photograph by Dave Nance
I’ve got all these windmills and these flags–you got to have wind. This art belongs in Kansas, out where it’s windy, in a sea of grass. And that’s where it is, and that’s where it’s going to stay.
This weekend the Bob Edwards radio show broadcast a feature on the documentary What’s The Matter With Kansas?, an adaptation of Thomas Frank’s best-selling (and much-discussed) 2006 book by the same name. Mr. Edwards invited both the author and the director Joe Winston in to discuss the project, which seems in many ways to be an extension of Mr. Frank’s book–less a one-sided ideological argument than a careful look into the lives of a range of Kansans, to understand how they and their state have migrated from a populist, Democratic electorate to a solidly Republican state that (as Frank argues) votes against their own economic interests for the sake of certain moral issues. Though both Frank and Winston are both left-leaning artists, the film has been receiving accolades for its even-handed approach of simply letting these Kansans speak for themselves.
I was excited to hear that the film spends some time with M.T. Liggett, the iconoclastic sculptor from Mullinsville. If the directors were looking for a figure who would trouble easy partisan arguments, they could have done no better. If artists in specific, and rural people in general, share any traits, one of them would be a sometimes vigorous sense of contrariness. That’s in full view in the videos below, which will both help to explain Mr. Liggett, his art and how they could have only been made in the place where he has chosen to live. Please note that the following videos both contain profane language.
“Can you imagine the odds of M.T. Liggett being born in a town like Mullinville, Kansas?” the artist wonders in the latter video. “But the only reason I stay here is because you can’t do this any place else. I’ve got to have Kansas on account of all the wind and this room: it’s kinetic energy, it’s movement.” Mr. Liggett’s sentiment’s here, of having a deeply complicated relationship with place, was echoed here previously when we looked at the photographs of David Lundahl. Like him, Mr. Liggett is between categories–really neither a folk artist nor a “modern” artist–so he is catagorized as an “outsider artist.” Like Mr. Lundahl, an attachment to a rural place keeps him “outside” the urban centers where art is supposed to happen; an adherence to some of the aesthetic values of modern art keep him from ever being fully “inside” the life of this same community, this same place.