Truth and Consequences: The 25-Year Friendship of Thornton Dial and Bill Arnett

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In 1987, a remarkably prescient conversation occurred between Alabama artist Thornton Dial and Atlanta art historian/patron Bill Arnett soon after they met.

Arnett said, “Mr. Dial, people value cultures according to how well they make art, and nobody believes black Americans are capable of making great art. You can become one of the most important artists in the world and make everybody realize they were wrong. You can open doors to so many people like yourself who’ve been kept out. You can bring civil rights to people in ways that Martin Luther King didn't live to do.”

Dial responded, “Man, if I’m that good they’ll have to kill me.”

Ironically Dial was right. A small but determined group of people for more than two decades have made a concerted effort to kill Dial and his culture, and they haven’t had to fire a single shot.

How do I know that this conversation between Dial and Arnett took place?

I was there.

There are two ways to tell a lie: change important facts or omit them. Both tactics have been utilized repeatedly to bury a complicated story that needs to be told truthfully and in full.

In the last 50 years, a centuries-old, visual arts tradition in the African American South has become openly visible. Freed by Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement from fear and seclusion, this artistic development has produced some of America’s most outstanding art. Although for decades this art has challenged the myth of white artistic superiority, it is still largely excluded by the institutions entrusted with defining and establishing America’s cultural hierarchies. Similar paralyzing myths, beginning with those that initially forced exclusion upon black musicians and athletes, had long ago gone the way of other disproven myths. Why not this art?

When Thornton Dial’s work first appeared in the museum world, it presented an enigma and then a dilemma. Art like Dial’s didn’t fit any existing paradigm. What is this, and where did it come from? Then came the bigger question: What should we do with it?

Exceptional anomalies like Dial often attract equal doses of admiration and animosity. Considering what Dial represented, most people assumed the obstacles to his success would come from the art mainstream. If, as Dial’s supporters claimed, he was indeed the equal of his celebrated white contemporaries Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly -- also Southerners -- then museum walls and history books would need to accommodate him. And if, as his supporters also claimed, Dial represented a great cultural phenomenon far wider and deeper than he, serious accommodations and considerable revisions would be forced upon the system.

But the inevitable resentment of Dial did not come from the mainstream. It emanated from the fears and insecurities of the groups that should have recognized Dial’s value to their own self-interests but instead almost ended this story before it began.

The notorious 1993 60 Minutes episode that came perilously close to destroying both Thornton Dial and Bill Arnett was a product of collaboration between a few members of the Southern art establishment and some “folk art” dealers, collectors and would-be scholars. The gist of their story was that Arnett was an exploiter of poor black artists, the most noteworthy of which was the "overrated" Dial, while "more deserving" artists Charlie Lucas and Bessie Harvey, according to their version, were being suppressed by Arnett.

At the same time in 1993, a two-part exhibition of Dial’s work opened in New York City at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of American Folk Art. The following Sunday, 60 Minutes ran its segment, the first of three airings, leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at which Dial was to be the featured artist. Their story was pure invention, a fact well-known to 60 Minutes’ Southern art informants, as well as to many interested in the emerging field known as contemporary folk art. The producers of 60 Minutes must have suspected the story was a creation of their informants but because their salient “facts” had been confirmed by officials in four museums, as well as several major folk art dealers and collectors, they may have felt legally secure. As Arnett said at the time, “The collaborators were the corroborators.”

Even if you treat severe personality disorders on a daily basis, as I do, you still shudder at the cruelty of plots to destroy people. Thornton Dial is generous, gentle and remarkably stable. From a clinical perspective, he is probably the sanest man I have ever met.

When the attacks on him began around 1990, although he understood the attackers’ motives and the damage done to him, he responded to adversity as he had throughout his life: he worked harder, intensified his focus and poured his enormous mental and physical energies into improving.

Dial’s art got better and better -- more complex, dynamic and innovative. Dial has never been satisfied with his own status quo, and he obligates himself to progress with each piece he makes. At age 62, he was a great artist. At 82, he has become substantially greater. Everyone benefits from a person like Dial. No one should feel threatened.

I often speak with Dial and Arnett about their goals and ambitions. Dial said, “I ain’t much for talking. You look at my art you seeing my mind. Art is to learn from. It show you the truth. For me, too. The more you mess with art, the more you understand.”

