Andrew Dietz, Photo: Joel Silverman
How I learned to stop worrying and embrace exploitation
by Andrew Dietz
Six years ago I was tempted by the forbidden fruit of paradox and ejected thereafter from the garden of art purity. It has been six years since I began research on a narrative non-fiction book about exploits in the folk art world and now two years since it entered bookstores nationally. The Last Folk Hero has been heralded by major national publications and vilified in folk art circles. It has been promoted at many of the country’s leading museums and banned by several others. The story started as a simple chronicling of creative spirit but morphed into a study of art world paradox. That is what art does best – unearth paradox – devilish and unpleasant as it may be. So, why not write a book about it. Paradoxical thinking is what the powerful, rough hewn art of Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend provokes. It is what the hyperbolic, whirlwind art patronage of Bill Arnett inspires.
I first conceived The Last Folk Hero as a celebration of creative fervor and self-expression which conquers all adversity. Just consider the life of Lonnie Holley – who was born to a woman who birthed twenty-seven children; was stolen from her at two years of age; sold for a bottle of whiskey at four; and who spent the remainder of his childhood in an abusive Alabama youth detention center for “negro juvenile law breakers.” Yet, by the time he was thirty, his art was touring the world with the Smithsonian. Lonnie Holley is heroic creativity embodied. Thornton Dial too. Gee’s Bend Quilters too.
As the layers of this story revealed themselves, they presented a series of Gordian Knots which choked the theme of heroic creativity. The most thickly tangled knot pervaded the story and taints it still today. “What is exploitation and what isn’t and who has the right to say?” If we say that wealthy white people who approach poor black artists and buy their art for a pittance and sell it for a profit are exploiters we are saying, at the same time, that the artists are too naïve to protect themselves. In addition to the fact that such a stance may be perceived as racist, it is also a way for us to exploit the position of both collector and artist in order to publicly assert our own superior moral position. The Last Folk Hero highlights this double bind and many readers are uncomfortable because of it. It has led to the refusal of several major museums like the High Museum in Atlanta and the American Folk Art Museum in New York to offer the book in their museum stores. It is likely behind the suggestion of Bill Arnett’s publicist that the book should be burned in a bonfire. It is partly the inspiration behind the art work of folk artist, Big Chief, who created a work of art using The Last Folk Hero as his theme. Big Chief nailed the book to a tin-covered hunk of wood and slammed a red ax through the four hundred pages. Alas, responses of avoidance and aversion aren’t the way to resolve any paradox. They only tighten the knot.
From left: Thornton Dial, Bill Arnett (photos Andrew Dietz) Lonnie Holley (photo Lucinda Bunnen)
Creation and exploitation co-arise. Perhaps beginning with the Palaeolithic painter who marked cave walls in Lascaux, creators and patrons have complained about each other, lusted for each other and battled for power, recognition and currency. There is no art for art’s sake. Art is always created with an intended impact. Even if the initial intention is simply the artist’s self-impact. Eventually, it seems, that is never enough. Others must see, approve, and pay. Patrons fund continued creation so that they may bathe in art’s presumed authenticity. Money needs art and art needs money.
Authenticity is difficult to prove. Which art is truly pure and untainted these days? “Folk art” is a term, for instance, that connotes authenticity, purity, and insulation from poisonous popular culture. Where does this exist? A folk artist can live in the middle of nowhere and still suck down hundreds of channels with a satellite dish affixed to his authentic shack. Consider the three Gee’s Bend quilters who are suing the collector Bill Arnett for their presumed fair share of his presumed windfall from selling their creations and related imagery. Should the litigious quilters be considered authentic craftspeople or commercialists? Is Arnett an authentically pure patron who selflessly enriched the lives of these quilters or an authentically shrewd businessman who profited at their expense? What if the answer to all of these questions is “yes?” What if it is “no?” What if it is “well … yes and no?” Does any of it matter to the art? Regardless, as the warring parties strive for what will likely be a closed-mouth settlement of the cases, we are unlikely to know what a court might decide and so we are left again with vagaries and paradox.
