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More Thoughts on Art Prize

August 24, 2009

It has been almost two months since I originally wrote a critique of the DeVos initiated Grand Rapids Art Prize. I have received lots of feedback on my critique, both verbal and written responses. All the feedback has been interesting and has contributed to a larger dialogue that people are having as the art contest event grows near.

The most recent response I received via this web page was such that I felt the need to provide additional comments on why I still feel that Art Prize is problematic. The writer made two basic arguments; any art that comes to this community is “good” and the further development of downtown Grand Rapids (what I called gentrification) is beneficial to this community.

I also felt it was important to post my response to these recent comments since the local media continues to provide only glowing coverage of the evolving Art Prize event. What follows is my response.

“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 us 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, which 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.”

The consequence of not shining the light on Art Prize, which is the brainchild of one of the DeVos family members, is that it may make it more difficult for people to question the policies and influence that such families and other power structures have on our community in the future. They may withhold funding because they disagree with something that people without power are proposing in the city or they might use their political and economic influence to subvert the democratic process. We would all be naïve if we did not acknowledge that candidates are bought by people like the DeVos family and political and economic policy which impacts as all is all too often dictated by their influence.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2009 9:38 pm

    OgreOgress (Michigan’s largest classical recording label) was interested in submitting an audio-video installation piece for ArtPrize. When informed by UICA and other venues we were not allowed to choose a venue before submitting our application fee, and that there was no guarantee a space would be assigned for our installation, we decided not to enter.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    August 25, 2009 4:14 am

    Jeff, one of the things that makes ArtPrize most uncomfortable for me lies in the final point you make, about how sponsoring a contest like this creates in a community a kind of gratitude and the feeling of obligation that goes with it. That can undercut our ability to look closely at the source of this and other “gifts” to understand their true context and purpose.

    A place like DeVos Hall is a continuous, never-needing-to-be-renewed advertisement of the family’s name and power, and their willingness to be beneficent–when it suits them. ArtPrize blurs the line between art and this kind of propaganda even further.

    It was a stroke of genius to advertise that “the people” get to vote to award the prize, but let’s remember those votes are collected and assessed by a group that has a specific agenda and very pointed political plans, plus a knowledge of how to use the buzz around ArtPrize to advance them.

    “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” JFK said that. Let’s ask ourselves, as you have in this commentary, what’s the real truth of this event, and how can we keep focused on the bigger picture?

    PS Every time I type the name “DeVos,” my spellcheck tries to change it to “Devious.” A coincidence? I think not.

  3. ben permalink
    August 25, 2009 5:26 pm

    I think it is important to remember that the DeVos family has in the past used their philanthropic contributions as a means of suppressing things to which they object. The most pertinent example I can remember is Richard DeVos intervening in the debate over domestic partner benefits at GVSU in the early 2000s. He was opposed to them–and he had a history of contributing to anti-gay causes–and he was able to use his stature with the university to prevent domestic partner benefits.

    That said, I think that we need to be a bit more careful of simply lumping Rick DeVos in with the rest of his family (to his credit, there was an article in the Press a while back in which he said that his elders’ politics make it hard for him in the art world). To be sure, he got his money from the DeVos fortune–and the money for the prizes is coming from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation–but it isn’t necessarily that simple. Each of generation of the DeVos family does things a little bit different and I think there is so much “anti-Devos” talk–some of it for good reason–that things get pretty muddled. A good critique is great (and there is plenty of fodder–the DeVoses are pretty despicable), conspiracy theories and simple generalizations are not. I’m not necessarily saying that Jeff’s two pieces make generalizations, but a lot of the opposition to ArtPrize that I have been hearing is based on broad–and often flawed–ideas about the DeVos family.

  4. August 25, 2009 6:09 pm

    This idea of linking art to real estate is an ongoing problem in this town and in the USA. For example, the new Art Museum is a nice piece of real estate but I do not see much art happening in that building. What about funding and supporting the arts … artworks and artists … rather than purchasing larger and fancier buildings? UICA is another example. The new space has little to do with fostering contemporary art … it is about real estate. UICA has failed to support the production of new and experimental music in Grand Rapids ever since it moved away from its Rosa Parks Circle location (ironically the same location as the current Art Museum building). UICA supports never-ending fundraising … raising more money for the purchase of new buildings and facilities.

    ArtPrize epitomizes this idea of Art as Real Estate. Art is transformed into a commodity to be bought, sold and voted upon.