I asked Arnett why he would forgo any possibility of a comfortable life and financial security to pursue what seemed to be the impossible task of convincing the world that uneducated African Americans belonged in the company of the great masters of Western civilization. He answered, “In high school I wanted to know about religion but never found the perfect answer. In college I wanted to know about truth, and I looked all over the world for it and found it in art. The omission of this Southern African American artistic phenomenon is absolutely the greatest failing of the art history we are taught. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”

Since the early 1970s, Arnett has gathered extensive documentation and a near-definitive collection of work crucial to the understanding of this cultural phenomenon. In the '80s, he was paying 20 to 30 artists amounts of money far beyond their expectations, more per month than most had received over their lifetimes. He educated them about the monetary value of their work and its relevance to American history. Arnett established for these artists a system of support similar to what has long existed throughout the world for trained artists. For so-called folk artists, however, his patronage, which included his research, documentation and publications, was, and remains, without precedent. As many of the black artists and the Gee's Bend quiltmakers have told me, without Arnett’s support they could never have survived, much less enjoyed such successful lives.

When I once asked Arnett why he remained uncharacteristically passive in the face of a steady stream of misinformation being disseminated about him and the artists, he said, “If this deteriorates into a mud-slinging contest [that was not his term], which is the strategy used by those people, the big loser will be the artists and art history. Nobody will actually win except those who want to cut the baby in half.”

Arnett may have made a mistake by not fighting back over the years, but he always believed the truth was so obvious that everyone would figure it out eventually. Many did, but a few others, motivated by envy and greed, worked harder to destroy truth than most people were willing to work to preserve it.
I have always thought that Thornton Dial’s art would survive under any circumstances. The intense determination of some individuals to diminish the significance of Dial, to discredit the validity of his work and to affect his capacity and confidence to achieve his goals as an artist will likely fail. His adversaries did not anticipate nor respect Dial’s artistic greatness, his remarkable resilience and Dial’s and Arnett’s resolve -- a resolve that is strengthened by their enormous faith and trust in each other.

Joanne Cubbs, curator of the major Dial exhibition, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, which originated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently said: “I have known Thornton Dial and Bill Arnett since the early 1990s when I was the founding curator of the Folk Art Department at the High Museum. Their friendship over the last 25 years may turn out to be one of the most extraordinary artist/patron relationships in the history of contemporary art.”

I would add to that: I have known Arnett for almost 40 years, and he is as honest, dedicated, intelligent and unselfish as anyone I have ever met. My friendship with Arnett began when I, as a collector of African art, became acquainted with Arnett as a dealer in African art. Subsequently, Arnett introduced me to Thornton Dial, to whom I am devoted and whom I consider to be one of my closest friends. Neither he nor Dial should have had to endure their ordeals of the last two decades.

After attending the exhibition Hard Truths in Indianapolis, culture critic Richard Lacayo wrote a five-page article on Dial in Time magazine, in which he compared Dial to such artists as Picasso, Georges Braque and Robert Rauschenberg: “[Dial] was unaware of any of this history. He had never set foot in a museum. What he had by way of guidance were the traditions of African American folk art all around him.”
In 2006, Arnett similarly wrote in the book, Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, “When Dial moved to Bessemer in 1940 at age twelve, it is possible that he had already seen as much great art along the rural roads of Alabama as a privileged white child of that age might have seen in Paris, London or New York.”

Lacayo summed up his Time article with, “Art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it is tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it’s the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does.”

Thornton Dial’s work, forged in adversity, arises from a synergy produced by his rich African American cultural heritage and the friendship and encouragement provided by Bill Arnett. Dial recently told me: "I couldn't love and respect a man no more than I do Bill. He helped us get love and respect for ourselves and to where we never been able to get. I never seen a white man work like that for my peoples."

Along with the work of the many sculptors, painters and quiltmakers who have benefited from the same set of conditions, Dial’s art has provided us with a foundation for recognizing and understanding an exciting new chapter in American art. Thornton Dial may be pivotal in again making art relevant to the human condition and perhaps saving art from itself.

JAMES SELLMAN and his wife Barbara have been traveling throughout the world collecting art for more than 35 years and have been members of the Folk Art Society of America for 22 years. They have donated more than 200 pieces of traditional African art to Richmond's Virginia Union University, and they have made significant gifts of drawings and paintings by Thornton Dial to that and other American institutions. The Sellmans have spent the past 25 years supporting African American artists, exhibitions and other academic projects. Since 1978, Sellman has served on the Clinical Faculty of the Medical College of Virginia-VCU Medical School. In 2001, he was recognized by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill as one of the 35 outstanding psychiatrists in America.