Provincial or Regional?

by Gary John Gresl

Provincial or Regional?
More complicated than you think.
A few months ago, in an article about the inaugural show of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Mary Louise Schumacher, arts writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, stated that she expected to see something “provincial” when she visited the exhibit titled, “Between the Lakes, Artists Respond to Madison”.
Why that expectation? Was her presupposition formed simply due to the Madison, Wisconsin theme or perhaps because she expected the exhibit to be a sampling of local artists? In truth the show presented more work by artists outside the region than of it yet even so, it is a very good thing that after viewing the exhibit she felt it was not provincial, and it was great that she managed to get any story about WI visual art into the Journal-Sentinel, whether in hard copy or on the internet edition.
Let me say clearly that I applaud Mary Louise anytime she can write about art from our region. I believe she hones words and otherwise shapes her phrasing carefully, and has proven to be a darn good writer. No doubt she is interested in bettering the visual arts climate in Wisconsin and would love getting as much in print about it as possible. (Whether or not her employer and editors agree, the JS should be including more information about Wisconsin’s broad and vital visual art culture.)
But still, she admitted before seeing the MMoCA show that she expected something provincial. Hmmm... Why? Who else might form the same expectation? Who still thinks provincial nowadays? What does provincial really mean? What can we interpret from it?
To start with, if this was an exhibit about the city of Los Angeles with some art made by California artists, or about Chicago by Chicago artists, would the work be expected to be provincial? Would the word even come to mind? Because the theme dealt with a local subject, namely Madison, would there be expectations that the techniques used to express ideas are provincial? Was the expectation indicative of a broader existing unconscious bias about Wisconsin art, and if so, who shares that bias? Do you?
I am inclined to think that expectations, biased and/or prejudiced, “must” play into the discussion of our regional art and be consciously acknowledged and aired. I also think a venting about the meanings of “regional” and “provincial” is very much in order.
So, fellow students of regional art, here are my own definitions:
A. Regional refers to a portion of a land mass and the cultures existing therein. A geographic region and its cultures may be determined/ influenced by the type of topography, but it can also be circumscribed by arbitrary human decisions, social and class judgments. Thus the Mississippi River determines the western geographic border of the State of Wisconsin, Lake Michigan its eastern side. But the cultures within those borders are judged and “translated” by any humans with an opinion, biases or not.
B. Provincial, as applied in art making, refers to:
1. A people unable to think for themselves, who apparently copy from the “influential” centers of a more important region...those less advanced. Thus living in a place while imitating or aping art from “more important up-to-date” cultural centers woulbe provincial, limited, parochial and unsophisticated...
OR is it...
2. Artists who insist on using subjects, themes and/or methods from their own region which makes them irrelevant in national discussions which are deemed more important in influential art scenes by the existing taste makers.
Now, students, please use the two words, Regional and Provincial, in the same sentence. Here are some examples: “Wow! The work by that regional artist from provincial Wisconsin could have been made in New York.” (NOTE: I use New York as the prime example of a powerful subculture exerting influence on the rest of the US culture.) “The regional work is imitative of what is being shown in New York, so it must be provincial.” “That artist’s work is from the Midwest region but because it looks like art I saw in a slick national publication it can’t be provincial.” “That regional artist is provincial because it looks like he must be looking at slick publications.” “The work is landscape, shows rural subjects, is from small cities in the Wisconsin region, therefore it is provincial.” “That artist had work purchased by a national celebrity or museum, so it went from being provincial and regional to sophisticated and national in a heartbeat.” OK? What is truly provincial? Is provincial in the eye of the beholder? Who are the tastemakers? What is to be made of the art in any region that is not imitative of art and influences from places like...Oh! Let’s say, New york City or LA? (Does this sound like an ad for Pace barbecue sauce?) What would it be called if a Wisconsin artist moved to such an influential place and made art like that which was already being made there? You know? Neoexpressionist influenced work among Neoexpressionist originators? Anime’ Backwash amidst already established anime’? Conceptual art in the heart of a conceptual art environment? Would that be cool? Right on? Up to date? Sophisticated? Or might it be merely imitative and parasitic? from Wisconsin that deals with Wisconsin subjects...? go on! Let’s say cows, farmlands, forests, rivers, Lake Michigan, the Mississippi, spiritual and inspiring places, commercial fishing, lumbering, rail roads, wildlife, seasons, rural architecture of farm houses to grain mills...and the life processes that go on here, like sex, growth, decay, joy, sorrow and all the emotions, human heroism, human error and frailty...birth and death. And what about the techniques and styles? Is it OK for us to use abstraction or non-objectivism or Neo-Primitivism...and if so, are we merely followers? Oh...yes! To be sure, being inspired by something seen in a New york gallery or national magazine can lead to personally significant art production. We all have our individual ideas and freedoms, and inspiration exists anywhere. If so...go for it! Just be careful about coming down with criticism for others who find inspiration closer to home. Don’t brand us with being provincial when we have thought this thru and made our own decisions about what is important in our lives and in our art. Perhaps evolution of thinking about “regional art” might not have come far since the nationally known and historically significant Mid-West Regionalist art movement from the 1930’s into the 50’s. This category included work by Thomas Hart Benton and grant wood, the two most prominent and nationally significant Regionalists of that time. They were not assembly line tail-end modernists, and they also did not to fit into the emerging mold of New york Abstract Expressionists. Does that make their work inauthentic or historically irrelevant? I think not. They knew art history and contemporary art, and they made their unique choices. Besides many Regionalism of the Mid-North American continent, there were those artists expressing life found in other regions such as California, the Northwest, the South and South West. From the humid bayous of the South to frozen snowfields in the North, an artist’s vision and response was not and is not limited by clinging to current vogues and trying to reconcile oneself to the expectations of arts writers, museums and big city galleries. Let me pose these questions: Which environments are more important? City or country, large city or small town, and what prejudices and learning have you had that leads you to that conclusion? What have you been reading and who has persuaded you? We make our own art out of our own interests, emotions, skills, ideas and personal evolution? This is our time! Today we choose our environments and to some extent, at least, and choose to remain in our region selecting subjects important to us from our physical and social environment, are we less than we should be? No! We are exactly who we should be! Apologize to no one for trusting your own voice. If there is something to complain about it is the lack of attention from those who report about and determine trends, styles and fashion in the arts. It is easier to be a follower and report on what has gotten attention elsewhere. And it is true, art that was in its own time ignored and undocumented in the literature is lost to future discussions, or at least for the years it takes for greater research to be done. That is why it is so important for art from our own region to be studied, extolled, researched and publicized...that is documented! In art making we have one of the few areas of living in which we can be truly unique and individual, expressing the deep integral nature, beliefs, wonderments, emotions, beliefs and frustrations of a complicated life. I suggest we don’t let ourselves be persuaded too easily by the trend makers and influence peddlers from outside our region...and that we do everything we can to make our own uniqueness prosper within and without our borders. Celebrate our region and its artistic wealth.