Politics as folk art: outsiders no longer

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I remember the first time I drove past MT Liggett’s house outside of Mullinville, Kiowa County. Like many other motorists in western Kansas over the years, I drove to the side of US 54 for a better look at Liggett’s political, primitive, and very public art installation.

There were a few hundred metal sculptures in his pasture, mostly made of discarded farm implements, some with swirling blades driven by the wind. Current political figures (and some from mythology) were made burlesque in metal and paint, with handwritten comments, and the language was harsh. Some characters have been referred to as whores or procurers. Swastikas led home to the point where words failed. Of all the local and national leaders who were represented by the roadside in the Pantheon, Hillary Clinton was reserved the sharpest contempt: “Our Eva Braun with jacket boots.”

I was confused. What kind of madman lives here? How does he have the time to do all that stuff? What kind of reaction is he going on with the swastikas? But I also felt a sense of shame because whatever the artist was aiming at had worked for me. I had moved over to see better.

Sculptures by MT Liggett are on display in Mullinville. (Kohler Foundation)

So many other people actually did it that in 2001 the Kansas Department of Transportation posted “Emergency Parking Only” signs next to the pasture. A Wichita Eagle story then described the art as “crazy roadside sculptures” and “metal monstrosities”. Liggett, who began sculpting in the 1980s when he was over 50, was banned from the local cafe for his outspoken opinions.

But when Myron Thomas Liggett died in 2017 at the age of 86, his death was noted by none other than the Washington Post and the New York Times. By this time he was already known as a major American folk artist and had an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Liggett’s obituary in the Times called him a “folk artist and provocateur,” and quoted Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” “.

Though Liggett sometimes mocked Republicans, most of his bile was directed at Liberal Democrats. Towards the end of his career, Liggett made the transition from town servant to an artist who used controversy as his calling card. In his obituary, the Wichita Eagle named him one of the “best and most prolific grassroots artists in Kansas” and described his work as “bizarre” rather than crazy.

Now, you don’t have to stop on the side of the road to see Liggett’s art.

Last Saturday, the MT Liggett Visitor’s Center celebrated its grand opening in Mullinville, and visitors can see more than 600 works in the “art environment”. The Kohler Foundation preserved the sculptures, and the installation is being maintained in its original location by a handful of local organizations, including the Kansas 5.4.7 Arts Center, Greensburg. The center’s name is for the May 4th 2007 tornado that nearly destroyed the city.

I don’t know if Liggett was gifted or not. Others have a better eye for it. He was expressing his right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment at his discretion, and the fact that I was uncomfortable with his art could be an indication of its power or my own low tolerance of swastikas.

Works of art by MT Liggett can be found along his property by the roadside. (Kohler Foundation)

What I do know is that his art brand would be more difficult to sell in 2021 than it was 20 years ago because politics has become a folk art in its own right. Swastika swirls pale in comparison to a Capitol riot involving real-life fascists, a party inexplicably fighting mask and vaccine initiatives during a pandemic, and a Kansas Speaker who called a state trooper “Donut Boy” after being arrested on DUI charges had been.

Crazy is sold wholesale these days.

We’re so deep in this it’s hard to keep track of the new levels of political madness during any given week. Not long ago we learned that our top military leader feared the outgoing President Donald Trump would launch a nuclear strike to create a crisis that could keep him in the White House. This comes on top of the polls that show that Trump’s big lie about a rigged election works. A narrow majority of Americans now fear that elections do not reflect the will of the people, according to a CNN poll.

None of this would come as a surprise to another Kansan who turned his anger at the government into art – and tourist money. Long before the term “Outsider Art” was coined in 1972 by the art critic Roger Cardinal, SP Dinsmoor was busy reproducing the world as he saw it in concrete and limestone. Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran who tried his hand at farming before retiring to Lucas in the Smoky Hills of northern Kansas in 1905. There he began building “The Garden of Eden” at the age of 62.

