By Dan Kany
Provincialism (n.) “narrowness of mind or outlook; lack of sophistication” (Collins English Dictionary)
“Provincial” is a tricky word. After all, when we talk about the arts, this might be the term we sense as the other to “urban.” And yet, it would only be balanced if “urban” and, say, “urbane” were blended. “Provincial” carries an inherent sting.
How do we talk about regional or local art communities in a way that acknowledges their identities and their distinctive strengths and weaknesses without the presumed insult of provincialism? This is a huge topic of interest for the artist communities of Maine, but it is a conversation avoided by both sides of the polemic. After all, to look down your nose at your local community with the insult side of provincialism isn’t going to win you many friends – or it could isolate you within your own elitist clique. And to argue for provincialism is, by definition, an argument for ignorance: It’s a losing prospect out of the gate because the overbalanced weight of the word.
Not surprisingly, this problem begins in France. That said, the strands of painting that came to lay the path for American art and Maine painting in particular flowed primarily from France. And our French roots go back to our state’s foundation: Maine, after all, gets its name from a French province.
In the nineteenth century, the cultural map of France was described in two words: Paris and Le Désert – “the desert.” That was it. You were either in the central cultural city of the world (as the French saw Paris) or you were in a cultural wasteland.
And yet France is the place that literally institutionalized local flavor: Champagne is only from the Champagne region – or else it cannot be called “Champagne.” Bordeaux’s famous wines are only from Bordeaux – and so on. And this is regulated and enforced by law. (The same also goes for butters, cheeses, etc.)
We can use terms like “regionalism” and “localism” but there is no balance for the tacit insult of being labeled “provincial.” Nonetheless, underlying this seemingly overdetermined topic is a rich conversation that — due to our own politeness among our arts communities — has been overly overlooked. This issue of the Maine Arts Journal hopes to open the floor for this conversation for the benefit of all.
I see Maine as having one of the best art “brands” in America: How is that distinctive Maine brand good for Maine artists? How is that limiting?
Like New York, Maine has one of the densest and richest art historical traditions (including art stars and major movements etc). To what extent does the sense of place bring the communities together — or not?
Many artists, including a number of the nation’s biggest names, simply work in Maine as a place to find focus. Their work, their conversations, their galleries, their concerns have little to do with Maine. In other words, many artists working in Maine don’t consider themselves “Maine artists.” And if their shared concerns are not artistic, do they have economic, legal or social points in common? Should they?
Local color plays a role for many artists working in Maine, it allows for a metaphor of place where an artist might decide that it is here, “between rock and root” that they will hammer out their visions. Building or participating in a “brand,” after all, helps build bridges of expectation or markets while reaching clearly into recognizable cultural communities populated with real people, peers, colleagues, friends. But does this make them willfully provincial, intentionally branded (in the hot iron sense of the word) to a certain extent with ignorant narrowness?
“Provincial” might roll off the tongue as an easy sneer, but it opens the door to some complex and important conversations about the unity and diversity among the communities of artists working in Maine.