When I was a child in the quaint, suburban town of Aiken, South Carolina, I thought art was for everyone. The itch I would get from a clean, white sheet of paper; the intoxicating release I experienced when a wet, tangerine marker hit its surface; the unbridled pride when my noses began to look like noses, my turtles began to look like turtles — who wouldn’t want paint pictures, and look at pictures others had painted? Some were better at it than others perhaps, but surely this was something that everyone did, that everyone felt.
When I continued my studies as an art history college student, I somehow maintained this innocent notion. Perhaps it was because my university didn’t push an emphasis on contemporary art; I dabbled in it, but alongside medieval art, African arts and culture, and a course delving into the theory of the self-portrait. I learned all of the wonderfully varied things that art could do, the different things it could mean to different people — but my images of contemporary gallery structures and the art market were foggy at best.
It wasn’t really until I moved to Chicago and began pursuing a degree in New Arts Journalism that I was consistently exposed to the term “art world.” Suddenly my intuition that art is the world — rendered through paints, clay, metal, and found objects — seemed rather naive. Nowadays, it appeared, art was guarded by a wall built increasingly high from the bricks and mortar of elitism. Perhaps the wall had always been there; I had just never known. Meanwhile my courses mourned the impending death of the traditional critic, as our internet-driven culture gave the art world and art criticism room to grow impossibly vast and scattered. On the surface this concerned me — or at least I knew it was meant to. What was I doing building expertise, after all, if experts weren’t the ones in control? But deeper down was my eight-year-old self, scribbling freely on a piece of cardboard. And all that child could think was “Good riddance.” I am writing today to take her side.
I recently read an article on the art website Hyperallergic discussing the horrors of crowd-sourced voting art competitions like the Mohn Award and Art Prize, which writer Jillian Steinhauer compares to American Idol. She poses the questions, “Are we an elite? Should we try to reach out more to “non-art” people? Do you need to know about art to appreciate it?” As I huffily responded out loud to each (and I’m not one to typically speak aloud to my homework), I realized that the second two questions answered the first. This way of thinking about “art” people and “non-art” people, “us versus them,” reeks of condescension, of keeping others out. Yes, we are an elite because we call ourselves “we,” and we attempt to reign over what is arguably one of the most universal human instincts on the planet (consider the caves of Lascaux): the urge to create. If this mindset does not change among art professionals, we risk becoming obsolete.
In her New Art Examiner article “Why We Hate Art,” cultural critic Mara Tapp observes how little Americans are immersed in art as compared with Europeans, an idea inspired when, on a trip to Italy, Tapp’s eight-year-old daughter noted that Italian museums were different, “not like ‘the Art Institute [of Chicago], which is a prison to me.’” “It suddenly dawned on me,” writes Tapp, “that we Americans do imprison our art in houses that serve limited functions — to warehouse and display art in often what must seem to children sterile ways. [..]
In Italy, however the art is everywhere — in old palaces, in gardens, in places where people pray, on city streets, around every corner — and the enthusiasm for it is boundless.” She notes how centuries of arts immersion have seeped into Italy’s popular culture; even their advertisements are thoughtful, artful, and make social statements. Tapp wonders, “Will we ever find the national will to make arts an integral part of our lives, as have others around the world and throughout history?” Breaching the subject of art in America, where anti-intellectual, Puritanical traditions have helped push art into its isolated corner, and indignant art professionals have helped to keep it there, it’s certainly difficult to know where to start. But this is all the more reason why members of the art world should be happy to lose control, to allow mass media and the general public to enrich our relevance. On the rare occasions when fine art attempts to leak into our popular culture, we shouldn’t try to stop it; we should happily let it flow.
Such mass participation is encouraged in Art Prize, a city-wide art show in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the world’s largest art competition. Spread among the town’s galleries, shops and university spaces, Art Prize’s premise might make some art professionals cringe; the first principle the event information boasts is “Open Call: Anyone over the age of 18 can be an artist; any space in the ArtPrize district can be a venue.” Art Prize distributes prizes for both crowd-selected and critic-juried winners, though the public has the most power, choosing the winner for the grand prize of $200,000.