Its ornate “log cabin” is built from limestone quarried nearby, and around the house are cement sculptures depicting biblical scenes or allegories of the populist movement that conquered Kansas in the 1890s. One of his most famous sculptures shows that Labor was crucified by a doctor, lawyer, preacher and capitalist. Dinsmoor was a horny old eccentric and widower who married his 20-year-old Czech housekeeper Emilie Brozek at the age of 81 and had two children.

From the start, Dinsmoor did its art to attract tourists who would pay for it. The work may be crude, but the scope is impressive. Outside, Dinsmoor built a pyramidal mausoleum that became his final resting place after his death in 1937. It’s still there, and the site – now on the National Register of Historic Places – is open to the public. It has become the center for a grass roots arts community in Lucas. I’ve toured “The Garden of Eden” several times and always paid the extra few dollars to see Dinsmoor lying behind glass in his concrete coffin, a concrete jug for water nearby in case he wanted to go to the nasty place.

SP Dinsmoor created The Garden of Eden site in Lucas. (Max McCoy / Kansas reflector)

In 2002 the New York art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote an article about the opening of the American Folk Art Museum. He described the “people” who create such art as “harmed citizens” who are at odds with society. “The terms ‘people’ and ‘outsider’ – not to mention the spineless euphemism ‘autodidact’ – are difficult to use without condescension and confirm a superior knowledge,” writes Schjeldahl. “The stereotypical folk art lover is both conservative and condescending. Folk art can be for art like pets are for the animal kingdom. “

The conventional view is that folk art is different from visual art “like birdsong from opera”.

I think of this observation now when I reflect on the work of Dinsmoor and Liggett. If chirping birds is spontaneous joy, then there is joy in both Lucas and Mullinville, as well as echoes of Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawns. But there is something more. It’s a remarkable awareness of political culture, an understanding of the psyche of their compatriots in Kansans, a sneaky comment sparked by newspaper headlines and the nightly news.

While Dinsmoor’s art seems like a quirky and creepy footnote on Kansas history, Liggett’s work quite vibrates with themes that continue to shape the Trump era. The joy of his art is shown in the silly nonsense characters, the mythological themes and autobiographical allusions to romanticism. But there’s also the anger that was disturbing and downright outsider in the 1990s, and even the most ardent Kansas Republican in decades would be pale to portray Hillary Clinton as a giant swastika.

But now?

The former first lady and failed Democratic presidential candidate was called worse by right-wing extremists who spread lies that Clinton and others were part of a global cabal of pedophiles who abused children in satanic rituals in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria. “Pizzagate” heralded the QAnon movement, which continues to promote the toxic and baseless claim that Trump is fighting a powerful child sex ring from world leaders.

Years ago, I am amused by David Icke, an English soccer star and television personality who took an exceptionally public psychotic hiatus and started telling his audience that the world is ruled by lizard people from another dimension. These lizardmen (which included the royal family) kidnapped common people, Icke alleged, and abused them at a secret underground base in Branson, Missouri. The perpetrators included US politicians Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. Icke was such an outsider and his claims so absurd that he did not pose a great threat. But now I see that there isn’t much of a difference between the nonsense Icke was spreading and what QAnon followers believe.

Gone are the days when we felt safe and detached from crazy ideas when we could stop by the side of the road and stare at a homemade display of political anger. Eccentric ideas no longer amuse me, because the irrational is inherently dangerous, a brutality that cannot be dissuaded. I’ve lost my sense of humor. What was once ridiculous, even absurd, could become the next madness that will lead the next political movement to threaten American democracy.

When Donald Trump came down the golden escalator in 2015 and announced his presidential candidacy, I treated the act with the kind of condescension that Schjeldahl describes as difficult to avoid when it comes to outsider art. But the joke was for those of us who thought Trump’s candidacy was a stunt, an inferior attempt by a self-taught politician.

I still don’t know what to think of MT Liggett’s art. Maybe I will never do it. Although it worried and insulted me, Liggett at least channeled his anger into public discourse, however unconventional. I’m sorry all those years ago I didn’t do more than just stop and watch. I should have knocked on his door and asked him to have a cup of coffee at the cafe down the street and maybe we’d both have been kicked out.


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