Potted Plants: Regional Art

I’ve been thinking about regional art currents for awhile, but only recently started to use the internet to do a little detective work. As an American overseas, my situation makes me more aware of a globalist perspective that most people don’t share. Regional scenes are like potted plants sitting on a shelf, there’s very little communication between the regions. This is especially true in Europe, where language and history keep groups isolated from each other, but in the States its also true that small art scenes have very little contact with each other. In this day of mass interconnectivity online, its interesting that these kinds of divisions persist. We are used to classifying culture geographically.

The Regionalists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, etc), active pre-WWII, tried to create an Americana style that spoke to the concerns of the common man. This urge to connect with the working classes is related to the labour movements of the time, and the conservative realist styles the Regionalists used are still found in many regional galleries in the USA. The common man prefers realism and paintings of subjects and local landscapes that are close to his own experience. Television and cinema, and now the constant onslaught of imagery in our screen culture, has relegated painting to a forgotten corner of the culture, as if on a dusty shelf in an archive. The one saving grace seems to be that hand-made objects in a digital age carry a special charge of the unique possession. Painting and sculpture have always benefited from that power.

Clement Greenberg, in his promotion of the Abstract Expressionists, launched an attack on the Regionalists as backwards and old-fashioned. Abstract art fit in with the post-WWII rise of the corporation and consensus ideology because it resisted sense of place and referred, as with the works of Jackson Pollock, to deep chaotic spaces which felt current in the age of the space race and mass telecommunications. One can argue that there are parallels between Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism, as both were essentially officially sanctioned styles on either side of the Iron Curtain which reflected official ideology. The rise of American global empire led to a kind of hegemonic style from the 1950s-80s, although Pop Art can be seen as developing in the UK. After the 1980s, art movements have become less centralized due to the power of mass-media and multiple lines of enquiry have developed a pluralistic approach that also stems from the diminished public interest in the arts.

Everyone is simultaneously a global citizen (despite the absence of any global human rights), and a local inhabitant, but unlike the pre-WWII world where power originated from regional capitals, today power and culture have become global and amorphous. The attack that Greenberg led on American Regionalism has become global, and local culture feels amateur and less important in comparison to the monolith of global (Hollywood?) culture that creates a spectacle of wealth and violence which dominates the global imagination. One can say that it has always been thus: Whoever has the biggest megaphone has the greatest voice. The difference today is that communications is evolving/devolving into a sort of black sea full of competing signals. In the white noise, temporary autonomous zones (Hakim Bey) come and go, but there is no sense of continuity or development in the cultural dialogue. Thus culture finds itself in a crisis mirroring the economic and ecological crises. We seem to be rushing, or rather, stumbling into a paradigm shift of some sort, but for now everything remains in a kind of stasis which is entropic and suffocating.

Ambitious talented artists (like Bob Thompson from Louisville, KY, whose work is pictured here above) have almost always moved closer to the centers of economic power because that is where success is seen to lie. This infers that the art production in the regions, at the provincial edge, is made by “those who stayed”, and also that it is somehow inferior. The issue I take with this celebrity view of culture is that it discredits the work of the vast majority of artists. For every De Kooning or Baselitz, there are thousands of regional art professors and local painters and sculptors working in obscurity. Their work slides below the radar, but is it their fault, or the fault of the “radar”? If more attention and respect was paid to artists locally, then their efforts would be valued, but we have been conditioned to accept the monolith of global culture, and only a small number of “scenesters” create local culture. In Europe the traditions of regional culture are stronger, and the tribal identities and language divisions create a more vibrant cultural scene. In the US, the analogy would be if each state spoke a different language and had a 1000 year old history. The potted plants of culture may be isolated, but they grow unique cultures which together have made the grand history of art.

On the other hand, the danger of celebrating regional culture is that it can be linked to xenophobia and fear of difference. Local culture can certainly be rich and unique, but when it suppresses difference, then it is mirroring the same relationship it has with amorphous global culture which eclipses the regional. The positive side of globalism arises from the cultural hybridity that results from the free movement of people and the cross-pollination of ideas. Regional culture doesn’t have to define itself in opposition to an outside group, dividing the world into camps, us and them. It can be a celebration of the local and difference, that recognizes the similarities and difference of other regions as well. Is that too complicated for most people?

Originally I wanted to make this post as a comparison of the art scenes in two regions: my home state of Kentucky, and Hungary, but as I don’t live in either place, then I can only do detective work on line. Like a blind man touching an elephant, I only feel a small portion of the whole. When viewed from a distance, the art scene in Kentucky seems to revolve around horses and folk art. The multiculturalism of the US promotes a broad spectrum of different forms of art, and there is an emphasis on crafts like ceramics and woodcarving, over “higher” forms like painting and sculpture. Many artists show at art fairs and at framing shop/ gallery spaces. Realism is generally valued in regional art, and we can see an interest here in Renaissance painting and the work of Gregory Gillespie. Expressionist and Abstract painting is also being done of course, much of it in line with the rise of Casual Abstraction, or reflecting a hybrid mix of folk art and abstraction as in the work of Lawrence Tarpey.

I know less about Hungary, but I recently used an image I found online for a painting from an opening in the regional gallery in Pecs. Just as Iskipped Louisville and concentrated on Murray above, so too with Hungary I look at a small scene as opposed to Budapest. Realistic painting is also popular in Hungary, but the mood seems more subdued than Kentucky, with surrealistic landscape paintings reflecting on socialist housing blocks and decaying machinery. As in the Czech Republic, there was a strong influence of Informel and Tactilist abstraction in the 60s, and those approaches can still be felt today. I would also guess that like CZ, the art scene in Budapest is focused more on conceptual installation work and relational aesthetics, as many young artists in Central Europe are rejecting the traditional media. But the main thing to understand about cultural life in Hungary today is the chilling effect of the rise of Viktor Orban’s government. This right-wing extremists expect the arts to be highly conservative and only work to glorify the national mythology. All forms of individual, pluralistic expression are being suppressed as they represent the rights of the individual as opposed to the controlled dialogue of the dictatorial state. The regional gallery in Pecs has even been closed after 35 years, and arts funding is being slashed across the country, closing theatres and other institutions. Hungary is in a crisis, but the world tends to look away. This is allowing fascism to grow again in Europe’s back yard.

Building an actual bridge from Kentucky to Hungary is almost as difficult as getting people in such disparate parts of the world to care about each other, or to involve themselves in each other’s cultural lives. The immigrants are the ones who represent that meeting point of different cultures, but their voices are generally marginalized. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and people of many backgrounds can find commonality there. This documentary, for example, by Sergei Linkov on the Lebanese artist Saad Ghosen in Cincinnati, Ohio illustrates my point. On the other hand, Europe, despite its greater levels of culture and history, is still a closed society in many respects. There has been no civil rights movement in Europe, no Martin Luther King here. Hungary of course is an extreme example .. I doubt I could find a comparable document like the one on Saad Ghosen about an immigrant artist in Hungary. This is the ugly side of regionalism, the insular fear of the other, that closes the door to the outside. Its something we must always guard against.


Originally published at praguepainter.blogspot.com on September 20, 2013.

American expat and painter in Prague http://lwells.tumblr.com/