Interesting Ideas

Last Folk Hero cover

Of mind games
and folk art

Collector Bill Arnett's
art world martyrdom

The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit, by Andrew Dietz, Ellis Lane Press, 378 pages, 2006. ISBN 0977196801

By William Swislow

When I finished Andrew Dietz's book about Atlanta mega-collector Bill Arnett and his adventures in folk art, my first impulse was to avoid reviewing it. I didn't want to become another of the philistines in Arnett's rogue's gallery of art-world persecutors who either don't get what he's trying to do or believe he is doing it on the far side of propriety.

I am, in fact, not entirely in sympathy with his project. It's not that I necessarily object to his hoarding of artwork. Nor do I have a problem with his advocacy of southern black artists, a position he appears to consider courageous but that hardly rates as provocative in any art world I'm part of. I've simply never found his stable of artists all that compelling -- strictly as a matter of taste, not talent. Thornton Dial just doesn't do much for me.

Worse, as impressively massive as the two volumes of Arnett's Souls Grown Deep anthologies may be, I frankly found them impossible to get through -- and I'm someone who feels compelled to read books cover to cover. There are important images and ideas in those books, but also obtuse and pretentious writing. Some of the work illustrated is great, but in some cases the artistic point is amorphous at best, its presence mostly supporting dubious theoretical constructs that purport to explain the true story of the work, whatever the creators might have thought.

Dietz's book, a much easier read than Arnett's, makes clear that no critic is trifling enough to avoid Arnett's scorn. It's not retribution I fear, however, but simply involvement, even at a distance, with the psychodramas that apparently wrap themselves around Arnett like kudzu.

Dietz engages in some befuddling mind games of his own, before you even get to Arnetts'. What does it mean, for example, to call his book a "non-fiction novel"? Did Dietz want to use novelistic storytelling devices but had too much integrity not to caveat an apparently true-life account? The book reads like a conventional piece of journalism. Or perhaps he lacked the energy to properly source his work, and calling it a novel got him off the hook. Either way the truth-defying label is a disservice to readers, and perhaps to the author as well.

Arnett himself is still more befuddling. If this book is halfway accurate, then to say he is his own worst enemy is not an understatement but rather too feeble a cliche to capture the march of human folly that unfolds chapter by chapter as he cuts a swath of martyrdom, first through the Atlanta art community and then through the wider worlds of folk and outsider art.

Arnett's talent for making enemies is at least equal to the creativity of the artists whose work he champions. Although one can read his story in a number of ways, one plausible interpretation would find it testimony to the stubborn brilliance of these untrained, unlikely artists that their creative vision has prevailed despite the costs associated with Arnett's patronage. Whether the quarrels and bad feelings and controversy over financial arrangements can fairly be blamed on Arnett or not, taken together they can't do the artists much good.

With its focus on the gory details, this book is inside-the-beltway stuff for folk art mavens. Personalities, gossip and politics are plenty fascinating for those of us who fancy ourselves insiders but liable to be slow going for anyone else. Not that insiders won't have their issues with this account. Dietz displays a casual cynicism that has more to do with journalistic swagger than the realities of the art world. There is plenty of dubious activity to expose in that world, of course, but Dietz all too often goes after the wrong stuff via ridiculously broad generalizations. He is generous with scorn, whether directed at rich Atlanta art patrons, elite museum curators or the ordinary folk art tourists who flocked to the homes of Mose Tolliver, Jim Suddeth and many others through the 1980s and 90s. (Full disclosure: I was in tourist class.)

Some of that scorn is undoubtedly deserved, but it ultimately undermines the core tale Dietz is trying to recount. For one thing, by dismissing almost the entire universe of folk art collectors and dealers as self-serving, intellectually lazy exploiters, Dietz creates a seriously misleading context in which to evaluate Arnett's claims for his own ethical exceptionalism. Heroes become the less impressive the more they are pitted against mere straw men.

Despite claims to the contrary that recur throughout the book, there were many who valued the work of self-taught southern blacks as much as Arnett did. There were many others who worked hard to help them build careers and get fair value for their work. And there were still others who succeeded in this, before and after Arnett, and without necessarily using his tactics.

A more useful discussion might have focused on how Arnett's massive warehousing of creative material affects an illiquid asset like a particular artist's work. Dietz reports complaints about this practice, but he never explores what it actually accomplishes, good or bad -- though by the end of the book it becomes clear that Arnett has suffered from being long on art but short on equity of any kind.

Among other things, his financial arrangements made him vulnerable to the kind of expose 60 Minutes aired in 1993. Yet The fact that Arnett may himself have benefited from his supposedly selfless efforts on behalf of artists, while not irrelevant, is not necessarily bad, or even the most interesting thing about his activities. Providing stipends and discouraging willy-nilly sales by seeking a right of first refusal on new work was addressing real issues in the marketplace, at least potentially improving both the artists' immediate financial situation and their long-term prospects. Over-production and haphazard selling have taken a financial and artistic toll on many self-taught creators.

Dietz's account on the whole supports the view that Arnett's methods were reasonable and his achievements considerable. From Thornton Dial to the quilters of Gee's Bend, Arnett has brought important art into the mainstream, and 60 Minutes notwithstanding, done it in a way that has helped at least some of the artists to prosper.

Dietz blows through this story's useful nuances in favor of drama behind the attacks. Arnett's seemingly irresistible attraction to self-destruction makes for a seemingly irresistible tale, as do most tragedies. If you can get past your own sputtering when Arnett or Dietz make self-serving or cheap-shot statements that just aren't true, it's fascinating to get the inside story of someone who, whatever his faults, has been vital to evolution of self-taught art in America. Plus, the description Jane Fonda's vaginal Atlanta apartment is worth the price of admission.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Intuit magazine, published by the Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

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Copyright William Swislow 2005