Critics of Art Prize fear the undermining of professional curators, and that artists will simply pander to an uneducated audience for cash prizes, resulting in flashy, disingenuous works of art. But such criticism implies that works curated within the traditional gallery structure are pure creation, immune from such tainting outside forces as public opinion and finance. This, of course, could not be further from the truth; exhibiting artists must be extraordinarily self-aware to verbalize and sell their work. Such reservation also implies that popular opinion equals the lowest common denominator. Even if this were true (I don’t think it is), higher civic exposure to art helps reinforce its relevance in the American consciousness as a cultural necessity rather than a luxury commodity. I wonder how this changed public opinion might improve arts education in public schools, where right now art is a throwaway, the first to go during budget cuts. A more prominent presence of art only leads to a more educated public, and, ultimately, a lowest common denominator that is much higher.
Just after the first week of the first Art Prize competition, journalist Troy Reimink wrote on the Mlive Michigan news website that the open criteria led him to appreciate the value of traditional curators even more: “ArtPrize cannot change the fact that art is best viewed in places designed to facilitate that experience, and best presented by people who have spent their lives educating themselves about how to do it.” Reimink cites Paul Wittenbraker of The Rapidian, who suggests an improved future discourse through higher transparency of the curation processes, so that attendees have an even better understanding of why some spaces produced aesthetically successful exhibitions, and others did not.
As for the winners of Art Prize, critic’s 2012 choice, “Displacement,” a subdued, nostalgic installation of mostly found objects by collaboration team Design 99, was far different than the realist wildlife drawing by Adhonna Khare that the public handed the grand prize. But crowd-selected monetary awards also went to an intriguing robotic installation piece and a series of minimal paper sculptures, and I would argue that who wins doesn’t matter nearly as much as the discussions and comparisons (especially among the public- and critic-chosen pieces) between them.
None of this is to say that an all-inclusive competition like Art Prize will not prompt the production of some bad art. There is, in fact, a blog dedicated to the worst of Art Prize, appropriately titled “Artprize Worst,” that documents the unintentional kitsch, the giant shoe made out of shoes, and, well, the mermaids — one piece features a paper-mache half-fish redhead, spewing from her mouth an enormous burst of wire, paper, and craft pom poms, which the unnamed blogger deems “Mermaid Puking Fish Eggs”. But the author wraps up his snarky journey with an ending post in which he writes to following:
“I would like to let you know that I truly believe that all the art pieces on this blog SHOULD be in Artprize. No matter how bad it may be, it has a place at the table (though maybe not the winners table). I hope that this blog has resonated with all of those who have walked around town for the past two weeks shaking their heads in dismay. I also hope that all the artists whose work ended up on this blog can take a joke. I hope that in the future, Artprize continues to not only provide a venue for some seriously good and seriously bad art but helps the community to have an EDUCATED conversation about the pieces on display.”
As Art Prize invites America to choose its favorite artist, Bravo’s reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, brought art production to American sofas everywhere. In the 10-episode long television series, unfortunately cancelled after two seasons, emerging artists competed for $100,000 and a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum. One of the four regular judges was Jerry Saltz, renowned art critic for New York Magazine.
Work of Art displayed obvious flaws. In character with much American television, and nearly indistinguishable from its Bravo competition counterparts like Top Chef and Project Runway, Work of Art’s editing was flashy and hectic, the music melodramatic, often in attempts to add tension where there was none. Critiques were cut short to make room for competitor drama. Some of the challenges seemed somewhat ignorant of how truly varied individual artists can be. Season 1 Episode 4 set the artists up to fail by prompting them to be controversial-on-command and produce a piece of shock art. This challenge obviously compromised quality of work for the artists who were not typically so confrontational. Much worse, it forced the artists to play into stereotypes the general public may already hold of their occupation, as the participants were depicted desperately grappling for shock with haphazard, confused performance pieces and over-obvious self-fellatio paintings. But even this episode, arguably the worst of the season, had a redeeming factor: the guest judge was Andre Serrano, a crucial player in the culture wars of the 1990s, but a name with which much of the general public may not be familiar.