It is equally difficult to identify most forms of artist exploitation. I was confused about what was or wasn't exploitation in The Last Folk Hero when I first approached the story in 2002. I worried that there was something more black and white in the situation that I was missing or ignoring or minimizing. So, I decided to ask the one person I knew of who studied exploitation for a living: Professor Alan Wertheimer of the University of Vermont wrote the 1996 book appropriately titled, Exploitation (published by Princeton Universtiy Press). Here's what he had to say about the subject of exploitation in relation to the characters and events chronicled in The Last Folk Hero:
Mr. Dietz: I have finally had a chance to read your book. It turns out that I did see the exhibit of the Gee's Bend Quilts at the Whitney a few years ago. It’s a very interesting and complex story. I was a bit perplexed by what 60 Minutes thought it was doing. I don't know how much light I can shed on the issue of exploitation. As you know, my approach is philosophical and somewhat technical. I am at pains to distinguish between what I call harmful and non-consensual exploitation as opposed to mutually advantageous and consensual exploitation. And it does seem to me that whatever exploitation there might be falls into the latter camp. Were the artists treated fairly? That's a complicated question. Suppose that X has a Picasso in her attic and doesn't know what it is and is about to throw it away. I realize that it's a Picasso and offer her $1,000 for it. She's better off than she would have been, but it's arguable that I took unfair advantage of her ignorance and gave her much less than a fair price (which could be less than the market price). Your cases are even more complicated than that because there was no market in this art and, moreover, Arnett was arguably instrumental in creating the market for it. I should tell you that the chapter of my book (Chapter 7) in which I try to develop an account of fair transactions is the least successful chapter in the book. I believe that some mutually advantageous transactions are unfair, but it's very difficult to specify a principle that allows us to make that judgment and I do not think that (as Potter Stewart said about pornography) that we know it when we see it. I think people may think something is unfair when it's not and think that it's fair when it's unfair. Thanks for sending the book along. Best, Alan Wertheimer, Department of Political Science, University of Vermont
In short, who knows?
The producers of 60 Minutes, that’s who. They’ve exploited the issue of alleged artist exploitation for years. Morley Safer’s piece “Tin Man” attempted to put a spotlight on the subject, skewering on the same stick Bill Arnett and the artists he championed. Unspoken in the 60 Minutes piece were the other nasty and false whispers that floated around at the time. These hushed voices raised doubt about the authenticity of artwork championed by Mr. Arnett – insinuating that he strongly influenced the material created by his folk art savants. While such was not the case, nonetheless the damage of doubt was done. The Tin Man episode, its origins and aftermath are primary elements in The Last Folk Hero which was released in 2006. Coincidentally, in 2007 film director Amir Bar-Lev released his documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, a symbol that this artist exploitation paradox folds back on itself endlessly. Bar-Lev explores the life of Marla Olmstead who rose to art world fame when she began painting abstract canvases at age 4 and her parents began selling them for big money in major art galleries. In the midst of filming, 60 Minutes launched an episode simply titled “Marla” which aimed to prove that Marla’s father – an abstract painter – was “helping” his daughter create the work. While this was never proved conclusively, again, the damage to artist and patron was done.
It was while contemplating this mental muck around artist exploitation that I happened to speak with my friend, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats who arrived at a – we thought at the time - clear answer to both the artist exploitation and authenticity quagmires. After reading The Last Folk Hero, Keats concluded that the solution to the puzzle was botanical. “Folk artists have caught on to their folksiness,” he told me, “so that in essence they are imitating themselves. I see it as the same media-saturated self-consciousness that's debilitating contemporary art across the board." Except within the plant world he concluded. "Plants are non-sentient. A sapling isn't making art to be a Robert Rauschenberg, let alone a Grandma Moses." Keats told me that he intended to begin art farming and he asked me if I'd consider acting as exclusive dealer. After writing The Last Folk Hero, I knew the market as well as anyone. I thought, 'Why the heck not?'" After all, it must be easier to exploit non-sentient beings than sentient ones. They are less likely to sue. 60 Minutes is less likely to care.
