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The Subversion of Art

May 31, 2009

“The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.” Pablo Picasso

Ok, so it has been more than a month since Rick DeVos made his big surprise announcement about the world’s largest art competition, known as ArtPrize. Thus announcement resulted in lots of response that ranged from exuberance to outrage. The blog-o-sphere was hopping with commentary and lots of conversations were had throughout the community. What follows are seven points I’d like to make about ArtPrize and its significance in this community.

First, did you notice all the hype and near reverence from the local news media about this announcement? For days we were all teased by stories about the “big surprise” and once the announcement was made it was as if the Pope was coming to Grand Rapids. Imagine, any hard working person who has a great idea getting that kind of press coverage. I can see it now, “local activists take a stand against global warming.” Oh, wait…..that’s not news. How about, “Amway is a green business.” Yep, now that is news!

Second, the ArtPrize announcement came with the statement that this project would revitalize the art community in West Michigan. Anyone who knows artists in this community should be outraged at such a statement. It is my observation that in the past 10-15 years there has been a tremendous amount of artwork done in this community by people who are committed to improving the community. Think about the work done in the past decade to use empty, forgotten spaces for art by the Free Radical efforts. How many young people in this community have been turned on to art and self-expression from the projects organized by Art Works? The bold new work by Latino/a artists and the quiet dedication of artists like George Bayard. Numerous artists have volunteered their work and talent to making Grand Rapids a better place. To claim that ArtPrize would revitalize art in this community is an insult to the hard work of countless artists who have given so much.

Third, are we all supposed to jump at the chance to win money? I have spoken with several artists who say they will participate in ArtPrize because they could use the money. Fair enough, but winning the $250,000 is not really a solution. It’s sort of like winning the lottery, it’s all about chance. Why can’t we use this opportunity to talk about why most artists are not valued in this society and this economy? Giving away cash prizes does not help artists, it just perpetuates the idea that “great” art is worth lots of money and to be enjoyed by people who can afford to buy it.

Fourth, by telling artists that you can win $250,000 or any of the other smaller cash prices, you are telling artists to make something that is motivated by money. I always thought art was a form of self-expression, a medium for people to articulate feelings, ideas and opinions about beauty, tragedy, liberation and oppression. How does setting out to make art with the goal of winning a large cash prize inspire honest art?

Fifth, that the money is coming from a member of the DeVos family should be reason enough for us to reconsider our participation in such an event. Now, I don’t know Rick DeVos, and frankly, I don’t care to know him. No matter what his intentions are, the DeVos family has made its money by taking advantage of working people for decades. Amway is based upon a pyramid scheme and anyone wanted to explore what this has meant should read Stephen Butterfield’s book Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.

Sixth, we should all recognize that the DeVos family has used its money and political power over the years to support lots of repressive policies. They have been some of the largest donors to the Republican Party, have financed anti-choice campaigns, the privatization of public education, anti-gay campaigns, anti-union campaigns, and provided funds to brutal military groups in Nicaragua and Mozambique. (See Russ Bellant’s books Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party and The Religious Right in Michigan Politics) Locally, the DeVos family has also used their power and wealthy to buy lots of downtown property, determine the outcome of local city planning, and influence policy by being involved in the Downtown Development Authority and Grand Action.

Having someone from the DeVos family dynasty head up ArtPrize for me is in part a PR stunt, but mostly it’s just good for business. Any effort to “develop” the downtown area or bring people to that part of town benefits the DeVos family by generating revenue and potentially increasing their property value. In many ways I see ArtPrize as a logical extension of the gentrification of downtown Grand Rapids that primarily benefits a small sector of this community.

Lastly, I wanted to say that I think that ArtPrize does provide us with an opportunity to have serious conversations about the role of art in public life. We should use this event to talk about city politics, economic inequality and share the stories about what local artists have done to breathe life into neighborhoods and inspire change.

ArtPrize tells us that this event is very democratic because anyone can vote. But when you have a rigged system or in this case an event in which the community has had no say in its development, then how can that be democratic? Instead of giving cash prizes to a handful of artists, why not figure out ways to support and nurture art that is transformative, art that is self-expressive, art and artists that are not for sale.

