I received my second speeding ticket in six months last week in Wisconsin. He got me on a long, well traveled straight away and pulled me over right in front of the school where I teach. Several of my students gave me thumbs up as they walked by.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
“Probably about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-six. Do you know what the speed limit on National Avenue is?”
“Based on your head being in my window, I’m guessing less than that.”
I honestly assumed it was 35. Anywhere but Wisconsin it would be 45.
With a look of righteous contempt that should be reserved only for scumbags trafficking teenagers inside elephant tusks, he said, “Twen-tee Five.”
He left my window abruptly and came back 20 minutes later with a ticket and a sanctimonious lecture about traffic safety.
Indignant, I told him he was being petty and probably confusing a professional obligation with something more elevated. I asked if he was clocking on National Ave. because of a particular hazard or simply because people were flouting the rules. If no one was getting hurt, I told him, it might be speed limit issue rather than a public safety issue.
None of this pleased him very much, and he threatened to give me a ticket for not getting a Wisconsin license within four months of moving to the state. I barely wiggled out of it by convincing him that I maintained two legal residences.
Once again, the letter of the law prevailed over the spirit.
As you could glean from passages in my last 20-some posts, I’ve identified a certain abiding love of order, routine and uniformity in my Wisconsin community. Rules and laws such as speed limits often turn from tools to achieve positive ends into ends themselves. And the love of order and uniformity makes it hard to identify different cultural tribes as one can might in New York. Any Cedarburgian, from the pastor to the sculptor sports something like Kohls issue business casual, making it difficult to tell who’s who. Walk down Orchard Street in New York on a Saturday and easily separate the artists from NYU students, from bankers, from urchins, from tourists. Heck, separate the painters from the sculptors from the performers.
This is an overstatement for the sake of argument, of course, but to the degree that it sticks, the Balkanized culture is almost too diffuse to support an avant-garde in the truest sense of the term – the Avant in NYC can’t identify the derriere to push off. As a result, there are a thousand separate avant-gardes, each busy fighting private revolutions.
In Wisconsin it seems there’s still a normative culture for vanguard to push against: i.e. cops straight from central casting preaching about public safety. Armies of people hitting the town on Friday night for hot wings and pizza because Indian food is too strange. Many, many painters of elk.
With this in mind, I felt sort of Bohemian when I first landed in Cedarburg. I felt like Picasso working in my own private La Bateau-Lavoir in the backyard, the adjacent Lutheran church my Sacre Coeur. So it was surprising to me when my attempts to engage the local art scene in Milwaukee proved so difficult. After setting up my studio, I sent out a few casual emails to some curators and artists suggesting studio visit swaps, meetings for coffee, or whatever. All real casual. All stuff I do routinely in New York. People solicit me. I solicit others. Everyone solicits everyone, and it the end we drink lots of coffee and beer and share art and ideas about art.
I recently reread an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from last year, called “Making a Scene: Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde.” It describes a vibrant and energetic community where:
“Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.”
That was the scene I sought when I sent out those casual emails. Thinking about the futility made me recall a moment years ago as a gallery director when I threw away a submission of images from Coral Gables, Florida. The gallery owner told me to pitch it, and it made me feel a little shallow and sad. We might have taken a look it was from Brooklyn, but the truth was, we rarely received good unsolicited packets, and never from Gables Florida. Our time was limited; we were just playing the numbers.
So now I’m Coral Gables. I’m a painter with a studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, home to caramel apple shops, hair salons, and people who crinkle their noses at falafel, far removed from that community of maverick artists who forged their own private avant-garde in Milwaukee. An avant-garde, which, like all avant-gardes, needs a milieu and a derriere to shove off. And it sucks to be the rear end, even if it’s only part-time.
Sometimes it makes me just want to hop into my car and drive 100 miles-an-hour all the way to back to Brooklyn…but I can’t now, because if I get three more points on my license they’ll take it away…and then I’d be forced to stay in New York for good.