This is NOT a photo by William Christenberry. Neither is it a photo of authentic vernacular art. In that sense it is doubly false. Or is it?
This gnome’s house is some artist’s creation in the style of a folk artist. The photo is my creation somewhat in the style of William Christenberry. “In the style of…” — there’s the rub. Our culture values originality and authenticity.
Usually I wince when confronted by gimcrack sentimentality, by new things made to look old, by modern bed & breakfasts decked out in fake Americana.
I’m in such a place now. There are oval Shaker baskets on a shelf next to an old-timey-looking “Bed & Breakfast $2.00” sign. Next to me is a wreath of dried weeds. Everywhere I look, I see what is supposed to pass as “country”. But, instead of wincing, I’m comfortable.
Why am I comfortable? Perhaps because the attempt is authentic. The people running this bed & breakfast love this stuff. Similarly, I love William Christenberry’s photos, just as the artist who created this gnome’s house loves this kind of object. At their best, perhaps we could call these things “authentic imitations.”
If you look closely at the gnome’s house, you’ll see that the windows in the house alternate moons and stars. These celestial windows go all around. There is a door on the other side, but it is shut. Birds and gnomes (unless they are magical) cannot get in, only small bugs. Inside, hornets had at one time built a nest. The house serves no purpose, but it is charming, especially against the green of the lawn, the blue of the sky, and the white of the clouds.
Socrates, if I read him right, wanted nothing to do with imitation. He saw it as a form of untruth. I suffer the same qualms about photography, which is by its nature almost always imitative, an image OF something, not to mention being in the style of some photographer, an imitation of an imitator.
And it is not just photographers who suffer these qualms, wanting to be original and fearing they are not. Most art is imitative. Paintings, sculptures, plays, novels, dance, movies are usually OF something. Socrates, you may remember, didn’t write down his philosophy because that, too, would be imitative. He insisted that truth was best approached through dialogue, usually while walking.
If you are familiar with William Christenberry’s art, you know that he not only photographs sentimental objects found in the southern United States, he also builds models of them, small imitations not unlike the gnome house I photographed. Here I should apologize, because he isn’t building models, he’s making sculptures, and his subjects are not sentimental objects, they are vernacular architecture, signs, and objects representative of an entire culture.
Christenberry in a 2005 interview, said, “If I can’t possess the real thing, I’m going to make something that comes pretty close.” That is to say, he’s comfortable making imitations of the real thing, though he’s careful to say they are not exact replicas, but rather are interpretations. If one of his sculptures were placed on a pole outside this bed-and-breakfast, a photo of it might look much like my photo of this gnome’s house.