Jeff Smith does art in his garden. You can reach him at

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Vance permalink
    June 2, 2009 3:06 am

    Excellent piece Jeff. I need to mention that DeVos was on the GVSU Board of Control and headed up the efforts to close down Thomas Jefferson College there and then William James. TJC and its offshoot, the Performing Arts Center, was an incredibly vibrant community made up largely of artists, theatre people, potters, writers, dancers and thinkers. That his main objection to the place is that it housed lesbians and duplicated programs available elsewhere on campus (patently untrue) shows you just how far from informed his understanding of what kind of milieu and support artists/the arts benefit from. That he can only perceive of the capitalized end of what arts bring to the community underscores his ignorance about what makes art live and breathe as well as his deceptive gift giving you describe so well…. as well as his poor taste in art. Do you really want to have an art contest sponsored by a guy like that?

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    June 2, 2009 3:30 am

    I also thought this was an excellent analysis; ArtPrize infuriated me when it was announced but I wasn’t able to articulate all of my objections as eloquently as this piece does.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about since the announcement is Diego Rivera’s standoff with Rockefeller. So many artists build a foundation for their work with their political and social beliefs. How many of them will be automatically excluded from this “contest” because, like Rivera, they speak their own truth and understanding in their art? Truths that, like Rockefeller, the DeVos family will attempt to censor with a checkbook…

  3. June 2, 2009 4:12 pm

    Kate, the example of Rivera’s standoff with Rockefeller is an excellent one and I am glad you brought it up. Bob, thanks for adding to the long list of what is problematic with how the DeVos family influences politics with its money.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    June 3, 2009 6:06 pm

    During Rivera’s showdown with Nelson Rockefeller, E.B. White wrote this wonderful verse, which was published in The New Yorker on May 20, 1933:

    “What do you paint when you paint a wall?”
    Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
    “Do you paint just anything there at all?
    Will there be any doves, or a tree in fall?
    Or a hunting scene, like an English hall?”

    “I paint what I see,” said Rivera.

    “What are the colors you use when you paint?”
    Said John D.’s grandson, Nelson.
    “Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
    If you do is it terribly red, or faint?
    Do you use any blue?
    Is it Prussian?”

    “I paint what I paint,” said Rivera.

    “Whose is that head I see on my wall?”
    Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
    “Is it anyone’s head whom we know, at all?
    A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?
    Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
    Or is it the head of a Russian?”

    “I paint what I think,” said Rivera.
    “I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,
    I paint what I think,” said Rivera,
    “And the thing that is dearest in life to me
    In a bourgeois hall is integrity;
    I’ll take out a couple of people drinkin’
    And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln,
    I could even give you McCormick’s reaper
    And still not make my art much cheaper.
    But the head of Lenin has got to stay
    Or my friends will give me the bird today–
    The bird, the bird, forever.”

    “It’s not good taste in a man like me,”
    Said John D.’s grandson Nelson,
    “To question an artist’s integrity
    Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
    But I know what I like to a large degree
    Though art I hate to hamper;
    For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
    You painted a radical. I say shucks,
    I never could rent the offices.
    For this, as you know, is a public hall
    And people want doves or a tree in fall,
    And though your art I dislike to hamper,
    I owe a little to God and Gramper,
    And after all,
    It’s MY wall.”

    “We’ll see if it is,” said Rivera.

