No, It’s Not Just Idiotic Kitsch

A photographic exhibition captures the drama of polka culture in Wisconsin.

By - Feb 20th, 2015 04:33 pm
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Lakefront Brewery Kids and Dancers. Photo by Dick Blau

Lakefront Brewery Kids and Dancers. Photo by Dick Blau

Polka music has often drawn snickers from hipsters but it is deeply imbedded in Wisconsin culture and has more substance than detractors would suggest. As Richard March, the longtime, Wisconsin Arts Board Folk Arts Specialist once put it, “It is unfortunate that schlocky commercial polka recordings have fostered a stereotype that polka is nothing but idiotic kitsch.” March helped supervise two CDs produced by the Smithsonian that record polka music and he is well-versed on all the ethnic varieties of the music.

As some point March connected with Dick Blau, the longtime UW-Milwaukee film professor, who had developed a second avocation as a photographer documenting polka culture, with photos taken mostly in Buffalo and Chicago. March contacted Blau about collaborating on a book capturing polka culture in Wisconsin, and the result, Polka Heartland, will be published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society this spring.

Coinciding with the book is a new exhibition of Blau’s photography at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, surely the perfect venue for such a Wisconsin-themed enterprise, which opened in January and runs through March 29. The exhibition includes 30 photographs that capture the energy and humanity of polka performances, and “belie the stereotype of polka as ‘corny’ and ‘dated,’” as the MOWA description suggests.

The photos of Mexican polka dances are particularly exotic, but all the images capture the theatricality of these gatherings; Blau was the son of well-known theater professor Herb Blau and actress Beatrice Manley and has an eye for the sometimes edgy, human drama of these dances. And the large scale of the photos gives these homey musical gatherings a symphonic scale.

On March 5, 6:30 p.m., March will give a talk in conjunction with the exhibition at MOWA and even play some polkas on his accordion, and on March 14, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m MOWA offers a “Polka Dance Party,” with music by the Brewhaus Polka Kings, to help celebrate the exhibition.

Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau Through March 29, Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue in West Bend.

Polka Heartland Gallery

0 thoughts on “Art: No, It’s Not Just Idiotic Kitsch”

  1. Anonymous says:

    […] Dial Urban Milwaukee covers Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau  […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have wanted to see this exhibit while it is open in West Bend. I don’t really care if it is considered art. I think this exhibit just seems visually interesting!

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Idiotic”–especially in the headline–is a bit harsh.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dick Blau, who’s captured ethnicities before, shows so much spontaneity in this exhibit, proving to the world that those who polka are alive and living individuals and not just stereotypes and doddering caricatures. A great exhibit!

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