Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Ghanaian Rockies

A few weeks ago I posted a thorough deconstruction of the “Please Visit Ghana” Post Card #7.  So as promised in that post, I present today the “Please Visit Ghana” Post Card #10. 

This time we will mix it up a little and present the back of the card first.  Please read carefully the post card description:

And I thought I had problems with run-on sentences.  But you know what, through all the poor grammar and ramblings, I think Mr. Boateng does a pretty good job of selling Ghana as a tourist destination.  We learn from here that Ghana has chiefs, who presumably have some measure of control of the people, who themselves are nice, and religious, and therefore tourists are encouraged to visit the palaces and learn about Ghanaian culture, and don't forget the rich mineral resources, and I think I have fallen into the same run-in sentence trap as Mr. Boateng.  This post card business is trickier than it looks.

I know that the grammar is not correct, and it’s easy to scoff and laugh at that, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’d fare much better trying to create a post card of Colorado in Twi for Ghanaian tourists.  What I can’t really understand, however, is the front of the card:

I’m no expert at mountains, but I’m no slouch either.  Call me crazy, but my Messner-sense tells me I’m looking at St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park; not Ghana.  And once again, I must state that for the record that I did not see all that much of Ghana while I was there.  So the possibility does exist that the background scene on “Please Visit Ghana” Post Card #10 is actually located somewhere in Ghana.  But I'm guessing this is copied from a post card of Glacier National Park in the USA.  This should take no leap of faith from anyone reading this, but I presume Mr. Boateng started with a post card someone mailed to Ghana from the USA.  Then he pasted pictures of a Ghanaian soldier, Ghanaian drummers, and an Ashanti throne on to the original card, thus creating a whole new card.  At best, it’s almost like the visual equivalent of a rap song that uses samples of other songs to create something wholly unique and fresh.  At worst, it is a curiosity, something to be celebrated only with hipster irony and smug condescension.

St. Mary Lake.  Just. Sayin.

And yet this crazy mash-up IS Ghana.  It’s so Ghana.  So my question is this; is the juxtaposition of Ghanaian cultural vignettes and the Rockies art, commerce, silliness, or perhaps some combination of the three?  And more broadly speaking, are post cards art?  Can art be accidental?  What is this thing, exactly?  Let’s get our over-analysis on, shall we?

First let’s start with the premise that post cards are indeed art.  Although they are produced for commercial purposes, they are designed to be visually appealing and their intent is to give the purchaser and recipient pleasure.  I realize that not all art is created solely to provide pleasure, but that is one function of art.  A designer of postcards wants to make their product visually appealing so that it will sell.  So I propose that the creation of a post card is an artistic act, and it is intentional art, and not accidental art.  Art for commerce, but art nonetheless.  But what sort of art is this?

Let’s see if we can categorize this post card as something called “naïve art”.  Naïve art is an actual defined art form in painting.  In its most correct definition, naïve art is characterized by painters who have formal training, but willfully choose to reject rules of “classic” painting, most notably the use of perspective and proper color.  Sort of like punk rock painters, I guess.  Of course naïve artists generally continue to paint actual recognizable images, unlike abstract art.  I’d argue that our post card satisfies some of the criteria of naïve art.  Lack of perspective, rejection of realistic color, yes.  Recognizable images, well, sort of.  I mean, I recognize everything in the post card, but we’re getting closer to Salvador Dali absurdest juxtaposition than Henri Rousseau bucolic exotica here.  So I’m not convinced that naïve art is the best term for this particular work of art.

And I think serious “naïve artists” would take offense at this post card being described as naïve art, since Mr. Boateng probably did not make this post card with the intent of making naïve art and rejecting this or that artistic convention and sticking it to the (I assume) stuffy "post card" art establishment.  He wasn’t making a statement; he was simply creating a post card.  The fact that it looks like naïve art does not necessarily mean that it is naïve art.  Intent is important.  Artists can be so picky with labels…

So is there another term that fits better?  May I present the term “Outsider Art” for your consideration?  Outsider art is art created by people who have no formal art training.  There are no rules to break for Outside Artists, simply because they don’t know what the rules are.  Some people also will interchange this term with “Art Brut”, which is French for “Rough Art”, and also the name of a wonderfully silly English punk band.  I am told that the term Art Brut was originally reserved for art created by people in insane asylums, so, you know, it’s probably best if we stick with Outsider Art for the purposes of this discussion.

Note that the definition of Outsider Art really has nothing to do with perspective, or colors, or subject matter, or intent, or any of that stuff.  The term is reserved simply for people who make art, but have had no training at how to make it.  Perfect.  I’m going to assume that no one explained to Mr. Boateng the nuances and traditions of formal post card art.   Therefore his wonderfully weird and, yes, naïve creations as less a willful rejection of that stuffy post card establishment, and more an unintentional outsider’s perspective on the form, done without any knowledge that rules were being broken.

By the way, I think I'm going to categorize this post as absurdest art.

Since I seem to think of things in musical terms, I am reminded of a song that provides a perfect musical analogy to my completely over-analyzed post card.

May I present to you the fountainhead of “outside” indie music.  Not the Velvet Underground; The Shaggs.  The Shaggs were a band from New Hampshire in the 60s.  The band consisted of three sisters, who were managed by their father.  They had no musical training whatsoever, and not to put too fine a point on it, one can get a sense of their lack of formal training on their 1969 release, called “Philosophy of the World”.  I found a delightfully strange you tube animation for the song “My Pal Foot Foot” from this album, which you can peruse at your leisure here:

Listening to the song I am of course struck by the, uh, unconventional song structure and musicianship.  Man, that’s weird stuff.  But nonetheless it is a willful attempt at writing a song.  This didn’t happen by accident, believe it or not.  Furthermore, this is not the same as, say, the Rolling Stones writing a song that rejects the rules of rock music.  It’s not even punk music in that regard, since part of ethos of punk was a rejection of the “rules” that bands such as the Rolling Stones followed.  But even punk understands that there were rules to be broken.  Quite frankly it was part of the fun.  And even punk music didn't reject all the rules.  The Shaggs don’t appear to even understand that there are rules at all.  That’s what makes their music so fascinating, albeit difficult to listen to.  It's what differentiates the Shaggs from the Velvet Underground, for example.  Both bands broke the rules, but the Velvet Underground knew that they were breaking rules.  The Shaggs were just making art.  And quite frankly, the members of VU were better musicians.  But that's beside my point.

So yes, I’m stating that Mr. Boateng’s post cards are the post card art equivalent of “The Shaggs”.  Furthermore I’m stating that although it’s easy to mock Mr. Boateng’s post cards (and the Shaggs for that matter), and that it’s quite a lot of fun to do so incidentally, his post cards and the Shaggs music are actually unintentional and unique artistic statements in and of themselves.  More for the outsider’s perspectives that they represent than for their beauty or formal quality of course, but art, nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. Wow - what an interesting artifact that postcard is! And I like the comparison you draw with the Shaggs. Did you know there's a new Broadway musical about their lives?