Places of Politics

A statement for “The Politics of Place” panel at the University Art Museum, 12 April 2017.

The talk was preceded by a series of images that were presented both as evidence for places that don’t get into museums but also as examples of culture that have become commodified as “culture” and thus the human elements have been lost. The images included in this series were:

[Slides 1-18]: a burning sugar cane field, a crawfish boat by Venable Fabricators stationed near the edge of a flooded rice field, a rice field ready to be flooded with curtains in place along its levees, a flooded rice field with an S-curved levee running through it, a rice field being flooded, Gerard and Dale Olinger repairing an augur, Mike Richard sitting in one of his boats, a Mardi Gras assessing someone’s shoes, two Mardi Gras playing with a hand dolly, a Mardi Gras approaching a woman, the woman and the Mardi Gras hugging, a wide shot of the Mardi Gras with one of the organizers and the police escort looking on, the procession for Burt Hargrove, a Mardi Gras holding and kissing a baby, a young woman looking admiringly on a young man (both running Mardi Gras but with masks pushed aside), an uncle playing with his nephew (the uncle is in MG gear), a young MG man just sitting and thinking, and, finally, Lou Trahan sitting in a trailer smiling.

As a folklorist, I am regularly called upon, either purposefully or accidentally, to define my field, its practices, and its objects of study. This can be a tedious task, as yet another interlocutor – be it an aged aunt or a university colleague – tells you that they know someone who “knows some stories” or when they approach you with confidence about some kook or some kooky thing that surely must be of interest, because, you know, folklore. Sometimes they tell you it’s folk art, because, well, folk art is just about anything that isn’t art and isn’t otherwise explicable.

Since this is a regular thing, it will, then, surprise no one here that such encounters as these have long been a part of being a folklorist and are accounts of them are a genre of the stories we folklorists tell in their own right. That’s right: scholars and scientists have oral traditions, and those oral traditions, and customs, are part of what makes universities work. Not all that we do, even here in the very seat of formal education, is in fact formal. Some of the stories in this genre that folklorists tell are told with outrage, some with black humor, and some with genuine fondness for the people involved. Much of the effect of the stories hinges, I must tell you, on a kind of exhaustion held in common, an unstated wonder of having to explain ourselves again.

Luckily for me, I’ve come to a point in my career, and in my life, that I rather enjoy the need to answer questions even when they aren’t asked: it gives me an opportunity to re-think what it is I do and why I do it. It’s a kind of first principles refresher, if you will. Here’s the short answer: being a folklorist requires me to go out into the world, the world beyond the confines of this museum – which here is a synechdoche for the university – and find intelligence and beauty in places where people do not expect to find them.

[19. Charlie Kraft in his home.]

In my time practicing the discipline, I have spent hours and days with Appalachians living in the urban confines of Cincinnati;

[20. Enola Matthews preparing to say the rosary.]

I have spent hours and days with African Americans telling me the history of the people and places they have loved;

[21. Gerard Olinger cutting with a torch, aka the fire wrench.]

and I have spent years in machine and equipment shops and sheds, learning what farmers and fabricators see when they look out upon the Louisiana prairies. I have made friends with people with whom I would not otherwise made friends. I have come to love them for who and what and how they are. And I have tasked myself with trying to communicate that who, what, and how to others like myself, like you, sitting here in this room.

As a folklorist, I try in my own small way to “tell the number of the stars and to call them by their names” (Psalm 147:4). My job is not to anonymize the people I encounter and try to come to understand but to place them in the world we share. Folklorists and anthropologist and sometimes historians and sometimes museum curators try to create small road signs that tell us to look up, look around, and not to miss the world as we whizz through it, so much in a hurry all the time. We miss these strange people who could be our friends as we speed past houses we call shacks or fields we imagine to be marshes. We miss them as we text on our phones and, in the case of Burt Hargrove, drive them off the road and kill them. We miss them, my field of folklore studies argues, because we have forgotten our own place. By reminding us of them, we hope to remind us of our better angels.

This is an old proposition, by the way. The very idea that in order to know our modern selves we need to understand the primitive or peasant other is practically written into the charter for modernity. It’s the reason we invented fields like folklore studies and anthropology, kissing cousins across the great divide between the humanities and the human sciences.

Folk art as a term, and thus also as a useful tool for gathering up bits of reality, is part of this larger explanatory invention. It’s used to look backwards – or sideways – to a pre-modern moment in a given group’s history. It is an idealization of the moment before industrialization, before commodification. It is a moment when the maker knows the person for whom the object is made and, we suppose, that means something. Of course, it meant something because we need it to mean something, because in our current moment it means so little to pull a slab of meat on a styrofoam tray all wrapped in plastic while under the omnipresent hum of fluorescent lights. We need something somewhere or at some time to have meant something to someone. This observation is nothing new: William Barrett noted sixty years ago in his account of modern art that it begins and ended as “a confession of spiritual poverty” (45), and that artists since the Romantics have turned to modernity’s others for comfort and insight.

And so we arrive at our current moment, inside this stylish concrete box into which we gather objects that, we hope, will speak to us by speaking for others. The politics of place is the politics of getting into this place. Artists want in. It’s part of the art world’s economy. Artists hope to have their art installed in galleries and museums in hopes of having their work not only seen but authenticated. Curators and directors are brokers of careers, which at the very least means being able to put food on the table – with any luck it’ll be some of that meat on a styrofoam tray! Scholars like me, and perhaps the others here, want in because we hope to expand the people who get in here, maybe so they can make some extra money but if not them, then others like them that may follow, but also because it puts food on our table – and, occasionally, it is meat in a styrofoam tray.

[22. An Acoma pot on a Turkish rug.]

None of this is new. None of this is bad, unless we do it without recognizing what we do, because there is a danger inherent in this work and that danger lies in what must be done to get things into a museum, or into a bookstore: highly dynamic human cultures must be rendered into things, into commodities, and in doing so we make them into something they are not. Yes, a clay pot is a thing, but a clay pot is but part of a larger dynamic of a living society and the many things that circulate within it, constantly changing as the world changes – because that is the nature of the world to change, and we humans even as we ourselves change each and every day fight that inexorable change with all our might and we do so by fixing things in a particular state.

So we take a dynamic thing, like a pot that is part of an ongoing conversation, and we have it stand for that conversation. The pot is no longer dynamic. It is instead quite static. The danger of this is that we begin to imagine that our world is populated by things in states, and so we end up with Cajun this and Creole that, because they are no longer living people who cook and talk but things we learn in school or buy in restaurants or grocery stores or see in museums or on billboards.

The danger is that in too readily commodifying the culture of others, we begin to think of culture as commodities, and then we turn our own world into a museum of ourselves as we once were, or in how we imagine we might have been or how we would like ourselves to have been if in fact we had been there. (It gets weird quickly.)

What saves us, what saves the museum, are the artifacts and the people who lie behind them: in this case, the people I have in mind are the Collinses themselves. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Becky and Wyatt, if I can call them by their first names, in their home last spring, as part of the museum’s planning process. What I wish we could display in the museum, what I wish visitors could experience, is the joy that fills their home. Every room, every space, is filled with artifacts, sometimes in layers, and each piece carries with it a memory and/or an idea that can be a cause for conversation. For ultimately, their collection is, I think, a conversation, a record of their own dialogue with a world they find endlessly fascinating. If there is immortality to be found, then surely it must be in such generosity: their support of artists of many stripes, and their concomitant support of places like this museum and its efforts to re-think itself as a place of politics.

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