Postcards from the Provinces

“If only he had a free field before him, how he would run, and soon enough you would hear the glorious tattoo of his fists on your door.”

─Franz Kafka, An Imperial Message

There’s a story of Kafka’s about an Emperor on his deathbed who has sent an important message to the most meager and distant of his subjects. The messenger entrusted with this royal task is strong and indefatigable, but he must first fight his way through the throngs of noblemen and petitioners filling the palace’s innermost chambers. Achieving this, the messenger is confronted by the crowded stairs, then the immense inner courtyard, then the second outer palace enclosing the first, then more stairs and courtyards, more palaces, then the capital city itself, before even reaching the thousand mile road to the provinces. The messenger, needless to say, hasn’t gotten there by the time the story ends.

Many artists feel this story, with only slight alterations, could symbolize the dilemma of making art outside the great cultural centers. Only in the artworld the messages are sent from the countryside, in hopes of reaching the Emperor, or at least the Treasurer. The question is, who believes the story more, the artists who move to New York (or L.A. or Chicago), or the ones who stay where they are?

Some years ago I spent two weeks in November as a visiting artist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, the University and its neighboring town is the largest population center in what is for the most part a rural agricultural region. It was a homecoming of sorts for me, returning to the campus where I’d picked up an undergraduate degree in art in 1972.

The town had changed, of course, in the sense that many of the bookshops, record stores, hamburger stands, and other hangouts of my student days were gone. A couple of shopping malls had sprung up over the cornfields closest to the town, and there were several new trailer courts ─ one, it appeared, for each main road into Carbondale. There were still shops, stores, stands, in the same-sized buildings as the places I remembered, but on different streets, other locations. It looked as if the buildings had been shuffled around like the furniture in a parlor someone had grown tired of living with; the same old stuff made new by rearrangement.

A couple of evenings before my residency was over, I drove on dirt roads to the house of a former drawing instructor. He and his wife hosted a potluck supper for me, as well as other faculty, friends, and some current students. We regaled each other with reminiscences over too much beer, so to clear our heads for the drive home, our host led us out into a neighboring farmer’s dark, stubbled acreage. The thin crust of frosted earth crunched beneath our feet as we approached a looming wooden structure in the middle of the field. It was a sculpture, in the form of an attenuated tower, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a doorway into a room about the size of a telephone booth. The group clustered around it, speaking in terms of “rhetorical architecture,” of references to Alice Aycock or Mary Miss. But at that site, in the light of the waning moon, it was more a skinny corncrib than anything else.

He was a painter of restrained, monochromatic abstractions, in the manner of Brice Marden. He was represented by the most prestigious gallery in his large Midwestern city home. He socialized with a group of younger artists who had started their own alternative gallery in the city, although he was never a member of the alternative gallery’s board. His work was admired by these friends, several of whom confessed to envying his position. He made a good living selling pictures and doing occasional carpentry jobs. He was bothered, though, that a curator in the art museum of his city hadn’t included his work in a group show there because “it looked too much like Marden.” Several of his friends moved to New York. They wrote to him, telling of the group shows they had gotten into. He decided to move there too. “Even Brice Marden spent time in New York, paying his dues.” After six months of staying with his friends and living off his savings, he found an unfinished space in an industrial neighborhood. He spent a year fixing it up. The rent was so high he worked at two jobs to make the payments: carpentry by day and window dressing in the evenings. The gallery in his home city changed its focus. They returned his unsold paintings. He stored them in the racks of his unused studio.

Derek Guthrie, former publisher of the New Art Examiner, described the interaction of forces in a major art center in terms of “critical mass.” Given the presence of a sufficient density of necessary elements ─ artists, critics, dealers, museums, patrons, and social issues ─ an explosion of cultural products can occur. The operating qualifier here is “density,” indicating the collision of ideas, works, desires, which test the merits of a composite cultural agenda. Provincial artists of vastly different artistic intentions are united at least in their resistance to this sort of collision, seeing in it the peril of a loss of course rather than the promise of a new course.

Some artists can’t leave the provinces because of family obligations or teaching commitments, but many more choose the farm, small town, or region for the sheer quality of life to be had there. The desire for a particular environment, and more personally for a large private space, transcends the knowledge that proximity helps determine exposure in the cultural marketplace.

How many artists live in New York City?

“One hundred thousand.”

“Oh, maybe half a million.”

“Forty or fifty thousand, if you mean serious artists.”

“Does that include Brooklyn?”

“I don’t know. Thousands and thousands of them, I suppose.”

In March 2004, Ann Markusen, Greg Schrock, and Marina Cameron, of University of Minnesota’s Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, published a report, “The Artistic Dividend Revisited,” examining the tendency of selected metropolitan areas to specialize in artistic suboccupations. The report noted the difficulties in counting the primarily private nature of creative studio work, and included a chart, adapted from information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that listed a 2002 national total of 307,254 “employed” visual artists (Arts directors, Fine artists, Multi-media artists & illustrators, Photographers, and TV/video/motion picture camera operators), of which approximately half were self-employed.

My friend Timothy Porges once raised the issue of cultural imperialism in a letter to me:

“The real enemy of regional culture (what’s left of it) . . . is not the hegemony of

New York, which is just a market place, after all, but the hegemony of Mass

Culture . . . New York was a legendary center at a time when its best artists were

irascible in their opposition to mass culture. Now it is too expensive an

achievement to live in New York without Making It, so there is little resistance

there . . . [If] there is going to be any resistance, it will come from here.”

The “here” of his statement is the provinces.

The Italian artist, Sandro Chia, once gave a lecture about his painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, speaking to an auditorium packed with student painters. Chia, whose work so deftly inventories the styles of Modernism, is a major figure among the group of European painters whose work and ideas have defined the art of the ’80s. Stockily handsome, with a jutting jaw and piercing black eyes, he attacked the lectern like a pugilist, declaring the “mysterious, alchemical activity of painting. The special space where the artist collects the fragments of his world.” He bristled when a questioner asked what made his art Italian. “It is ridiculous to talk about an ‘Italian’ art. There is no such thing. Better to say, ‘Florentine,’ or ‘Venetian,’ or better still, from one side of the river or the other.” Chia, citizen of the world, made his art global by appropriating the vestiges of gesture, palette, and subject matter tied to place. Yet, he cherished the distinctions which shaped his own national history, the heritage of art expressing a transcendent human value through the special dialect of a particular locale.

Buzz Spector

Draft text of the author’s keynote address at the 2010 Inland Center Symposium, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois.