Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on January 6, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier. The article is an excerpt from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting.  Dated 1982, the original typewriter manuscript is owned by his wife, Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, who edits and submits the chapters to TFAO. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.



 

WHAT'S WESTERN ART?

"In painting, any Indian is a good Indian"

By Roger Dunbier, PhD (1934-1998)

 

Nothing in 'Western Art' creates as much controversy as the meaning of 'Western'.  It is only with some trepidation that this writer ventures the following comments.

Western Art, when used in the context of this work, is something that grammarians call an 'ellipsis', which means that a word has been omitted.  In this case, the word is "American", and it is omitted in the term 'Western Art' because its use is so familiar locally or provincially that the additional word seems not necessary for accurate and complete understanding.  

However, the two-word expression 'Western Art' has an international significance of long standing among art scholars and must be given precedence over the more parochial use of the term.  In this broader use, 'Western Art' is the art of both Europe and America, meaning Anglo America and the United States.  Using this definition, a flower painting by an artist who never ventured West of the Connecticut Valley would qualify as 'Western Art'.  In this context, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is equally as 'Western' as Spanish/French modernist Joan Miro (1893-1983).

So what do we term a painting of horse soldiers in pursuit of the wily scalp hunter by Frederic Remington (1861-1909)?  To be accurate, it should be termed 'Western American Art', although it is, of course, 'Western' by the wider and prior definition.

So, in the Remington instance, 'Western Art' constitutes proper usage in both senses.  For this artist and his ilk, the question is answered but the problem of definition is not.  The reason for this lack of clarity seems to rest in the fact that no limitation is placed on this term 'Western'.  Hence it can be construed both so widely and so provincially that it becomes meaningless.  

Or, stated another way, how are we going to separate our Connecticut Valley still-life painter from those artists who are undoubtedly 'Western' in common parlance?

Attempts to make these distinctions too often degenerate into something like:  "Did he paint cows?" or "Did he paint a lot of cows?"  The assumption being, I suppose, that the cow is an animal native to Western North America, or that it is an icon, or a totem; none of which is factually digestible.  If there were anything in this kind of reasoning, I would like to nominate the Texas jack rabbit, which would, of course, eliminate all but a hearty few brush men who have spent their lives painting this illusive rascal.

As ridiculous as all this appears, the methods that have been used to separate ('to cut' would be a good Western term) what is not Western from that which is, are often not much more intellectually serious.  Most of these methods suffer from the problems associated with definition by subject and a negative one to boot.  A very typical argument goes something like this:  "Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929), who lived most of his life in California, was not by consensus of art critics a Western artist because he DID NOT paint the stock definition of Western subjects.  Instead his work often featured the Pacific beating on the rocks at Laguna.  

Well the DID NOT must refer to something, and that something is usually a mixed bag of objects where one or more of them is usually depicted in a scene that has come to be termed 'Western'.  A partial listing would include:

The aboriginal population.  In painting, any Indian is a good Indian, no matter what the age, sex or sartorial array.
1) Soldiers, particularly with blue uniforms.
2) Trappers and Cowboys.  These are working men and by nature of their activity, rank higher than miners and much higher than sodbusters.
3) Domestic Animals.  Sheep and pigs hardly count.  Cattle breeds vary from area to area, but all figure very prominently just behind the Horse, which is preeminently important everywhere 'West'.
4) Conveyances:  Buggies, Wagons and Stagecoaches rank above pickup trucks, which are, in fact, a very daring kind of subject matter in some circles where it is likely a critic would say:  "If you paint one of them into the 'pitcher' young man, you'd better paint it good." 

These enumerations could be extended into the vegetable kingdom where Cactus ranks very high.

But with the above listing, the point has been made that in 'Western Art' amongst those of us who share the 'common parlance' and who are not sticklers about the broader world of 'western art', certain subjects are 'in' and certain subjects are 'out'.  And, as I explain in my next essay, certain types of artists are 'in' and certain types are 'out'.

Edited and Submitted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier who holds the copyright
 

 

About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 21,357 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

 

About this article's editor

Lonnie Pierson Dunbier of Scottsdale, Arizona and originally from Nebraska, married Dr. Roger Dunbier in 1991. From then, she worked full time on his artist database. After his death, she co-founded AskART.com, for which she was Research Director from 2000 to 2007. Ms. Dunbier is also the editor of all other excerpts from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting

Resource Library editor's note:

readers may also enjoy:

and for a complete listing of Roger Dunbier's articles please click here or here.

rev. 12/24/07


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