle. For the critic, looking at art is about looking at how constituent parts mount to make one discrete whole. Critics look at the gestalt, the milieu, examine the elephant like a zoologist—seeking out what an elephant is in relation to everything else, hoping to make a determination of how that piece works in relation to the larger whole of biology. Or as Klosterman observes in continuing from the passage above in Fargo Rock City, “Record reviewers spend way too much time analyzing albums in their entirety; this is because most rock writers have a problem—they like music way too much, often to the point of idiocy. It’s very common to see an album panned because ‘there’s not much beyond the single.’” The critic’s is not a better approach than the blindly happy artist with the tunnel-view of art, it’s just different and in many ways just as limited. As it can be difficult for a scientist to understand the holistic beauty of the rare tapeworm he has spent his life studying in parts, it is difficult for a critic to be dazzled when she has spent a lifetime looking for the last empty jigsaw piece to finish the “What is art?” puzzle.
In the past few years I’ve been on a personal mission to expand my vision a bit beyond the prairie and study what other art scenes across the country are about and how they compare to the one I’ve come to know and (mostly) love. If I had to answer the question “What is a Minnesota artist?” now, as I turn my attention elsewhere for awhile, I might offer some characteristics—prairie-bound, cold, plastic, internally directed, insecure and self-conscious, buzz-wordy and grant-focused, trendy, designy, etc—but certainly I could offer no real definition.
The true difficulty of defining art, Minnesotan, Midwestern, or otherwise, is that the people who write about art and would be likely candidates to make definitions--the critics—have different perspectives on art than those who have the strongest vested interest in having a definition—the artists. And I haven’t even touched on what art means to gallerists and curators and audiences. This means that any definition of art is a definition of the purposes and desires of the one who’s doing the defining, and that art is a collection of those purposes and desires. Still, does the collection differ in different places? That’s one thing I’m trying to think about while away from Minnesota.