Thursday, October 19, 2006

Academic Cowboy Art

Yesterday, I dropped-off three new paintings to my gallery in Albuquerque. Once again, I felt pleased knowing I had found a place that remained completely free from the constraints of stereotypical “cowboy art”.

In the past, I’ve made some rather inflammatory comments concerning my low regard for “cowboy art” and the contemporary artists that prolong its tired existence. A couple Sundays ago, the New York Times ran an article in the travel section promoting Santa Fe as a destination. One of the writer’s comments stated that fall was the best time to visit the region, because the aspens change color, the tourists go home and the galleries put away the “cowboy art” and show the contemporary pieces more prevalently (alluding to the fact that this is the real art). Well, the letters started rolling in and were printed in last Sunday’s section. The consensus that I seemed to read was – don’t insult “cowboy art”. Needless to say this bothered me. Do that many people prefer the “idea” of the west over the actuality?

To find out, I spent the next few hours surfing the term “cowboy art” and ran across an archive of a blog about intelligent cowboys. The question was raised – “Do they exist?”

Another poster offered a “reply” in the comments section that likened the cowboy mentality to more of a reference of roaming. This seems a far cry from the media stereotype of dumb “George Bush-types” that are only happy when they are being destructive. Destruction didn’t build the West (well, maybe it did if you’re a Native American - considering you lost so much land to white urbanization). The cowboys’ need to roam and their ability to adapt was what helped populate the world west of the Mississippi. Granted it wasn’t the safest place, but aren’t all vagrants viewed suspiciously for expected unsavory behavior.

These… ahem… deep… ahem… questions regarding the essence of a cowboy led me to try and google the term “academic cowboy”. Unfortunately, the search simply exposed physics-nerds-in-disguise. I knew that couldn’t be right; if that were true the term cowboy would now be meaningless. Not unlike the unfortunate turn the term “diva” has taken in the last few years - thirteen year old girls running around with “diva” on their t-shirt and the current trend of pop-stars sharing a stage with the likes of Aretha Franklin or Etta James. No, I believe the title “cowboy” can still illicit a strong reaction. These days, however, the media typically latches it to George W. clearing brush at his Texas Whitehouse. Clearing brush doesn’t make Bush a cowboy… it just makes him a day laborer with enough money to own a ranch. Until he ran for Presidential Office in 2000, this guy hadn’t even visited most of the western states (much less the glorious national parks of the west).

While in high school I dated a girl whose older brother was a truck driver. I remember sitting in her family’s living room, while her accountant father philosophized on the nature of the contemporary trucker as the last of the cowboy breed. At the time, I wasn’t really sure if this belief came from one too many viewings of “Smoky and the Bandit” or if he was trying to justify his oldest son’s career move.

Now, though, I wonder if to a certain extent he was correct. While I don’t attest to the legitimacy of 4,000 mile/week truckers on uppers as the remaining heroes of the western range, I do find myself asking if they're not a bit closer than today’s hobby-ranchers of the white-collar business world. Are dedicated travelers filling the void of the contemporary cowboy? If so how do we document this evolution?

Despite occasionally wearing a cowboy hat and driving a pick-up, during my youth, I was the furthest thing from a cowboy that you could get. I had a number of friends that rode the rodeo circuit while I never even rode a horse. Yet they have never left the town in which we grew-up and I have lived like a vagabond across the west for the past decade. I have actually lived in the traditionally “western” Montana and New Mexico for a few years and spent enough time in Wyoming and South Dakota to arguably classify for residency.

I’ll reel this back in for a moment, though, and return my concentration to the art world. Is the guy that makes a point to wear a ten-gallon hat, while painting, a true cowboy? Are we to believe that painting horses on cattle drives or Native Americans in full 16th century regalia is still as important today as it was 150 years ago? Sure, there’s always the rodeo-crowd or the New York transplant that will pay to see the dream, painted in oil, every evening over their dining room buffet; but does marketability truly legitimize the creation? How do those ancient “western” images compare to visions of modern ranchers shooting wolves reintroduced by government officials that don’t live in (or understand) the west? How relevant are they to contemporary Indians trying to maintain their culture in the face of disappearing languages and reservation life? Where are the paintings of conflicted assimilation facing both the American Cowboy and Native American? I’m sure they do exist, but not anywhere that an east coast tourist may be forced to face reality. - DN

9 comments:

marja-leena said...

Very interesting post, Daniel! I've often wondered the same thing about "cowboy art". In all honesty, I believe it is just decorative kitsch. Unfotunately there always seems to be a market for kitsch, as you and I know.

The Forum God said...

Throughout my life I can only recall two artists that actually painted true "cowboy art". One is, of course, charlie russel whose museum I had visited more than once. The other's name is unknown to me, but I remember seeing his painitngs in the smithsonian a few years back. I respected the artist because his pieces weren't those of the past, but rather pictures of what I believed to be his true life as a small town farmer in the southwest. I do believe that cowboys exist today (There are a few in Cut bank) but with today's modern world they are usually known as farmers or ranchers. The few I think about aren't people who just walk around in hats, but have been born, raised, and taught on the prairie. but maybe I'm only blowing smoke.

danielnorth.com said...

There are definately modern incarnations of cowboys alive and well... the question is why do we rarely (if ever) see the accurate modern image reproduced in art. - DN

JNix said...

Isn't it like all art genres? I have kitsch cowboy art, and then there is that kitsch rembrandt in my basement along with my Mona Lisa calendar. Leave it were it lies, I say. On the other comment since the beginning of time there have been drugstore cowboys. We called them that because they dressed up and looked the part around the Rexall sign. and the fancy bar. Isn't a white guy trying to look gangsta in the same cateogory???

danielnorth.com said...

All you said is true, John. My question, though, is where are the contemporary cowboy artists dealing with modern cowboy problems? - DN

JNix said...

Sure you will see modern images produced. Modern cowboy problems?... that would an oxymoron to me since cowboy art and cowboys are nostolgic in the first place. Cowboys were that way since the 1920's in film, book, and American culture as a whole.

The Forum God said...

Most of the cowboys you are looking for fall into two stereotypes right now (I've seen thousands of both): 1. the hick that will walk around all day in his hat and act tough. Painting is never his style because it isn't "tough" like he is. 2. the ranch or farmer I mentioned previously. Some paint, though not regularly, and usually do focus enough time to become GREAT painters. If you want a good story though, about a year ago, an auction took place in my church. There was a limited edition print from a certain "famous cowboy painter" from around here (I'm sure you can guess who. His "magnificent painting" was easily outbid by an original painting done by a local rancher. I guess you could call it "cowboy art" since it was of her family during the branding season, not of some past time with buffaloes and indians.

danielnorth.com said...

Watch out or you may get me started on the "evils of prints".

danielnorth.com said...

Although the rancher wife painting narratives of from her family's daily life is much closer to the mark than the other "cowboy genre painters"; to get a better understanding of what I mean regarding important contemporary "cowboy art" or "academic cowboy art" check out the work of Deborah Butterfield.

http://www.gregkucera.com/butterfield.htm