Essays

Thornton Dial and Looking Good for the Price

A 1993 assemblage by Thornton Dial exemplifies exactly why he belongs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 20th Century Modern and Contemporary galleries, without any caveats like “southern,” “folk,” or “outsider” typically assigned to the artist.

Thornton Dial, “Looking Good for the Price” (1993), mixed media (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

An assemblage by Alabama artist Thornton Dial (1928–2016), currently on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery in Soho, smacks of why the descriptors “outsider” and “folk” are pointless and potentially damaging to artists when used as modifiers with “art.”

The 1993 work, titled Looking Good for the Price,also exemplifies, due to its sheer gorgeousness, exactly why Dial belongs in the Met’s 20th Century Modern and Contemporary galleries alongside the de Koonings and Pollocks, without any caveats like “southern,” “folk” or “outsider” typically assigned to the Black artist, who never received a formal education.

“Looking Goodis dark. Dial used a sledgehammer to shape tin and wire fencing into figures. Specters of men disfigured by the hammer attack erupt out of a blackened space. A bicycle chain lashes like a whip across three quarters of the square edge, while burned and shredded metal form hair and bodily features, the traces of a blow-torch creating an apocalyptic aura. Typical of Dial’s work, this assemblage is highly symbolic; the title, along with a bit of backstory, contain a wealth of meaning.

10 Thornton Dial, “Looking Good for the Price” (detail)

“Looking Good” represents a slave auction, I was told. I first heard this anecdote while standing in front of the work, which shrieks and howls into three dimensional-space, seven and a half inches from the wall. Before learning this, its visual maelstrom suggested that I was witnessing the formation of some new cosmology. The slave auction anecdote sent shockwaves through my system as I glimpsed a profound understanding that comes with Dial’s expression of roots in the Deep South. “Looking Good”’s gripping narrative doesn’t stop there, however. The work was created in response to a controversial 60 Minutes segment, speeding the story through the twists and turns of contemporary media, and touching on questions of truth and exploitation that are perhaps even more relevant today than in 1993, when the 60 Minutes episode debuted.

The 13-minute-longes segment, titled “Tin Man,” is a wrecking ball of false liberal empathy aimed at a group of Southern Black “folk” artists and their obsessive collector and benefactor, Bill Arnett. Through a series of exhaustive interviews and saccharine editorializing, 60 Minutes icon Morley Safer and his crew paste together an alternative reality that attempts to goad a sense of sentimentality out of the viewer by making a villain of Arnett. By the end, Arnett’s life’s work of discovering otherwise unrecognized artists and bringing them into the mainstream, is twisted into a fable about chicanery and exploitation that rivals the mythology surrounding Lead Belly’s contract with the Lomaxes.

Thornton Dial, “Looking Good for the Price” (detail)

Unfortunately, 25 years later the “Tin Man” segment (which can be watched here with a subscription or here until it is flagged for copyright) still weaves a convincing yarn for many viewers. It takes writer Andrew Dietz an entire novel, The Last Folk Hero (2006), to expose the fact that, while Arnett’s promotion reflects his own interests and gain, if anyone is exploitative in this story, it is surely Safer. In lieu of Dietz’s 300 pages of historical non-fiction, one could grapple with the full meaning of Dial’s “Looking Good” to gain a better understanding of Safer’s inaccuracies.

Dial described “Looking Good”’s backstory in a 2010 interview with White Hot Magazine. “These folks come here from 60 Minutes and saying they want to give respect for the black peoples making art. But after a while, that TV man start talking the art down, and ask Bill [Arnett] how something made by a man like Dial — he be meaning a little colored boy without no education — how it be worth one hundred thousand dollars. And Bill say if stuff be selling for a million that a white man make and ain’t no better, he guess Dial look pretty good for the money … Mr. Dial might be looking good for the price, but he just as soon still be a slave.

The 60 Minutes drama arose in the first place because Dial’s work has been treated as somehow “outside” of art. The term “outsider-art” distances the work from most mainstream art galleries and institutions, while promoting a sentimental and often false narrative that benefits dealers working in niche markets. Like folk and outsider art dealers, Safer also capitalizes on the sentimental narrative. He opens the “Tin Man” segment by describing the artists he addresses as “almost all Black, uneducated, poor and talented,” descriptions that are frequently applied to the terms “outsider-art” and “folk-art.” By categorizing the work this way, Safer’s work becomes a symptom of the same market malfeasance that he claims to expose.

Thornton Dial, “Looking Good for the Price” (detail)

Based on accounts from several sources found in The Last Folk Hero and elsewhere, it is apparent that Bill Arnett has his faults. An obsessive collector, his wheeling and dealing, like Safer’s journalism, often becomes a symptom of an ignored ideology — capitalism. However, Arnett’s capitalist dealings, while questionable, are not as egregious as the false empathy that Safer uses to market his journalism.

By selling the idea that there is some purity to poverty and obscurity, Safer obscures the structures that create such societal problems, while sprinkling them with artificial sweetener so they become easier to swallow. Unless the critic is to fundamentally oppose the ideological framework of capitalism then there are very few negative things that can be said about the work of Bill Arnett. For decades, he has championed Dial’s work, pushing it up through the gallery and museum ranks until, at last, it was placed (at least temporarily) in the Met alongside Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollack. Arnett’s art-collecting tactics may be symptomatic of the art market, but at least with this symptom, Thornton Dial has the chance to be released from the ideological and social constraints of “outsider” and “folk,” while the final word goes to his art.

Beverly Buchanan, Thornton Dial, and the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers continues at the Andrew Edlin Gallery (212 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until August 17

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