Following additional research, Keats and I determined that Georgia's seven million acres of tree farmland would provide an adequate agricultural base, and that young Leland Cypress trees, limber and resilient, were especially well suited to high-output artistic production. So we convinced the Kinsey Family Farm in Forsyth County, Georgia to grant permission to work with their crop – usually reserved for Christmas tree buyers. We selected fifty exemplary saplings, and, for nearly three days, we provided them with a variety of drawing implements as well as individual easels, to produce original works on paper. The finest examples were culled and exhibited by Agrifolk Art Associates, my newly-formed dealership, at a gallery in Atlanta. A documentary about the project, by critically acclaimed Atlanta film studio Eyekiss and director David Edmond Moore, was created about the effort and is available on YouTube.
Trying to solve the riddle of exploitation in the art world is like cracking a Zen master's koan...it is a paradox wrapped in a Gordian knot that even the experts can't fully untangle. But, like working through any good koan or paradox, simply noodling the "E" issue can help to dissolve it or, at least, may increase the likelihood that we will act with greater awareness and care going forward. Usually, resolving a koan is accomplished not by fighting it but by embracing it and embodying it or releasing it like a helium balloon in a gust of wind. Maybe the truth is that none of us can get through a day without exploiting someone or something. Therefore, like a good Agrifolk artist, maybe we should just get over ourselves and embrace this basic instinct?
The author reading the following excerpt from The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit (Ellis Lane Press, 2006).
A July sun torched the asphalt streets of Pipe Shop as Bill Arnett and Lonnie Holley drove slowly searching for Thornton Dial's modest home. They were a modern-day Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. "This it over here," Holley said, gesturing toward a one-story red brick house. When they got out of the car, Holley coddled a small expressionist sculpture (a fishing lure made by Dial which was more art than lure), careful not to let the protruding hooks cut his flesh.
Dial was wary of the odd couple as they approached his door: the radical black man with dreads and the pasty white man. Not long before, a friend had warned Dial that he needed a license to make the "things" he was crafting. Dial was sure now that the white stranger at his door must be a city license-man.
"Mr. Dial, please open up. We would like to see your art, Mr. Dial," Arnett coaxed, holding up the fishing lure. "Do you do anything besides these? Have you made anything else? Any other art?"
"No, man," said Dial behind the door. "I don't know what you talking about."
Arnett tried asking again, phrased it differently. Same response.
"Show him what you do, Lonnie," Arnett suggested.
Holley quickly gathered a soda can, twigs, string, and wire from the yard around him and conjured up a sculpture.
"Oh, you mean that kind of thing?" Dial said as the door eased open. "Yeah, man, I done some of that."
In fact, since the flood that destroyed years' worth of his work, Dial had continued to create "things" obsessively-not just useful, marketable objects but also things that gave him personal pleasure just in the creation. Many mirrored the world he saw around him-a harsh, unforgiving place-but he didn't imagine anyone would ever care about them. After Clara Mae had told him to "get that shit out of the house," Dial had stashed his art in the turkey coop out back, his junkhouse. What didn't fit in the junkhouse, Dial buried in the dirt.
Thornton Dial disappeared into the junkhouse and reemerged with an
eight-foot scrap-metal bird, a turkey tower mounted with an abstract gobbler. Arnett and Holley looked at each other like gamblers facing a machine that blinked "Jackpot!"
"Would you be willing to sell that, Mr. Dial?" Arnett asked. "How much would you take for that piece?"
"What? You must be crazy," Dial said, but thought he was beginning to like this white man. "I don't know, man, give me twenty-five dollars for it," he continued.
At that moment something stirred inside of Thornton Dial, something that he hadn't experienced in a long time. He thought it might be excitement. "Well, you give me a price on it then if you think you taking it," Dial countered.
"Will two hundred dollars do?" Arnett offered. "Do you make anything else I can see?"
"What?" Dial said. "Ooh, yes, man, I can make anything. Man, you crazy. You got to be crazy."
By then, Dial's sons had gathered around the negotiation. They were laughing. Saying, "You paying him for that? Man I'm gone tell you, my daddy gone make a whole lot of stuff for you now."
Andrew Dietz is a writer, entrepreneur, and art lover based in Atlanta, Georgia.