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Except for the paper airplanes, which were acquired by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, most of these valuable and carefully assembled curations were traded for food, shelter and medicine in the last decade of Smiths dissolute life. What remains is preserved thanks to the Anthology Film Archives and Rani Singh, who became Smiths assistant during his latter-day stint as shaman-in-residence at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives, is one of this years Getty scholars. Her presence in L.A., along with the arrival of both former Folkways director (and supervisor of the Anthology reissue) Anthony Seeger and David Sefton (Willners enabler in an earlier London version of the Harry Smith Project) at UCLA, are just a few of many fortuitous coincidences that made the conference possible.
Though many of the scholars offered caveats to avoid hagiography, Smith clearly saw his whole life as a work of art, weaving the components together so that they couldnt be quartered without leaving tendrils of connective tissue trailing. Larger and more comprehensive surveys and symposia are being planned even now -- Smiths extant paintings and graphic work, for instance, have never been collected and displayed -- but as budgets grow, so does specialization. The GRI conference may have been the best shot well have for another 50 years to sew together this thrift-store Osiris and pump enough juice to get him up and staggering again. Its all well and good for scholars to say, We have to focus on specific details, one cant possibly comprehend the whole, because thats how academics operate and how we got this far. Perhaps the most important lesson of Harry Smiths art is that you can think about and work with the whole, but you have to be willing to pay a price. Smith is at least as important a cultural figure as John Cage, but where Cage chose to dwell in the polite and lucrative glow of high cultural Importance, Smith operated more like a mole in the ground. And the labyrinthine tunnel system with which he honeycombed the mountainous canon of American culture is just beginning to be mapped.#