09 December 2007

Mineral Point and the Avant-Garde

Awhile back now Nate and Cassie were back in Dodgeville, from DeKalb, for the weekend. Cassie and I knew a visit (read bitch session) was past dew, and decided Mineral Point would be the ideal place to get together to chat it up, seeing as it was between Dodgeville and Platteville, and it has, what I would call, a folksy art scene.

State Street in downtown Madison ("70 square miles surrounded by reality), would have perhaps been a more obvious choice for art and culture is also the home of many independent art studios and galleries, and is always alive with the roar of Wisconsin (read progress, liberalism, the avant-garde). Still the Madison is home to a decidedly more chic, glossy scene.

Once a hub for lead and zinc miners, Mineral Point is now known for its historic preservation efforts and thriving arts community. Over the last 15 years the city has come to life, and many who have migrated there are involved with the arts. The town has been attracting artists and artisans since the 1930s, and now more than 20 own galleries and studios while others work out of their homes.

Mineral Point seems to have rejected the avant-garde, passion for the new. There seems to be people coming through who have an eye for architecture and care about restoring it, so concerned, in fact, new limestones have been unearthed and sandblasted to blend buildings into the historic surroundings. There, the Wisconsin State Historical Society preserves a remarkable group of Cornish miners' houses from the 1830's and 1840's, built in limestone and timber, and modeled after similar simple dwellings in England.

Today, it seems for most communities, growth is defined by the addition of subdivisions, strip malls, and a Wal-Mart, but in Mineral Point (one of the oldest towns in the state) growth is more closely associated with words like redevelopment, restoration, and preservation. Mineral Point is one of the few places where you can feel like you’re in a different time. No traffic lights here. The closest this city of just over 2,600 comes to fast food is a couple of competing sandwich shops.

The artwork in the Mineral Point galleries, of course, aren't as “challenging” (read pretentious) or "out there" as what you'd see at, say, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art or Chazen Museum of Art. But what does that word – “challenging” even mean; what does it imply? Cassie and I talked to a handful of artists, who own galleries there, about this (cultural?) distance between the Madison and Mineral Point art scenes. The two scenes seem like different planets, each with a people who have different artistic ends than the other.

This makes the galleries of Mineral Point very accessible to those who may have been turned off by the aesthetics of avant-garde art in the past. Most galleries are staffed by the artists themselves, so the person behind the desk is uniquely poised to talk about their art and approach.  Taste is no longer reserved for those “in the know,” academics or the connoisseurs. You’re going to get a different crowd in Mineral Point than at a Madison gallery. You’ll get all kinds of people (read folks) who aren’t in the art world.

Perhaps no one typifies this move, and shift in thinking, than ceramic artist Bruce Howdle, who recently left his ceramics lecturer position at UW-Madison to return to his alma mater in Platteville to teach ceramics and sculpture. It’s a story of a professor and artist who leaves the capital city university (read elitist liberalism) for the (conceptual?) tranquility of a small, equally bohemian-artistic town in southwestern Wisconsin. Visitors to his restored 1875 studio and gallery may find him working on drawings for new mural commissions or, like when Cassie and I visited, he was covered with wet clay from a session on his potter's wheel (despite so, he was stillmore than happy to oblige us with the full tour of his studio). Bruce sculpts big commissioned relief wall murals which he installs in public locations around the country.

Gallery and working studio of Bruce Howdle, featuring his collection of uniquely designed mugs, steins, vases, and relief wall murals- and the famous life-size, stoneware pigs.

To some Madisonians, Mineral Point is immediately suspect, probably seen as a backward city of beer, babushkas and bowling. Meanwhile, there is similar criticism (typecasting) from some of my old acquaintances in Mineral Point, who see Madison as a politically correct back-water of vegetarian, tree-hugging, wine-sipping, liberal bureaucrats.

Madison can at times be hopelessly clueless; a town of pretentious people, who think they have all of the answers. This state, of course, is home of the Wisconsin Idea, the notion that the “best thinkers” at the University of Wisconsin (-Madison) should help solve the citizens’ problems. Many campus leaders believe the Wisconsin Idea Project has the potential to promote a “transformative” cultural shift. And, as a result of the Wisconsin Idea Project, Wisconsin citizens will become more aware of how UW-Madison impacts and benefits their lives.

It is bizarre. Two cities just 40 miles and minutes away from each other seemed more like different continents, separated by the state’s own Mason Dixon-styled line of misunderstanding. The caricatured view each city has of the other can be amusing but in the long run hurts our conception of what art is (and isn’t).

Avant-garde art also faces political dangers rooted in its own practice: its tendency to define its audience as necessarily inferior and ignorant. The problem being, this attitude reestablishes the hegemony of elitist, high culture. The avant-garde itself is eminently vulnerable to social and historical amnesia, forgetting traditions and relations outside the confines of its own artistic discourse. The avant-garde has always been stuck in the world of art rather than the real world as a basis for the work. The necessary result however, is the “elitist” categorization of culture either leaves out the contributions of others or marginalizes them as “folk traditions.”

However, the avant-garde notion of art, which asserts the value of pure creativity, and (un-coincidentally?) regards itself as an elite at war with all of society, is no longer considered a credible explanation of how visual art is generated and communicated. The argument follows the premise that art is not made in a vacuum; there is no possible way to break the unity of art and life. Certainly art should be should have meaning; it is to be rooted in life experiences and interests. Hence, art is a means of communication between one man and another. Just as language transmits thought, so does art.

Indeed, the avant-garde has the imagination to challenge passivity and uniformity, but addresses itself only to the art world (for no other purpose than itself). Would it be possible to overcome the contradiction between folk and avant-garde, to confront bourgeois hegemony over its own middle-American audience? One thing art, that involves itself with society, can do is to temper excessive individualism and anti-traditionalism in art. Thus, in true existential fashion we may look on the stuff on our own lives as food for probing reflection (and the argument follows, that we will find it not untypical of what the mass of mankind has known). When that begins to happen, who knows what kind of art might be possible.