  5. Cynthia permalink
    August 23, 2009 11:51 am

    Well, all valid points. But a question to be asked…..will there now be more art in the city than before….and can we not somehow draw any positive feelings from that fact ? It seems to me that often when we dwell, and dwell on the possible negative agendas, we lose sight of the also “obvious” and that is – that art is being created and displayed in the city. Sounds simplistic, but I am by no means a pollyanna. I watched the mosaic piece in progress on the side of the Children’s Museum. It was drawing several onlookers. It was a sunny day, the mirrored tiles were sparkling in the sun and could be seen blocks away. I heard lots of “Wow” – what is that ?”, exclamations from passing cars, and people finding places to park (like I did), so they could come watch in person. Many people outside the art community , or those passing through Grand Rapids, had no idea what was going on. So yes, it’s going to be a boost for downtown business. But it was also a boost for my soul watching art in progress, seeing children involved, and now having this gorgeous mosaic piece greet me each time I take my daughter to a class she attends downtown. I hate the term gentrification. I know what it means. I understand the political implications of missplaced persons. But at the same time, what other options are others providing. And many people that get involvedin “gentrification” , ARE in it for the right reasons. To start more business, to improve the quality of life for themselves, and for those around them. To turn a community into something that holds more pride for it’s residents. Pushing people out of a neighborhood only for the sake of “improving downtown”, and for the sake of getting various people “out of the public eye” – is wrong. But on the other hand, getting more “art” into a community is never wrong. No matter if there are hidden agendas. There are SO many ways art is being pushed OUT of our society every day. As a teacher, I know first hand how art is pushed aside in favor of “standards”, and sports programs, and just about anything else that needs money. Art is always last.

    So I look at it this way, because I believe in the positive effects of “good”. Despite there obviously being hidden agendas in the Devos contest. Just the fact that more art is being created and displayed, is also going to have an enormous positive effect in “non business” ways in the community. People are talking about this that do not know of the Devos family – who know nothing of Amway – who don’t even know the art is part of a contest with a cash prize. All they know is – “Wow – that is so cool – let’s stop !” Or “How did they do that – I want to learn to do that”….and they bring their children, who then become inspired to create art of their own ….not for money …but from the pure joy of seeing something that thrilled them.

    I should know,as I took my niece to see this piece yesterday. And she grabbed my camera and started taking pictures, and her joy and the decisions she started making as she formed her shots, became art all on it’s own. She is in 2nd grade and knows nothing of political agendas – thank God.

  6. Jeff Smith permalink
    August 24, 2009 8:28 pm

    Cynthia, thanks for your thoughts on this matter. I completely agree that there can be a great deal of “good” that can be gained from people being exposed to more art, particularly when it inspires and gives us a sense of awe. I have no doubt that there will be some positive benefits to Grand Rapids with more art being created and displayed.

    My initial article and critique was not designed to dwell on the negative, instead it was meant to challenge us all to think about the art contest within a larger social context. Doing so is not a negative, rather an opportunity to push ourselves to think about these issues and the long-term implications they have on this community.

    Art and other forms of creative expression can always have the power to give us a sense of peace and wonderment. My mother was in a movie about women in Nazi concentration camps who had the opportunity to prolong their lives if they possessed the ability to play a musical instrument. The music that was played for the Nazi camp officials and their guests no doubt gave men who were in charge of mass extermination a sense of joy or an appreciation of the beauty that comes from classical music. However, looking at the larger context reminds us that this beautiful music was for genocidal murderers. Now, in no way am I comparing the DeVos family to the Nazis. The example was merely to illustrate a point about the importance of looking at the social, political and economic context in which art and creativity is often expressed.

    Anyone can look at the churches and other buildings that are part of Rome or the Vatican and many other European cities and be amazed at the beauty, the detail and the craft of the artists who were commissioned to create those works of art. Again, the larger context forces me to come to terms with the fact that much of the gold and silver used in churches throughout Europe was imported from Latin America and mined by indigenous populations for several hundred years after the European conquest of the Americas.

    Gandhi once said there was no beauty in the finest linens made in Europe if they caused poverty in India. One of the points I was making in the original article was the economic impact that the art contest could have on the downtown of Grand Rapids. Gentrification may “improve the quality of life for those involved and those around them,” as you say, which was exactly my point. Those who will benefit from this gentrification are those who already are economically privileged and whatever gentrification will come out of it will mostly fatten the wallets of those who live better than most of us. Ask people in Heartside if their being displaced or brutalize by the police, so that gentrification may occur without any resistance, feeling that this art contest is of benefit to them.

    The last point I want to make on this matter is that the more we ignore the larger context in which wealthy and privileged sectors of society operate, especially when they engage in philanthropic acts, the more difficult it will be to challenge them when they blatantly exploit and abuse working class sectors of society. A great resource that explores this issue is a book published by the group INCITE! entitled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.”


  1. More Thoughts on Art Prize « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. Reporting on and Promoting ArtPrize « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  3. GQ’s take on ArtPrize and the DeVos Family « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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