  5. Jeff Smith permalink*
    August 25, 2009 6:09 pm

    Ben, I appreciate the comments and I certainly don’t want to generalize on such a contentious issue. I don’t think I have in both of my pieces on Art Prize, since I try to make the point that this all happens within a larger context and network of power that the DeVos money influences. I don’t really know Rick DeVos’s personal politics, but I don’t think that much matters, since the money and influence is still coming from the same circles and those that will primarily benefit from the downtown gentrification and PR generated from Art Prize will be people who are already well off in this community.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    August 25, 2009 10:21 pm

    Ben, maybe Rick DeVos does have a substantially different vision than his parents or grandparents, but his money comes from the same poisoned well. Maybe that’s why he’s finding it hard to achieve acceptance in the art world.

    Created with funds from a business that has been sanctioned for price fixing and failing to police its income representations, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation funds ultra-conservative causes. It supports the privatization of the school system. It supports the Acton Institute, which opposed the Kyoto Protocol and works actively against social justice activists. It has given money to Focus on the Family and the National Day of Prayer Task Force, organizations managed by the Dobsons, who run repugnant anti-gay campaigns and “ex-gay” therapy groups.

    This money trail is not neutral. It is completely attached to a very well-defined political and religious agenda. It does not seem to me that DeVos family is giving away a quarter-million dollars of this money out of the goodness of their hearts…to make their son happy…or because they’re art lovers.

    Glen, I agree with your comments completely. “ArtPrize epitomizes this idea of Art as Real Estate. Art is transformed into a commodity to be bought, sold and voted upon.” That’s beautifully stated, and really hits at the core of the issue.

  7. Bob Vance permalink
    August 31, 2009 4:05 am

    Some thematic, possibly provocative, tangents here:

    Interesting to think that the ultimate value and worth of any process or product of ART can be decided through what appears to be a basic democratic process: the vote.

    While I am a great believer in the necessity for ART to speak to and about and through the experiences of a majority and its inherent and irreplaceable internal minorities, I am more guarded about that majority’s ability to see itself and its experiences clearly enough to decide what is its great ART. This is not really the fault of the majority, just a phenomenon of human nature: often the ART (and truly, the science) that most successfully reflects and elevates and interprets these shared visions, experiences and collective aspirations is collected and focused through the lenses of the eyes of artists who live, work and produce somewhat outside of what is recognized as the popular culture’s “majority” view of which ARTistic expression has the most value.

    Short of deifying the cliché of the lonely, often poor, “artist-in-the-garret” motif beyond its usefulness or ability to produce great ART and not just very original alcoholic slobbering, it is still a fact that much of the most outstanding human creative vision is generated by those who actually find themselves out-of-step with the majority of the people, views and perspectives of the times in which they live, regardless of how accurately and empathically they are eventually found to have reproduced or evolved the human aesthetic vision of their time so that it reaches and blends, even prophetically, into the future’s majority.

    Even during The Renaissance and other historical eras in which the only ART that was lauded and allowed to exist or was paid for was religious in nature, the artists themselves were often chronically out of step with the values and mores of their sponsors. One interesting story that relates to this would be how, in the ecstatic religious poses of much of Renaissance painting and sculpture, it was less than a secret that these expressions were duplications of post-coital bliss and/or sexual ecstasy. Do you think any ART that portrays even the merest suggestion or possibility of naked sexual bliss, no matter how brilliantly, would be funded by anything the Amway Twins and their offspring would sponsor?

    Therein lies the problem… for even the Popes and Emperors of old were willing to consider that such things are not mutually exclusive… or at least by ignoring such connections, save face. So ART the likes of Piss Christ or Mapplethorpe become a modern anathema and cannot even be considered, when many a Renaissance portrayal of the passion of Christ could be considered to be, quite literally, that!

    With that in mind it might behoove (beHOOVE… great word!) us all to think twice about how we choose what great art is, or who we allow to fund and influence our decisions about ART, and whether having an election is the wisest way to make decisions about what ART gets the most support: we could end up with galleries full of pictures of cats and waifs with big eyes, or public sculptures, architecture and city design that is so careful not to offend anyone that it ultimately only succeeds in being boring, and fails to outdo the buildings and neighborhoods that stood before and were razed to make room for the new stuff.

    Is that, perhaps, one of the reasons the most architecturally interesting building in downtown Grand Rapids is the new Hunting YMCA and nothing of bricks, mortar, steel and glass that bears the names of DeVos or that other soap guy and/or their spawn?

  8. Nina Franz permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:34 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful discussion.

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