THE UNPEACEABLE KINGDOM, A SYMPOSIUM EXAMINING THE NATURE ART CONTROVERSY
Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, 19 October 1996
[First published in 1997 in Border Crossings, Winter, 11-12.]
What do wildlife artists want? Art world recognition. Why does the art world resist? Most wildlife art is not intellectually engaging.
Michael Boss of the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon -- indisputably an art world insider -- compared "the opposition between the art world and the general public over wildlife art" to the Catholic/Protestant troubles in Northern Ireland. The comparison is too stark, but it immediately set a high emotional temperature to proceedings.
In his entertaining opening address, publisher Robert J. Koenke predicted that the latter part of this century will one day be regarded as the "age of wildlife art." He called it America's number one art form. But, he said, public acceptance to the tune of $1 billion a year in North American sales is not enough. Wildlife art does not get the serious recognition it deserves because of "class distinctions in contemporary visual arts." Koenke's talk was not, as his class distinctions title may suggest, Marxist analysis, but instead a delightful romp through a thicket of technical problems related to wildlife painting and sculpture. He claimed, for example, that he can accurately guess the brand name of a wildlife artist's telephoto lens just by looking at the finished painting!
Koenke left behind copies of the latest issue of his magazine, the Wildlife Art Journal in which Nicholas Hammond suggests that what is needed is a wildlife equivalent of Picasso's Guernica, something which would shake wildlife art out of "its safe comfort zone."
Ken Doherty, a Peterborough museum manager, asserted that the big shows and retrospectives are reserved for avant-garde artists, and that wildlife art is virtually shut out of many public galleries in Canada. Doherty told the story of an exhibition he organized of the work of wildlife artist Michael Dumas, bitterly recounting how he was unable to get Canada Council or Ontario Arts Council funding for it. He characterized natural history museums -- even the Smithsonian where Canada's Robert Bateman has exhibited -- as ghettos.
I did not appreciate Doherty's dark hints that if the art establishment continues to ignore such a popular art in the face of budget cutbacks, then it should be prepared to take the consequences. Such compromises would make life in the art world hardly worth living, and such arguments are unlikely to move the most committed curators and directors, who in my experience are as tough as the toughest artists.
Doherty's story was augmented by Michael Dumas himself, who attributed part of the blame for art world resistance to the specialization of wildlife artists. An artist such as Alex Colville, for example, is acceptable only if he does wildlife art within a bigger body of work and not exclusively.
Dumas spoke eloquently about his frustrations, but in using the art world/ wildlife art opposition, he oversimplified avant-garde art as the expression of one position and wildlife art as the other. The sense that many of us have that the art world is a heterogeneous mess was absent from Dumas's argument. He tended to characterize almost everything that did not take a realist form as "abstract art." A prominent art magazine editor once told him that the debate between realism and abstraction was of little interest in the art world now. From the way he spoke about art magazine examples, Dumas must have taken this to mean that the abstract/realist dichotomy is irrelevant because "abstraction" had won. Few in the art world would characterize the situation this way. Within a pluralistic postmodern art discourse it is inaccurate to speak as if varieties of art can be divided into two categories.
Sigrid Dahle, an independent curator and one of the conference attendees, echoed my feelings when she asked why wildlife artists such as Dumas want recognition from institutions and people whose opinions about art they do not respect.
In reply Dumas hit his stride when he spoke about the refusal by public galleries to consider wildlife art to be art at all. The rhetoric of exclusion may seem absurd when applied to this genre, given how it dominates popular culture, but such arguments may work. Dumas said that "the type of art that [I do] is outside the dialogue of contemporary art." Versions of this rather shocking statement were repeated by everyone at the conference who was directly involved with wildlife art.
The conference wasn't all gallery bashing. Colleen Cutschall gave a welcome overview of native art which helped to position First Nations work in a closer relation than I had expected to the hearts -- if not the arts -- of contemporary wildlife artists, and Robert Wrigley's reasoned linkage of wildlife art to environmentalism made aspects of the debate about institutional acceptance of wildlife art seem trivial. If such large issues are at stake, why the fuss about art world recognition?