South of Art

By Henry Willett

Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 14-15

In 1974, Walker Percy, with a bit of subtle equivocation, wrote, "Well, the so-called Southern thing is over and done with, I think." Of course he was wrong. The Southern thing is as strong as it has ever been. This past year saw the publication of the 1,600-page Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and a major Hollywood revival of the cinematic "Southerns," from Mississippi Burning, Heart of Dixie, and Great Balls of Fire, to In Country, Miss Firecracker, and Driving Miss Daisy. Steel Magnolias was the most popular stage production in America last year. Though often flattered, we know the Steel Magnolias audiences in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles aren't laughing for the same reasons the Nachitoches, Louisiana, audience is laughing.

This regional ambivalence is typical when Southerners showcase their cultural expression for the rest of the world. Several years ago Atlantans had high hopes that So Long On Lonely Street, an Alliance Theater production of a new work by Atlanta playwright Sandra Deer, would be the play that would win over the New York critics to Southern produced drama. Lonely Street had received rave reviews during its pre-New York run in Boston, but the New York critics did not share their Boston colleagues' opinions. Frank Rich of the New York Times concluded that "like that other recent Atlanta export, New Coke, this play is not the real thing." The New York Post's Clive Barnes called the play "preposterous hokum-Southern fried chicken without the chicken."

The Atlanta critics responded to the New York critics in kind. Helen Smith of the Atlanta Journal referred to the "rigged mindset" that scorns Southern playwrights and characterized New York as "the most arrogant and the most provincial place in the world."

We Southerners, it seems, have historically reacted rather defensively when confronted with criticism. In 1911, Georgia-born University of Florida professor Enoch Banks was fired after suggesting somewhat timidly that in the Civil War "the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong." Even Mr. Banks's "relatives" weren't enough to save his position.

When the Alabama Shakespeare Festival received criticism for its presentation of a country-pop musical based on life in rural Georgia, a production considered inappropriate fare and somehow beneath the dignity of the state Shakespeare theater, it relied on that tried and true New York legitimacy test--rave reviews in the Big Apple and a Tony award nomination--to justify its programming decision.

Southerners rely all too heavily on others to select, package, market and critically-legitimize Southern cultural expression, resulting in a commodity-marketing of Southern culture that avoids this culture's power and complexity, instead capitalizing on the region's stigmatizing stereotypes--poverty, parochialism, eccentricity and retrograde religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fraudulent, profit-driven marketing of the so-called "outsider" artists from the South--Howard Finster from Georgia, Sam Doyle from South Carolina, Mose Tolliver and Thornton Dial from Alabama, Zebedee Armstrong from Mississippi, and a handful of others. Many of these artists are black. Most are poor, uneducated and from rural areas; but they're making a handful of money for a handful of gallery owners. American studies scholar John Vlach, of George Washington University, has called the whole phenomenon a "fraud perpetrated by the New York art establishment, 'The Finger-Painted Word' (in reference to Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word) as commercial exploitation of the stereotypical view of Southerners as weird, as inbred, full of pellagra and cholera and any other disease, biological or psychological." Vlach's characterization of this phenomenon, I regret, is only slightly exaggerated.

In the current issue of Art and Antiques magazine Eleanor Gaver offers the following account of the opening of a recent show of Thornton Dial's work at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York:

...a row of limousines waited, their engines idling. Inside, a well-heeled crowd of collectors, dealers and artists marveled at the paintings, though some were nonplused at the price list. "Fifty thousand dollars for work by an untrained Negro" asked one educated and successful neoexpressionist painter.

I stood back and watched the crowd gape at a prominently displayed black-and-white photograph misrepresenting the Dial family as poor, down-trodden and huddled together in front of a tin shack. Nowhere was it


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mentioned that this tin shack was not their home, but the painting studio behind their pleasant suburban house. I turned to gallery owner Frank Maresca and said "It's too bad the Dials aren't here for their opening." Maresca just shook his head. "They shouldn't be exposed to the art world," he said, "it might corrupt them. It's better they stay where they belong."

Perhaps Maresca really meant that the art world shouldn't be exposed to the Dial family, for it might shatter some of those Southern stereotypes that he markets so lucratively.

Like many other resources of the region, Southern culture has chiefly been an export product, something sturdy, beautiful and fine which has often contributed richly to the shaping of American culture. But Southern culture has also often been expropriated, marketed in a package of stereotypes, and sold for profit. And it will no doubt continue to be so expropriated until the region develops the will and the mechanisms for assuming the critical proprietorship of its own culture.

Hank Willett is the former regional representative to the Southern states for thc National Endowment for thc arts. He has recently left that position to organize and direct thc Alabama Center for Traditional Culture.