Visual Art 12-13-2005

Taking Leave

Michael Fallon writes about how Minnesota looks from the outside.

Michael Fallon

Almost the moment I left for Not-Minnesota last May I was immediately miserable. Now, no doubt most of you wouldn’t blame me, as we know Minnesota in general is a damn fine place to live, a place where local denizens through time have figured out how to deal with a lot of the conundrums of modern life. After all, there’s no running away from the fact that Minnesota was ranked by Morgan Quitno Press the No. 1 Most Livable State in the U.S. every year between 1997 and 2003. That’s an amazing seven years in a row, a fact that is well beyond the realm of a statistical anomaly and a record that no other state in the country comes close to matching.

Still, if you’re like me, in the press of living you may forget how good we’ve got it here. A hailstorm blows through at the height of summer, or a three-foot snowfall piles up in January, and you may wonder again why you put up with this. Or you may simply be tired and overworked and forget that other people in other states maybe don’t live quite as well as we do, as a general rule. This last fact was hammered home to me very quickly upon setting up shop in Pittsburgh, in the state of Pennsylvania (ranked 33 in 2005), last May. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just can’t stand Pittsburgh.

Having lived in many places—the far West, the South, overseas, as well as Minnesota—I learned that every place has its qualities. In Minnesota, I learned to tolerate the sub-zero temps (I drink plenty of hot chocolate), and I came to celebrate the summer patios and outdoor festivals, walks along the river and lakes, and that tradition of let’s-all-get-together-love-your-neighbor. I came to appreciate deeply Minnesota’s long tradition of charitable giving, of keeping an open heart toward those less fortunate, of accepting refugees and orphans; I came to admire the egalitarian and equitable nature of the state’s tax structure, the longstanding and innovative support of the arts, the green spaces and well-kept lawns and gardens and healthy children. I learned to love Minnesota.

So what’s wrong with Pittsburgh? My basic impression of the place, beyond its well-known budgetary and economic decline, is it’s filled with people so wrapped up in their own tangled mental web they are scarcely aware that others even exist. I don’t know if it’s something in the water (the septic systems overflow into the river after every rainfall, so maybe there’s something there), but people are generally just plain nasty in Pittsburgh.

Consider a seemingly innocuous and quixotic local custom called the “Pittsburgh Left” (i.e., turning left in front of ongoing traffic just after a light turns green). This is a custom practiced at the most inopportune moments mostly by young people in a hurry to get somewhere or old people impatient to get home. I’ve been cussed out by a blue-haired grandmother for not taking the Pittsburgh Left that was offered to me and by a greasy tattooed young person for not letting him take the Left in front of me. This is indicative of a larger local screw-you-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude that makes this an unattractive place even to visit. It’s evident in the people on the sidewalk who refuse to budge an inch as you pass, forcing you into the street. It’s evident in the people who can’t bother to stop and give you directions; in the pressed and polished women at the grocery store who knock you over with their grocery carts as they reach for a hunk of cheese. It’s clear in the longstanding local divide between Haves and Have-Nots.

PITTSBURGH IS, THEN, FAR AWAY from Minnesota. Still, I’ve heard rumors that things might not be as hunky-dory back home as I remember. It’s 2005, and Minnesota’s now ruled by all sorts of laissez faire and tough-love, let-em-sink-or-swim policies. We can see that this is misguided and counterproductive, and that over time it borders on dangerous negligence (just ask the people down in New Orleans). Whereas Minnesota’s support of arts was once the envy of the nation—at times a progressive model—these days, I’m told, we’re middling at best, right there with such states as Arizona (where our longtime Arts Board director is now headed) and Utah. And in nasty old Pennsylvania, the art is now far more better-funded than in Minnesota.

I know it’s easy to judge Minnesota when I’m far away. Still, I wonder if people back home realize what they’re beginning to do to themselves. I worry that they’re unaware of the long-term ravages of letting non-Minnesotan values dictate public policy, or if they know how mortgaging those factors that made the state so livable will diminish all of us for years to come. Do we want our beloved Cities to become Pittsburghs? Do we want to turn our back on century-long traditions of support for public spaces, for the whole population, for the arts? Does Minnesota want to chase away those very people, like me, who came to the state because it was different, more livable, more equitable, more enlightened?

