The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) has thrown down the gauntlet, and that gauntlet is A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, a 450-page full-color hardback $120 compendium of the history of Louisiana art slammed smack down in the middle of your coffee table (if you can afford it; and, if you have a coffee table). Luckily, for those of you who cannot afford a $120 book (or a coffee table), the book’s entries are also being disseminated in much more democratic manner, as well—as entries in the LEH’s fantastic online encyclopedia of Louisiana art and culture, KnowLa (speaking of which, literati: they’re hiring).
The bravado of the book’s editors is understandable—”Arguably the most tangible, durable, and important artifact produced as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood in 2012 will be this history of the art of the state,” writes LEH director Michael Sartisky, one of the book’s editors, in its introduction—but anytime something this “authoritative” comes out, my bullshit detector starts humming. Admittedly, I’ve only seen an electronic sample of the book, so I pass no judgements here, but a glance at the organizations involved—art and editors were culled from the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, NOMA, the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum, the LSU Museum of Art, and the Meadows Museum at Centenary College of Louisiana—one can’t help but wonder whether the book might tend toward the “established” and canonical. Certainly, all but perhaps the Ogden lean in that direction. One wonders how well the state’s dense, fascinating history of untrained (especially African-American) artists is represented, and/or whether the depth and scope of the tradition’s inclusion jives with its true influence on our culture.
But what the hell do I know?! I haven’t seen the book! Maybe it’s chock full of outsider artists! The introduction does state, after all, that “The ambition and underlying concept of A Unique Slant of Light is first and foremost to document, feature, and validate the broadest conceivable range of art and artists whose work merited notice—both renowned and obscure—across the span of Louisiana history.” So, there you have it. I’m probably being a paranoid jerk. In fact, the first few pages feature a painting by Clementine Hunter, a black folk artist from around Cane River who died in 1988 at about the age of 101 (no one really knows when she was born).
And, of course, the editors make no claim to the book being an exhaustive account—it couldn’t possibly be—and for whatever they might have missed out on, they make up in thorough and thoughtful scholarship that fleshes out each featured image with the historical context in which it was created and biographical context of the artist that created it. This staggering collection of not only art, but art tied to life tied to the state, in all its messy history and geography, punctuated by events as equally momentous as the Civil War and the invention of photography, makes this book much more than an art book. It, in itself, becomes something of a portrait or collage that represents no single scene, but the cultural consciousness of the state itself, with its exasperating nuances, heroes and legends, nightmares, normal and extraordinary folk, and an often soggy, often striking landscape that’s melting into the sea.
To celebrate the launch of A Unique Slant of Light, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is hosting a statewide series of events in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport. The first will be in the city, at the Ogden Museum of Art, at 6 p.m. on Friday, September 14.
This article is reposted from the literary news site, Press Street: Room 220.