Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Turning the Feather Around: My Life In Art by George Morrison As Told to Margot Fortunato Galt

feather cover

From Alexander of Abingdon to Salvador Dalí, artists frequently indulge in telling of their own story or explaining their philosophy of art in writing.  They're not the final word on criticism of their own work, by any means, but these autobiographies and manifestos can be entertaining and fascinating reading, as well as being useful source material.  Unfortunately, Turning the Feather Around is only marginally interesting and of limited use to scholars.

George Morrison was an artist who led an incredible life.  Born in the poverty-stricken Indian village of Chippewa City, Minnesota, in 1919, Morrison was infected with TB in his hip as a boy and had to go to St. Paul to receive treatment.  Here he interacted with other children, read books, and did art projects.  This visit opened up a much broader world to Morrison.  Eventually he left Chippewa City (now a ghost town) for New York City in the 1940's.  He hung out in Greenwich Village and palled around with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Frantz Kline; showed in tons of exhibits, and was pretty much livin' the dream.  But no matter how fun New York was, Morrison always wanted to return to Minnesota, which he eventually did, to much acclaim of "local boy makes good."

Oh, and P.S., he was an American Indian.

There is a curious affectation to Turning the Feather Around in that it is basically a transcript of Morrison recounting his life to Galt.  This may sound like an interesting idea, but it doesn't really work because there's no formative narrative for the reader to frame these incidents, so it takes on an aspect of, "First we did this, and then we did this, and then this happened."  These aren't stories--they rarely even manage to be anecdotes--and the information is all over the place: Morrison's art, his personal life, some random philosophical musing, people he hung out with, his dog, he likes a girl, he likes the dog better, back to artistic accomplishments, etc.  Plus, because Margot doesn't insert herself into the book at all, we have no idea what she was asking or why he's talking about these things, so it ends up reading like a one-sided phone conversation.

Galt does insert Morrison's ex-wife, Hazel Belvo, into the book, however.  In some ways this was an improvement, because at least you could get a sense of the interaction between her and Morrison; at the same time, though, her interjections are pretty pointless.  I wanted to write her a note saying, "Dear Hazel, What's up with you, woman?  Quit riding George's coattails and write and your own damn book.  Love, me."  That's the kind of nice person I am.

But then Morrison hasn't written his own book, has he?  He's told his story to a (white) woman who has then presumably edited his pearls of wisdom for this book.  My question--WHY.  Unless Galt is incapable of critical thinking, why am I not reading her biography of George Morrison?  Or why am I not reading Morrison's own autobiography?  He was perfectly capable of writing--he mentioned that he kept journals in Turning the Feather Around.  Those sound very interesting; why am I not seeing an annotated version of them?

Even though one could say Morrison is telling his own story here, I disagree.  It's being framed by a white point of view, one to which the most interesting aspect of his life and character is his American Indian-ness.  This is clear in the fact that Morrison repeatedly says the Indian aspect of his art is something other people have always looked for--and, coincidentally enough, seen--in his work, not something he ever purposefully brought to it; yet he spends a good half of the book, if not more, talking about how he felt as an Indian, how his work was received within the Indian community, how Hazel had to adjust to being married to an Indian.  For someone who considered himself and artist first, we spend an awful lot of time talking about his ethnicity and not a lot about his art.  Again, what kind of questions were being posed here?

There's something curiously emasculating about this book.  When one reads the writings of great artists--even female artists like Georgia O'Keeffe--they typically come across as full of bravado and machismo and stubbornness.  They could tell the entire world to fuck off--could and did--as long as they get to work the way they want.  I have a feeling Morrison had that attitude, as well, but you're only given hints of it here.  First his voice is filtered through Margot Fortunato Galt, and then his ex, Hazel, comes in and further obscures it.  He almost disappears into the background, a whisper.

Is this because Morrison was an Indian?  Is an Indian with the power and machismo of Pollock really that threatening?  Or was this simply a side effect of the method through which Morrison's story is conveyed?  Or is it more an issue of gender and the fact that Galt is a woman?  It's hard to say, but after reading this book I do think it's disappointingly non-critical, and I wish Morrison had written it directly or that Galt had simply taken their interview and used it to write a biography.  Not that either of those would necessarily have been more critical, but at least they might have been framed better so that the book would be more appealing to the average reader.

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