PART II: The Grave Fable of Bullseye Corp

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe,
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell.
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal,
So I’ll just say fare thee well.

I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind,
You could have done better but I don’t mind,
You just kinda wasted my precious time.

But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

–Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

BOB DYLAN HAS NEVER PUBLICLY DWELLED MUCH on how and why he fled his desolate Iron Range home, but one can imagine any ambitious and curious young creative spirit would have been champing at the bit to get away from there and go somewhere, anywhere, where things, any sorts of things, were happening.

“I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be,” Dylan said, by way of cryptic explanation in Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary No Direction Home, “and so I’m on my way home.”

Where this home might be is anyone’s guess, since he’s been touring almost constantly (with one or two months off hear and there) for pretty much the last ten years. And while it’s possible that for peripatetic troubadours, home is nowhere in particular, or perhaps just the place where you “hang your hat,” we can be sure Dylan doesn’t mean to say he’s on his way home to Minnesota–since his north star homeland has made few appearances in his songs since he left some 45 years ago.

I was not much older than Dylan when I left the place of my birth, the just as desolate cultural wasteland of Southern Californian suburbia, and I’m still sentimental about it—more than Bob about his home. Sentimentality played a role in 2002 when I, wondering what it meant for so many creative people to have left Minnesota through the years, wrote a story about all those MIAs for a local paper. And while it’s a balanced look at the phenomenon— acknowledging the limitations of Minnesota as a place of slight cultural consequence and general conformity, while still pointing out its finer aspects—the fact is I wrote the piece because I missed several artists I had come to know and appreciate and wanted to know if anyone else felt as I did.

This is particularly ironic, of course, now that I myself am looking at Minnesota from the other side of the prairie and trying to figure out my relationship to the place.

FROM ACROSS THE PRAIRIE, from my new vantage point in the East, Minnesota is a blip on the landscape. Pittsburghers, when I tell them where I’m from, scarcely register the words. After all, few of them have visited Minnesota, nor have they given it much more thought than they would give, say, to the Mariana Trench or the Mare Imbrium. Often, they get confused, thinking I come from Michigan, or “that cold state,” or some other part of flyover country.

When I first came to Pennsylvania I defended Minnesota, and extolled its virtues to any and all who seemed willing to listen. As I wrote in the first part of this piece, I believed Minnesota “is a damn fine place to live, a place where local denizens through time have figured out how to deal with a lot of the conundrums of modern life.” But then, sometime over the summer I started to wonder about home. Had I sugarcoated the place in my memory? Sure, Minnesota has a strong tradition of support for the arts and other things that are important to an enlightened culture, but those traditions had been deboned and de-funded of late. Minnesota, it seemed, was becoming less unique, less generous, less arty, and less of everything that had once made it unique and worth living in.

Even more than all of this, though, what truly worried me this summer were the rumors that began to filter east about the inexplicably non-Minnesotan things occurring in certain arts spaces back home. For instance, the changeover of a show at a big and prominent exhibition space at a big and prominent local art institute was, in unprecedented fashion, postponed at the latest possible moment–despite the fact that the exhibition schedule is determined and contracted out months in advance—and shifted (read: suppressed) to the quiet summer scheduling slot. Then, when the announcement for the postponed show finally arrived it was contained in a plain white envelope. The relatively banal picture-card contained within, when revealed, depicted an image of the work by Davora Lindner—a topless marionette of (gasp!) undetermined and ambiguous sex.

Censorship is, of course, nothing new in the course of American and world history, and artists for centuries have been contending with varying degrees of control of their work from church, state, and patron. In America, censorship efforts often take on the most ludicrous sorts of contortions. This is because while our culture nominally prides itself on its adherence to tenets of free speech, the government actually gives only token backing for arts—partially, I suspect, to avoid coming into conflict with its own constitutional mandate for free speech when the inevitable calls for censorship come. So, in the end, politicians who feel it necessary to act as arbiters of taste and values in the arts that they don’t really support in the first place come off sounding, at best, self-servingly demagogic, and, at worst, misguidedly and idiotically out-of-touch.

