[Dixielandjazz] No More Banjo Jokes -- It's Art!
box2 at twotonbaker.com
Sun Dec 18 08:03:11 PST 2005
Dear Friends -- Especially You Plunkers:
I know many of you are both banjo enthusiasts and Serious Scholars of the
Arts, so you'll want to read all about the latest exhibition at
Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. The link to the full article is
directly below (you *may* have to log-in or sign-up or something with
Washington Post to get to it, but that's free). I was sorely tempted to
quote it in its entirety, but restrained myself to the first half-dozen
Clear your thoughts of banjo-picking as happy music. Stop those toes from
tapping. If you start humming the cheerful ripple of "Roll in My Sweet
Baby's Arms," quit it. We're at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for goodness'
sake, and we're here to appreciate the banjo as an icon.
"Picturing the Banjo" is "the first exhibit to underscore the banjo's
symbolism in American art," the gallery's press release proclaims. The
show's 72 works include paintings, sketches, illustrations and a few
antique instruments, dating back to the 18th century. It was put together
by Leo G. Mazow, curator of American art at Penn State's Palmer Museum. The
Corcoran is the exhibition's first stop.
Sometimes a banjo is just a banjo. But not here. The gallery wants you to
know that while other banjo exhibitions have been simply about the banjo,
the Corcoran wasn't going to make that mistake. This show is about the
metabanjo, and if that sounds like an exciting premise to you, then these
three rooms divided into seven thematic categories will be heaven. For here
the banjo is not picked -- it is picked apart. It is probed, prodded and
pondered. These banjos are so laden with meaning it's a wonder they stick
to their canvases.
Forget that outmoded notion of the banjo as mere musical instrument, as the
chipper giddyup in a bluegrass band or the lilting heart of so many
old-time gospel songs. And don't come expecting any nimble finger-rolling
to be piped in over loudspeakers. You study the pictures in silence, and if
you need help solving the puzzle of these banjo images, the descriptive
wall labels are there to give you answers.
The banjo, as Mazow explained at the media opening, speaks to us about our
national identity. It represents our need to understand the African folk
culture whence it came. It marks "an effort to normalize the element of the
Other into American musical life."
In this exhibition, the banjo is racially charged and sociologically
weighty. Forget about strings and frets. These banjos are fraught. Deeply
fraught. Some are even sexually fraught. Women's lib might be traced back
to the banjo, if we correctly interpret Frances Benjamin Johnston's 1895
photo of a mischievous Miss Apperson in Sen. George Hearst's Washington
mansion. Miss Apperson is juxtaposed with a statue of a goddess, a vision
of Victorian virginity raised on a marble pedestal. Miss Apperson, however,
is hardly so chaste . . . for in her hands she holds a banjo. And she's
having a good time with it. (Really, isn't the instrument just one big
phallic symbol? But that's a bit of banjo symbology the curators did not
Dick Baker - Falls Church, Virginia, USA
box2 at twotonbaker.com
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