Being in Place from Lure of the Local –senses of place in a multicentered society

Page 34-37 Chapter Two

The New Press, New York, 1997

with permission from Lucy Lippard

Place is most often examined from the subjective viewpoint of individual or community, while “region” has traditionally been more of an objective geographic term, later kidnapped by folklorists. In the fifties, a region was academically defined as a geographic center surrounded by “an area where nature acts in a roughly uniform manner.” Today a region is generally understood not as a politically or geographically delimited space but one determined by stories, loyalties, group identity, common experiences and histories (often unrecorded), a state of mind rather than a place on a map. Perhaps the most accurate definition of a region, although the loosest, is Michael Steiner’s “the largest unit of territory about which a person can grasp ‘the concrete realities of the land,’or which can be contained in a person’s genuine sense of place.”

“Regionalism” –named and practiced as either a generalized, idealized “all-Americanism” or a progressive social realism—was most popular in the thirties when, thanks to hard times, Americans moved voluntarily around the country less than they had in the twenties or would in the fifties.  During the Great Depression, the faces and voices of “ordinary people” became visible and audible, through art, photographs, and journalism, and had a profound effect on New Deal government policy. John Dewey and other scholars recognized that local life became all the more intense as the nation’s identity became more confusingly diverse and harder to grasp.  (Allen Tate called America “that all destroying abstraction.”) The preoccupation with regionalism was a “search for the primal spatial structure of the country…(for) the true underlying fault lines of American culture.”

Bioregionalism seems to me the most sensible, if least attainable, way of looking at the world. Rejecting the artificial boundaries that complicate lives and divide ecosystems, it combines changing human populations and distinct physical territories determined by land and life forms. But most significantly, a region, like a community, is subjectively defined, delineated by those who live there, not by those who study it as in Wendell Berry’s description of regionalism as “local life aware of itself.”

In the art world, the conservative fifties saw regionalism denigrated and dismissed, in part because of its political associations with the radical thirties, in part because its narrative optimism, didactic oversimplification and populist accessibility was incompatible with the Cold War and out of sync with the sophisticated, individualist Abstract Expressionist movement, just then being discovered as the tool with which to wrench modern art away from Parisian dominance. Today the term regionalism, most often applied to conventional mediums such as painting and printmaking, continues to be used pejoratively to mean corny backwater art flowing from the tributaries that might eventually reach the mainstream but is currently stagnating out there in the boondocks.

In fact, though, all art is regional, including that made in our “art capital,” New York City.

In itself extremely provincial, New York’s artworld is rarely considered “regional” because it directly receives and transmits international influences. The difference between New York and “local” art scenes is that other places know what New York is up to but New York remains divinely oblivious to what’s happening off the market and reviewing map. Yet, paradoxically, when the most sophisticated visitors from the coasts come to “the sticks” they often prefer local folk art and “naive” artists to warmed over syntheses of current big-time styles…………

Instead of getting angry, defensive, or discouraged, it might be a good idea for local artists to scrutinize their situation. Why does this very local art often speak so much more directly to those who look at a lot of art all over the place? What many of us find interesting and energetic in the “regions” is a certain “foreignness” (a variation on the Exotic Other) that, on further scrutiny, may really be an unexpected familiarity, emerging from half-forgotten sources in our own local popular cultures. Perhaps it is condescending to say that a regional art is often at its best when it is not reacting to current marketplace trends but simply acting on its own instincts; the word “innocent” is often used. But it can also be a matter of self-determination. Artists are stronger when they control their own destinies and respond to what they know best—which is not necessarily related to place. Sometimes significant work is done by those who have never (or rarely) budged from their place, who are satisfied with their lives, and work out from there, looking around with added intensity and depth because they are already familiar with the surface.  These artists may seem marginal even to their local artworld, but not to their own audiences and communities.

It has been argued that there is no such thing as regionalism in our homogenized, peripatetic, electronic culture, where all citizens have theoretically equal access to the public library’s copy of Art in America if not to the Museum of Modern Art……On another level altogether, middle-class museum-goers living out of the centers do become placeless as they try to improve and appreciate, and in the process learn to distrust their own locally acquired tastes. They are usually unaware that mainstream art in fact borrows incessantly from locally rooted imagery as well as from the much-maligned mass cultures—from Navajo blankets to Roman Catholic icons to Elvis to Disney.

Everybody comes from someplace, and the places we come from—cherished or rejected–inevitably affect our work.

Most artists today come from a lot of places. Some are confused by this situation and turn to the international styles that claim to transcend it; others make the most of their multicenteredness. Some of the best regional art is made by transients who bring fresh eyes to the place where they have landed. They may be only in temporary exile from the centers (usually through a teaching job), but they tend not to waste their time bewailing their present location or getting away whenever possible. They are challenged by new surroundings and new cultures and bring new material into their art. As Ellen Dissanayake has observed, the function of art is to “make special”; as such, it can raise the “special” qualities of place embedded in everyday life, restoring them to those who created them. Yet modernist and some postmodernist art, skeptical of “authenticity” prides itself on departing from the original voices. The sources of landbased art and aesthetics remain opaque to those who only study them.

In all discussions of place, it is a question of abstraction and specifics. If art is defined as “universal” and form is routinely favored over content, then artists are encouraged to transcend their immediate locales.

But if content is considered the prime component of art, and lived experience is seen as a prime material, then regionalism is not a limitation but an advantage, a welcome base that need not exclude outside influences but sifts them through a local filter. Good regional art has both roots and reach.