Thursday, March 17, 2016
"BOOTS, BOWTIES, AND BOB"
On February 3, 1989, Bob Scriver, Western sculptor, was presented with the Governor’s Award at a ceremony called “Boots, BowTies, and Bob.” The bowties were meant to refer to tuxedos and the ladies who organized the event found this very funny because Bob was notorious for going around in khakis with clay and plaster rubbed into them. But the ladies were middle-aged and upscaled. They had no awareness of his early life as a classical concert orchestra conductor, which meant he had a well-worn tuxedo, although a bit dated, made before WWII. And so we go blundering along, still believing that clothes make the man.
As it happened, the speaker at this award ceremony, which gave Bob a medallion to wear, very like a British royal award, was not the Governor but the Lieutenant-Governor, a rather sophisticated fellow. I forget his name but not his subject: it was Robert Mapplethorpe, now back in the news. The speech was delivered just months before the artist’s death from AIDS, prompted by an exhibit called “The Perfect Moment” that toured over the summer. The exhibition became the centerpiece of a controversy concerning federal funding of the arts and censorship.
The people who promote Scriver bronzes though he’s been dead since 1999 (not from AIDS — he was just worn out, born in 1914) will not know about the real commonalities with Mapplethorpe, like his fondness for nudes. Somewhere in the archives stored in the Montana Historical Society is an album of nude photos of his first wife, Alice Prestmo Scriver Skogen Stainbrook, taken as she slept lit by a flashlight. She was a well-built woman and they were praiseworthy photos, but nothing so sophisticated and slick as a Mapplethorpe nude. Also, because of Bob’s background in music, particularly the years at the Vandercook School in South Chicago, much of which he spent in the jazz clubs of the North Side, he had warm feelings towards African-Americans.
Both Bob and his fourth wife, Lorraine, made some small nude figures which the Montana Historical Society discretely hides in a cabinet. One of them is a re-creation of a nude I started, lying on her stomach. Bob passed by when I was working on it, picked up up a sculpture tool and thrust it up between her legs, making a ratcheting sound. And big hole in the clay. I covered my outrage which was partly because he thought it was funny, but also because it showed his attitude towards my (small) creations, it expressed something about sex that was part of our relationship, and because it was so idle — as though it were not important at all. His version was sentimental: the woman has a little butterfly sitting on her hand.
All these aspects were a little related to the furor over Mapplethorpe’s work and a lot related to a kind of insistence on dominating everyone else with one’s own purposes and values. For instance, Bob was a rabid gun-control opponent, believing that any government restraints were evil and, more than that, unless everyone had a gun cabinet, the tanks would come rolling down the street. This made a certain amount of sense for people who saw something similar in Europe during WWII.
Part of this resistance to any kind of regulation pertains to censorship, often acted out in the name of pornography: knowledge of private things that only the privileged can openly know. The talk I remember was not about the actual guns so much as their registration, so that authorities could come down the street with a list in their hands, knocking on doors.
The problem with porn, of course, is that it’s culturally determined so it’s forbidden glimpses of ankle in one time/place and women bound with their legs held wide-open in another. Bob was a hot reactor to sex, but not very sophisticated. Johnny Minyard, the wickedest man in town, asked him to make a realistic dildo, evidently not knowing where to buy one. (Today he could find battery-operated pink plastic ones with butterflies attached in the mail-order catalogues for old folks.) Since Bob then had the mold, he made one for himself which he hid in the darkroom. To me it looked quite familiar, but when I got playful about it, he was embarrassed and either hid it in some more secret place or destroyed it.
Much of his work was semi-naked men: Blackfeet warriors. (All the animals were unclothed.) He made a nice nude portrait of his second wife as a kind of memento after they were divorced. Nakedness signals vulnerability, ownership, and comparisons which might not be flattering. Thus it has access to emotion, gated by shame and guilt, curiosity and pride. Bob loved to go nude, but was so hairy people said he looked like a bear. His feet were sensitive, so he wore high-tops, suggesting a satyr with tennies instead of hooves.
The Mapplethorpe “exhibition set off one of the fiercest episodes of America's "culture wars" — and sparked a recurring debate about state-funded cultural production and the support of sexually explicit or sacrilegious art by public funds.” This continues decades after Bob’s award. I think the ideas were so foreign to what the audience expected —though it was central in urban places and other sophisticated circles — that they just didn’t hear it.
The anonymous author of the Wikipedia entry says: “As much as he has been made out to be a renegade and outlaw, Mapplethorpe is an utterly mainstream artist. He loved freshness and glamor and was obsessed with the moment, which his photographs always reflect. In his restricted spaces and his feeling for abstraction and attentiveness to every shape, edge and texture, Mapplethorpe is a child of the Formalism of the 1960’s.”
“No incidents marred the show's run at the Washington Project for the Arts.
However, Senator Jesse Helms introduced legislation that would stop the NEA from funding artwork he considered “obscene.” The legislation subsequently required any recipients of NEA funds to sign an oath that declared they would not promote obscenity. The oath provoked protests from artists and arts organizations. When, during the next grant cycle, in this climate of fear, applications for support equaling hundreds of thousands of dollars were rejected. Outraged artists filed lawsuits against the agency. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in Congress. Although the radically restrictive Helms amendment did not pass, restrictions were placed on NEA funding procedures.”
I can understand why Jesse Helms did not want people to think about him naked — I’m sure he would not do well in nude comparisons, much less performance — but he understands the compensatory uses of money, as many old men do — and he intends to use it as much as he can for political gain.
Most Western art is meant to be “family-friendly” in a commercial sort of way, except some of those frisky cowgirls get out of control and start looking like covers of Ranch Romance novels. That hardly compares with the plethora of stripped-off people, sometimes conjugating, that you can look at in any porn site on the internet or maybe perfume ads in magazines. The pendulum has swung outside the limits of clothing and entered the tailoring of intimate parts with surgery. The real subject of this post is not specific persons, but how often the repressed is all around us until it breaks through convention, is explored to exhaustion, and finally withdraws to recover.