Tate Modern

“Comin’ in from London, from over the pole
Flyin’ in a big airliner
Chickens flyin’ everywhere around the plane
Could we ever feel much finer?” *

Madison, Wisconsin isn’t London but It’s a point in an archipelago of Great Lake cities running from Minneapolis to Detroit and cradled by Lakes Michigan and Superior. The region is long recognized for unorthodox hybrid artwork and mature design histories that re-defined regionalism and took the temperature of a new rural and urban art practice. So, it’s odd, unprincipled actually, that so many inland artists, particularly Boomers, flout doomsday scenarios by becoming Euro-culture tourists. It especially matters that artists all over the country are part of an uncomfortable uptick in international travel that will be a major contributor to climate mayhem for decades. (It’s theorized that it takes three years of religious home re-cycling to compensate for one international flight.) This graceless, self-gratifying preoccupation with European cultural agency enables a planetary investing scheme that precludes artists on the periphery. Why participate, by proxy, in an elite, consumerist, status seeking, geographically discriminatory order that also insures virulent environmental degradation?

I’m gratified that there is more culture that I can ever engage by automobile or rail in the upper Midwest and don’t regret that Ive stopped smearing my carbon footprint across foreign capitals, the ones that amalgamate global trends for museological London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Zurich, etc. Of course, it’s not just artists who blandish the glamorous and exotic. I’m also fine not engaging in noxious “consciousness tours” that exploit sites threatened by climate emergency, some not likely to thrive in the immediate future. (These are particularly wretched kinds of “bucket lists” where sightseers aspirational goals are likely to be exhausted before their kidney transplants.) Incidentally, decades of litter emerging on spectacular melting Nepalese slopes are coughing up discarded human remains. Grand Tours aren’t exactly the educational rite of passage they once were.

It’s not just that large numbers of educated Westerners are on the creative prowl. It’s that their numbers are beginning to feel like the mythologizing of pop music tours and professional sports franchises descending on Vegas, Gulf beach resorts, or the Nasdaq re-despoiling of Grant Park. Think how the solar eclipse became an absurd escapist holiday where hundreds of thousands of social media pilgrims spent a billion dollars polluting their way to event sites on the bloody “Path of Totality.” The alleged worthiness of it was mainlined into our thirst for an oddly prestigious trifecta of technology, spirituality, and naturalism.

Americans who spend more on filthifying the atmosphere than any other country, gambling on airlines in need of rigorous manufacturing regulations, ought to commit a measure of their enthusiasm to local landscape and history. We’re an adolescent nation invested mostly in hubris, “suspending’ mass amounts of ‘dis-belief,” and thinking uncritically –  not too interested in the difference between entertainment and indolence.

Ordinary American travelers are often just leisure consumers, high risk shopaholics indicted in “The Ugly American,” as uninvited guests that view the rest of the world as their exotic doormat. Published in the1950s, it pinpoints  how trivial and culturally attenuated we are. But it’s different for artists, right? We’re exceptional, and if we want to spend a fortune on  delayed climate devastation then so be it. We genetically modify one visual culture in the soil we imagine is our inheritance, while doing something our progeny will never forgive us for. OK, that’s harsh, but only the intimation of destroying the coral reefs, choking the rain forests, and poisoning the soil, etc.

Is it our fault that Modern art was conceived and then amended in other countries before we got to it and then claimed it as ours? Unfortunate, that all we could do was execute it more comfortably and expeditiously, then monetize the shit out of it. We’ve given young, culturally sensitive, people careers! Who knew they would dissent and develop a problematic schedule of social practice, redefine craft, and empower race with such a gift? Does the “arc of the moral universe” also bend toward the aesthetic? It does not bend toward the aesthetic.

We misread and have devalued the appearance of regional landscapes in the name of urbanism. We don’t pay attention to sociographic inequities, or economic and educational art co-morbidities. Colossal/coastal culture narratizes broad swaths of mainland culture, as if tribulations or victories in Detroit and Kansas City were uniform. Major film studios and independents profit from cringe-worthy sensationalism that normalizes creative and rebel hybrids. Their models for contemporary artists appear first in TV soaps, game shows, and 24-hour news bulletins which defer the real possibility of cultural growth to a revolving list of interchangeable chirpy contestant influencers. But there’s no imaginable TV series for the underfunded and untheorized communities in dispersed, thinly populated geographies and even less narrative for inland art if you seek it in European technocracies. Our pop culture makes us want to run away from home.

Contemporary art is consumed by cultural authorities who have tramped enough borders to misrepresent place across the board and they placate most of us with ample contradictory signatures of art carnival treasures.

Rather than elective foreign travel artists could become patrons of the art history in their regions. Artforms at home are as incredible and complex as anywhere else, just less numerous. You just have to dig and find perspective. When you find art traditions outside of the glut of coastal culture imagery, you’ll see subjects clear and uncluttered, as was its intention, in a contemplative light with powerful representations of where we live in a context that laid the foundation for a prospective perimeter culture.

Nothing displays underlying complexity of cultural continuity like pictures of one’s world 75 years ago. These are images that reframe our assumptions about where else art language came from and what re-defines and rehabilitates place. Art Sinsabaugh’s 1961 black and white photo composition of a Midwestern church cemetery is one. Mortality suspended across a pristine landscape with a distant, flat sky, is a cinematic reflection on the inviolability of horizon and redemption.

Art Sinsabaugh, “Miidwest Landscape #4” 1961, Gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 19 in

Charles Wright’s candid and beautiful 1953 portrait of two farm workers draws attention to the significance of labor embedded in his gestural drawing. Powerfully contemplative, its depiction of African Americans as stewards of the land, has an epic flavor of social realism and truth.

Charles White, “Harvest Talk” 1953, Charcoal, Wolff’s carbon drawing pencil, and graphite, with stumping and erasing on ivory wood pulp laminate board, 26 1/16 × 39 1/16 in

Consider how poised and contemplative, how alternative, and local, how confident and shining the subjects are in the above images. How free they are of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride when we pay more attention to our immediate environments and their predecessors. However, our well-traveled bodies are saturated with toxins that won’t wash off. Art commerce, in the meantime, serves our cravings for escapism, empire, and celebrity, not unlike the rest of pop culture. Our desires are mostly slaked by technology, leisure industry promotions, and greed but only temporarily. What do you do with the conceivably banal local values and identities? Hope, in our cynical present, is still legible in elapsed, allegorical, geographically remote, buried-alive art DNA. You have to dig for it.


* “Comin into Los Angeles” Arlo Guthrie,1969