A monthly gathering of personal enthusiasms and observations about the passing scene, Field Notes will, in the tradition of The Nation, draw attention to things overlooked or often misunderstood.
This first installment of Field Notes celebrates the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, where the story of American art is being rewritten in museums across this country, and its corollary in music, Dust-to-Digital. This dispatch pursues the notion that cultural currents in the South flow in a deeper, healthier, and more progressive direction than frequently credited. That theme may reappear from time to time amid other dispatches on culture and politics, where the heat of the political moment also obscures a quiet revolution that deserves our attention and should fuel our optimism: brave new directions in young adult fiction; the mobilization of teenage activists by Generation Citizen; art-world facts and follies; and dispatches from the front lines of prison reform.
A miscellany of things, to be sure—but all of them important to an observer eager to spread the word.
Souls Grown Deep
I’ve known rivers;
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins…
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Bad habits die hard, but now and then they fade away, clearing the air for a little fresh thought. There is a breeze blowing through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York just now, where History Refused to Die: Highlights From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift, an exhibition of 30 works by African Americans made in the South between the civil-rights era and the early years of the present century, has swept aside the patronizing labels attached by critics and historians to art they can’t easily account for. Neither folk, outsider, self-taught, nor outlier, this work by little-known artists touched with greatness is exhibited on its own merits. Made mostly of found materials in isolated communities, it speaks eloquently, if paradoxically, of a better country than the one we know or think we know.
Of the 57 works the Souls Grown Deep Foundation gave the Met, a few of the 30 on view are not entirely unfamiliar, though showing them in conversation with one another renders visible the African roots of African-American art (much as Robert Farris Thompson’s landmark Flash of the Spirit did, decades earlier). There are 10 quilts by Loretta Pettway, Annie Mae Young, and other artists of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Thornton Dial (1928–2016), another native of Alabama, is here too; although he’s had a following for many years, his six assemblages on display—especially the gigantic one that gives the exhibition its name—belong to a different order of greatness with their muscular commentary on American history. Poor, mostly uneducated, and isolated in the town of Bessemer, Thornton Dial understood more about this country than Jeff Sessions ever will.