Many could argue that Work of Art is shallow. But the show is by no means devoid of visual vocabulary. The immersiveness of installation art, how a female artist simultaneously fights and welcomes the male gaze, how some pieces read as more commercial than others — all of these have been aspects discussed in the shows’ end critiques. Even the critiques themselves, where the artists and judges walk from piece to piece to reflect on each, are not dissimilar to those that take place in most fine art school settings. Though each discussion is brief, it is certainly better than none. It dips viewers’ toes in, and in our Google-led culture, it’s incredibly easy to find out more about that which one otherwise might not have known to be curious. Perhaps future art shows might even consider including online extended versions of critiques so that viewers can choose to delve into more in-depth discussions.
Jerry Saltz was obviously responding to the limitations of Work of Art when he began writing supplementary recaps of each episode on New York Magazine’s vulture.com. In the recaps, Saltz discusses his reservations with art reality TV — his participation, he says, has “ruffled some feathers,” and he adds, “Art on TV and in movies always comes off creepy.” He contextualizes each episode, giving more insight into competitor personalities, disclosing when he didn’t agree with an elimination decision, and even commenting on how the show’s editing may have misled viewers in certain situations. He shares with us how he felt fat on camera, and jokes about how the hip younger judges treated him like he was from the “sexless planet.” This sort of transparency in reality television is extremely rare. Those who read his words while following the show watched with a more informed, critical eye.
Saltz’s recaps also prompted an abundance of comments from viewer/readers weighing in on the competition. Saltz sees these threads as a new, more inclusive model for art criticism, as he writes,
“I wanted to see if art criticism was porous and supple enough to actually exist on a different stage. And it did. [...] For me these threads became a changing landscape of different minds, mutations of “selves” flowing through time, speaking an unknown aggregate language that did not solve, but that discovered, changed its mind, generated unpredictable patterns, and was serious but not sacred. Disembodied online, these threads were still a criticism of physical bodies rather than the mind-body separation that usually governs criticism; it was a place where life broke through.”
The thread proves that prompting more of the public to observe and discuss art makes for a more well-rounded cultural archive. I can only wish we had access to such multi-headed commentary from an 1870s Salon exhibition.
On a recent brisk November evening, I was walking to work from the train. I shifted my eyes upward and stopped on the jet black silhouettes of the trees above me — endlessly intricate and framed by the periwinkle sky. That image, or even that moment — with its damp musk of dirt and dead leaves — was as beautiful as any work of art I’ve seen. The striking aesthetic experience, beauty, pain, transcendence–they belong to no one. Why should the ponderings, distortions, and representations of those experiences, which define art at its core, belong to the art world? Art at its best can capture, criticize, and question the human experience. Any human should be welcome with open arms. So if a competition like Art Prize, or a show like Work of Art, prompts an accountant to pick up a paintbrush, or a chef to discuss the culture wars, then Art, as a whole, is being serviced, not tainted.
The art historical canon has already done its fair share of keeping people out. An abundance of the most famous works were commissions of aristocracy. Women artists and non-white artists have been perpetually othered. But art also has an innate way of handing the microphone to the otherwise silenced. Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 commemorated the brutality inflicted upon the Spanish during the Peninsular War. In 1980s Detroit,Tyree Guyton’s junkyard dreamscapes of the Heidelberg Project sent cries of a marginalized neighborhood echoing across the nation. In the first episode of Work of Art, Jerry Saltz makes obvious yet revelatory statement, “Art is a way of showing the outside world what your inside world is like.” The ability to express ourselves, and to relate to each others’ expression, makes us a richer, more empathetic people. We should be shouting Art from the rooftops, perpetually searching for the best outlet to reach the masses, not snubbing critics like Jerry Saltz who attempt to do just that. The models I’ve presented are not perfect, but if more members of the art world embraced and participated in efforts like Art Prize and Work of Art, the endeavors could quickly evolve into more ideal forms. Not everyone has had the privilege of academia guiding them to produce or discuss what we might currently deem “good” art. But I would think this fact makes an all-inclusive conversation all the more necessary, and all the more stimulating. Otherwise, we are just preaching to the choir, a choir growing more and more stale for its disinterest in welcoming new voices.
[Animated gifs by Wesley Miller]