What's In a Name? 

The complex associations and dissociations of the Fugitive monikerr

The complex associations and dissociations of the Fugitive monikerr

The Fugitive Art Center's name refers to the one moment outside of country music when Nashville had a major impact on cultural life. The Fugitives were a group of poets affiliated with Vanderbilt who met regularly and published a magazine from 1922-25. The members included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, all of whom went on to academic careers and led major journals such as the Kenyon Review and the Sewanee Review. In the 1930s, several of them joined with the Southern Agrarians, who took an anti-modernist stand against the dehumanizing qualities of industrialization by embracing traditional Southern values and ways of life.

In the 1920s, the Fugitive poets wrote in a modernist style that maintained high standards of literary craft but put their work at the leading edge of poetic aesthetics. Their poems often dealt with Southern history while undercutting the sentimentalism typical of Southern writers at the time. However, as time went on they became identified, through the Agrarian polemics of I'll Take My Stand and the academic journals they led, with a resistance to contemporary trends in poetry and society. I'll Take My Stand argued that the best course for society was to preserve and extend the way of life in the rural South, against forces of modernity that would elevate the pursuit of economic gain above all else and bureaucratize society. This much sounds like a contemporary critique of capitalism's intrusion into human interaction. However, the critical difference was that the Agrarians identified themselves with Southern elites, who had the leisure to cultivate their cultural and spiritual life, but of course were supported by struggling people without the leisure and education to do the same. The Agrarians' position led them to argue against integration of the races and to attack programs designed to reduce poverty and misery among the mass of Southerners. In the end, the Agrarian position was reactionary.

All of this makes the Fugitive name seem a poor fit for a group that promotes experimentation, values technique but does not elevate it over ideas, embraces technology and encourages departures from traditional forms. The name came at the last minute, just before the first show opened. Not surprisingly, Bryan Hunter, the poet, gets credit for it. He suggested it because it has something to do with Nashville, and he liked the word itself, which seemed to match the furtive and on-the-fly nature of the project they were engaged in.

Discussion of the name also uncovers the process of cultural forgetting. As Greg Pond points out, if you type "Fugitive" in Google, you get the Fugitive Art Center and a bunch of sites for bounty hunters. One time, the people at the Fugitive had to call the police to report a break-in. When they said where they were calling from, Glispin says the police "got all bent out of shape because of the name. To them 'fugitive' means they have to come figure out where the fugitive is."

The name does fit in some regards. Like the Fugitive magazine, the Fugitive Art Center tries to bring in work that reflects the leading trends in modern art. The board members are not art world outsiders, but mostly MFA-trained professionals with teaching positions. Most significantly, the group brings together people with local ties, people just beginning to form those ties and others passing through. As a group, they are aware of themselves as part of this place, which has a past as well as a present.

If you live in the South, you have to acknowledge that the past is complex, with virtues and beauty, but also error and pain. Like anything Southern, the Fugitives offer a complicated legacy. The Fugitive Art Center may have the sophistication to carry this legacy with a combination of respect, irony and a desire for redemption.

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