The alternative tax-exempt, nonprofit nongovernmental system that America has put in place to support the arts has worked to dampen the demagogic impulses of politicians. Art organizations of repute seek donors—individuals, private or public foundations, and businesses—who are willing to give them needed money for the honor of attaching their name to an artistic enterprise. When everything clicks, and money is gathered, artists and arts organizations are then free to present the work they desire, while the supporters gain status and repute by association with the arts. It’s a give-and-take that provides benefits to each side. And while you’d imagine that some people with money wouldn’t be able to help themselves from interfering with the art, for the most part the managers of artistic product generally are able to stave off the meddling influences of the moneyed interests, and all live happily ever after. The system generally works, and art happens.

I had known for some months before I left town—ever since I had been indirectly asked on behalf of a certain locally based mega-globo-corporation (let’s call it the “Bullseye” Corporation) to write a review on a work of Bible art it was sponsoring that a certain large local art institution was under increasing pressure by this particular moneyed interest (that also happened to be sponsoring the construction of several new wings to the institution). What’s most strange, of course, is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution. After all, the designer of a new wing just happened to be a chief designer for a line of products at the BE Corp, and although officially everyone at the institute was “excited” for the “It’s a Small World”–like design of the new wing of the institution, in critical circles the resulting design was roundly panned for its mannerist and indulgent tendencies (and general shoddiness).

Further, the run of the sponsored Bible art show in question, I later found out, had also been extended—to overlap the time frame that the show of racy marionettes was originally supposed to run. So I just don’t know. Has the need for money and sponsorship in the face of local institutional expansions and capital campaigns and shrinking foundation and lackluster state support left the boards of certain arts institutions increasingly willing to censor itself? I’m told too that the institution in question even recently established an internal curatorial oversight board to be sure than no offending art would see the light of day again in this particular exhibition program, as well as in the institute at large. Is big money suddenly that much of a censoring influence in Minnesota arts? (I’ve not even begun to consider or investigate—I can only imagine–the way that the big money is affecting the big glowy aluminum-mesh contemporary art center across town.) And if this is happening, is this a healthy direction for us to allow our arts institutions to take?

As to the obvious question–why the Bullseye Corp would even care to influence something they have no particular expertise in (i.e., art)—well, that’s anyone’s guess. Apparently, and you didn’t hear this from me, the big money wags at the Bullseye Corporation did not much want the sexually vague dolls overshadowing the Bible pictures at which they were (calculatedly) tossing so much of their trinkets-and-crap money. After all, there’s no room for sex in the Biblical circles that the Bullseye suddenly seemed intent on attracting, just as there is no room for sex apparently anywhere in the Bullseye Corp. Just ask the Arizona rape victim who couldn’t get any pharmacies (including those located in Bullseye Corp stores) to sell her “morning after” pills. Apparently, Bullseye Corp now not only has a policy of stifling local expression in the arts based on some ill-defined moral code, but it has a policy of allowing its pharmacists to arbitrarily dictate value judgments on women (who may or may not have been raped) by blocking the sale of a drug that is legal, safe, and effective (only if it is taken immediately and without delay from moralizing pharmacists).

So what can we do about any of this? How can we overturn our state’s seeming increased reliance on the sanitizing lucre of corporate America and so avoid becoming beholden to the whims of ad hoc corporate oversight? For, be assured, Minnesotans–once this sort of dictatorial influence is fully put in place, it will be some time before ordinary people with ordinary moral codes will be able to supplant the corporate big-money influence over the future directions of the state’s art. There’s likely no turning back once we’ve let ourselves be led down this dingy-brick road.

And for those of you who shrug at a little censorship, ask yourself if you really want such decisions made by companies that don’t know art from ten-dollar trinkets manufactured in Malaysian sweat shops. If you think art already sucks as it is, just imagine the types of exhibitions the Bullseye starts arranging once it owns the Institute it’s buying up piecemeal.

Consider the fallout that will occur across the country when talented, hip, and enterprising young people pondering a move to Minnesota begin to hear of the appallingly underhanded dominion and arbitrarily moralizing influence corporations are having on the (formerly) creative spirit of the state.