Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Valuing Maud beyond Maudie

Maud, You're Richer Than You Think, graphite on paper, 16" x 20", Steven Rhude

If the movie Maudie provoked one understanding in Nova Scotians - in particular - it was the Hollywood shadow effect over the deeper quality of her art and life, in favour of another type of value - one popularised by profit and capital as the common denominator for her success. Any artist that has endeavoured to survive this far in an effort to peddle their wares knows what they are entwined in, and how ethically challenged the commercial market is. The Maud story is common to the reality of today's art world, and provides a lens into one of exploitation, distortion, and greed. This seems to generally disconcert some people that align themselves with the latter concept of industry and profit aimed at defining her legacy through auction results and merchandise, rather than her poverty, regionalism, vision, and artistic practice - something that would defy today's understanding of art criticism, and its  perspective quagmired in post modern truth, esoterica, and identity politics.

A few headlines cut and pasted from the CBC confirms the superficial focus of Maud's "value" to Canadians:

1 - Maud Lewis painting found in thrift shop sells for $45,000
2 - From erasers to prints, Maud Lewis merchandise snapped up at AGNS
3 - Bidding for Nova Scotia's Maud Lewis painting found in thrift store reaches $125,000
4 - Lost Maud Lewis painting to be displayed as folk artist's biopic released

It's an old game, and one that has now developed an efficient and sanitised "public face", yet, when those targeted for public consumption tends to gather to discuss the issue of Maud around the proverbial water cooler, one senses that very public is onto a bad bill of goods being dispensed by the media in order to grease the wheels of an industry far removed from the reality of regional Nova Scotia, Maud, her art, and its educative capacity for the rest of Canada.  As usual, we are left to contend with the celebration of Maud's record prices as they eclipse any attempt to probe the deeper aspects of an art and life that was essentially anti-modernist, and outside the reality of the auction soothsayers.

 In turn, the politics of identity were far removed from Maud's activity, however in today's sense, she seems to break all the rules. Maud may have loved colour, but probably didn't dwell much on how it related to ones skin. She wasn't Indigenous, neither was she black - yet she also didn't have running water or a lobby group to protest her situation to a major museum audience. Accordingly, if the colour of ones skin seems important, she would be considered white, but the truth is, we can't say she was in any way privileged by today's definition. But we know one thing - her life mattered.

 Maud was a female, but we can't say she was an active feminist, or probably more importantly, we can't say she was not independently minded because her determination as a woman and a painter proves otherwise. Maud was commercially successful, but we can't say she prospered from it and hired a studio full of technical assistants, agents, and media, like most glorified post modernists today. Maud was locally popular, but we can't say she was aware of it, or had any approval ratings to monitor, or facebook likes to tabulate. Maud wasn't LGBTO, but we can't say she wasn't unfairly marginalised or isolated because of her appearance. So the question remains; how could the portrayal of a female painter from a period of rural Nova Scotia's modernisation, today, suddenly start to unravel a happy, bucolic perspective on a simple folk way of life (as promoted by the province of Nova Scotia), and turn our gaze toward a question of cultural and poverty related exploitation?    

 Perhaps it starts with the Maud Lewis legacy, and the impact of her art on our perception of originality?

 Her subject matter, and related rural experience, and the regional discourse her art was intended to revolve around, was one steeped in an anti modernist perspective. Many rural Nova Scotians were suspicious of government policies and contemporary late capitalistic encroachment back in the 1940's to 1950's. If we could fast forward, one wonders what Maud would have to say about the Queens off shore tax haven involvement today? I bet she would smile, put her head down, and keep painting.  Yet in terms of Maud's art, it quickly was co-opted by the agency of the market place and their facilitators, and channelled through the standard rhetoric of news agencies uninterested in the real Maud, her time, and the larger picture of poverty, but rather a bucolic exchange of wares. In reality, co-opting our interest through the contemporary Maud has come with a hefty price tag, because the shadow of poverty that was cast over herself and her circumstances were more pervasive than we chose to acknowledge, and may be now coming back to haunt us.

That cast shadow was not far from where Maud And Everett lived, in fact it was only yards away in the form of the Marshalltown  Poor House.

As a vestige of the British Colonial work house, poor houses were intended to provide a solution for those unable to function within the prevailing economic system and social dimensions of the time. Maud Lewis would have been aware of the stigma that came with such an institution, and the variety of inmates, and their blurred divisions into sane and insane, unwed mothers and children, old and young, ill and healthy workers. 

To have been conscious of those that perished in the Alms House and subsequently buried without identification may have been the darkest part of the shadow lingering over the time of Maud. To rectify this, in the form of a Marshalltown Memorial would provide a value more lasting than any auction result could fathom, and be as colourful as one of Maud's paintings.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS