Inbreeding Exclusion; Perspectives on an Art World from a Liberal Redneck

by Kevin Arnold

There’s a certain amount of irony writing about the divisive nature of the current art world for a journal that will largely be read by the art world. Yet now at this juncture I feel a certain responsibility to break rank and throw my southern balls into the conversation.

First off I should say I’m not a member of your congregation, I’m a transplant, an insider/outsider. I’m neither red nor completely blue, the purple invasive specie of sorts. Bred in the blue-collar back-wood hills of Northwest Arkansas pre-internet 1990’s. A life in art wasn’t the clearest or the most acceptable path to follow. As a high school student I never really saw myself as attending college, let alone pursuing my passions for drawing. The nearest art museum was 4-6 hours away, and the only art that hung in our house was the painting of a snow leopard by my aunt Melva.

My first real job out of high school was working at a baby foods factory in Fort Smith Arkansas. It’s funny how working 12 hour night shifts tossing 35 pound blocks of frozen beef parts into a meat grinder has a way of putting your life choices in perspective, but some how it does.

Don’t worry, I’m not feeding you some working class hero sermon, I’m just giving you a point of view from an artist south of the Mason Dixon line. Like you, I’m just as perplexed (mostly pissed) about the current political landscape. Artists everywhere are being forced to re-examine their roles and responsibilities under this self-serving regime. But if you really want to talk about divisions in this country, if you really want to have a conversation about the disconnects within the art world, (secular vs. non) you’re not gonna have it surrounded by people who agree with you. If the art world is a direct extension of its culture operating in similar binary fashions, and if we admit those divides have always been there, then ask yourself this question: at what point were you surprised by all of this?

On May 10, 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an inspiring radio address at the opening day ceremonies for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this speech he beautifully illustrates how art is woven into the very fabric of who we are as a people, and as a democracy. That it (the museum) can “invigorate our cultural life by bringing the best of modern art to all of the American people”

And then he takes the idea further by emphasizing the traveling exhibition...

“It is most important that the Museum make these traveling exhibits an essential part of its work. By this means the gap between the artists and American industry, and the great American public, can be bridged. And most important of all, the standards of American taste will inevitably be raised by thus bringing into far-flung communities results of the latest and finest achievements in all the arts.”

To think we once had an American president that could deliver such a rousing and eloquent speech (in more than 140 characters) seems by now surreal, but this is also evident of just how far this beacon city to the art world has drifted from it’s earlier more heroic ambitions. For better or for worse, that great American entrepreneurial spirit that drove an epicenter of freedom in the arts would in turn carry with it certain unavoidable consequences. Deep within those cultural gaps the seeds of exclusion found fertile soil to grow, reinforcing its walls and eventually securing its foundation as the Mecca it is today. An unwavering religious devotion to a system that exists to sustain its own tepid stew of artistic inbreeding, it panders to its own choir of colleagues like a Baptist minister with little, if any engagement with those “far flung communities” between Chicago and L.A. Yet the perpetuated myth of the artist moving off to New York is still romanticized and sold in the face of a global art market that has since moved on without them. So once again you must ask yourself: at what point were you surprised by all of this?

You’ve been living on an island. Your intentions of bridging gaps became a one-way exchange serving the hierarchy of taste for a very, very small portion of this country. And nevertheless you still have the audacity to voice your disapproval when Alice Walton (Wal-Mart heiress, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) shows up with her checkbook. Apparently the idea of “bringing the best of modern art to all of the American people” excludes hillbillies. A bit self-righteous coming from the land that brought us Wall Street I’d say.

In 2009 this hillbilly would find himself attending grad school at the Rhode Island School of Design. In many ways RISD was my saving grace at a time

in my life when feeling “disconnected” was what I desperately needed most. I was coming from a part of the country where I had spent a lot of time making and showing work in little community art centers in Southern and Midwestern states. Independently organizing and curating shows in abandoned commercial spaces, in areas where the majority of the people had very little exposure to contemporary art, let alone the opportunity to attend an actual gallery opening. The only way I could have developed further as an artist was to be uprooted, detached and thrown into the arena with those who would challenge my preconceptions and drive me to become a better, more informed artist. I was incredibly fortunate to have found this at RISD. But you can also imagine my dismay when the guest art critic for our graduate seminar opens the class with her proclamation that:

“Although some people will say that art is happening in other places and other regions, our focus will be on New York, cause that’s where it’s happening, that’s where it’s most important.”

Excuse me for sounding a bit “regional” maybe even a bit red neck, but this is the sort of antiquated head up your ass ideology that has gotten us to this point. A snip it from a long-standing practiced doctrine that continues to erode the dialogue and solidify the dividing walls within the art world and within this country. It’s not a progressive idea, far from it. It’s an extremely narrow-minded and conservative point of view, one that is accepted and adhered to without question. So I’ll ask again: at what point were you surprised by all of this?

For the past two years my girlfriend and I have been traveling this country coast to coast, spending three-six months in red states, blue states and purple states. Living in towns as small as Beckley West Virginia and as large as Seattle Washington. Along the way I’ve taken every opportunity to visit those community art centers, those first Friday gallery walks in my attempt to at least try and get a sense of the regional art scenes. Participating in open critiques, working with artists from all backgrounds and walks of life. I quickly began to realize that these were not groups of Sunday painters and hobby artists, but communities of healthy supportive well-informed artists contributing their time, and themselves to maintaining their own community arts scene. Many happen to be transplants from your neck of the woods, which of course is no surprise. We’ve been witnessing these slow trends in migration patterns for some time now. As your artists are being priced off the island and out of the burrows, they’re moving to places like Colorado,

Northwest Arkansas, Knoxville TN. Louisville KY. These areas are feeling a new cultural renaissance, a new energy. People want a healthier quality of life, free from the outrageous price of living, and the grinds of daily commute. Places where artist aren’t bred like bacteria, and where artistic growth and demand can actually co-exist comfortably with or without a 50% gallery cut. It’s hard to say what will come of this influx. With the increased presence of instagram and social media now giving viewers and collectors direct access into the once hidden world of the artist studio, new pressures are mounting against an already strained gallery model. Will this decentralized cross-pollination lead to something new or simply continue to breed the same trends and stale hierarchy of taste? We have more questions than we do answers, and at this point it’s way too early to tell. What cannot be avoided is the fact that these artists are out there, their populations are growing with or without you, and they’re sure as hell not seeking your validation. So as you continue on with your self-masturbatory panel discussions debating the death of painting, what becomes all the more obvious is that it is you, and not painting that has become irrelevant.

You see, your gentrification works to our benefit. This is the natural flow of things and believe it or not it’s actually a good thing. Seeds are meant to be sown, they just need some room to grow. When you’re paying $545 a month for a one-bedroom/studio it’s feasible to make that happen. True, you will be making some sacrifices. You will need to drive a car. You will, at times be surrounded by people with extremely differing points of view. You’ll also need to drop those three precious power words off your resume: Brooklyn Based Artist (cause frankly we don’t give a damn) but in the meantime you’ll be contributing to the growth and vitality to something bigger. You’ll be sowing the seeds of a new progressive consciousness in an area of this country where it is needed now more than ever.