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An evolving internal monologue, now published: Brett’s addition to the ArtPrize “Conversation”

October 5, 2009

(This article is submitted by Brett Colley,  an Associate Professor of Art & Design at Grand Valley State University, and an exhibiting participant in ArtPrize.)

In its efforts to “reboot the public conversation between artists and audiences”, ArtPrize has raised into stark relief the tensions between two broad groups: Those with no formal art education who produce and/or patronize art, and those with credentials and/or careers connected to its preservation, theory, and production. Of course, members of each group are equally entitled to their opinions and practices.

I know from my experiences as an educator that mutual animosity between such factions is not intrinsic to a dialogue regarding contemporary art or its cultural value. However, the lack of organized forums (relative to other ArtPrize programming) for substantive public discourse concerning the art currently on display in downtown Grand Rapids has drawn out the suspicion and misgivings of each group.

In the past week, I have witnessed emotionally charged exchanges at both Kendall’s Lunchbox discussion with the ArtPrize team, and at the Battle for the Top 10 Critical Discourse, hosted by the UICA on Friday evening.

From the “General Voting Public”, there has been contempt projected toward the “Art Experts” who question the quality or legitimacy of some popular entries.

From the Expert crowd, there has been obvious disdain directed at the Voting Public for making what they perceive as poor choices. The model of a popular vote to determine the outcome has purposefully stripped those with years of education and experience of any exceptional role in assessing the contestants, and increases the likelihood that winners will not be representative of the high critical standards of the field. In an era that has seen the conflation of “High” and “Low” art/culture, does this really matter? Later in this essay, I’ll argue that it does.

Given the source of the idea (ArtPrize) and conditions that deliberately humble them, it is hardly surprising that area Art Experts (academics, professionals, would brace with trepidation as their discipline was deemed the subject of a grand “social experiment” funded by one of the region’s wealthiest, most infamously conservative families.

It is equally unsurprising that the General Public has grown at best suspicious, and at worst resentful of Art Experts, and now feels exceedingly grateful to Rick Devos and company for restoring the validity/power of their own tastes (at least that’s a popular perception.)

After decades of assorted media-hyped “art controversies” (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ, the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum), being fed vacuous rhetoric (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, or “I know what I like”) as if it were philosophical comfort food, and then being told what is “good” or worth lots of money (but seldom, if ever why) who can blame the G.P. for feeling indignant?

So much of the conflict is simply built into the subject at hand, or ”conversation”. (Which makes the structure for negotiating it all the more critical.) As my colleague Paul Wittenbraker recently and succinctly observed:

            “Art is many things to many people simultaneously. This is one of the great powers of art, but also grounds for confusion and stress…The presumption that we can bring diverse art worlds together under the pretense of a unified outcome is problematic.”

Resolutions to the conflict are not simple, and the onus is on both groups – as well as the ArtPrize team itself – to enact them. I will go on to suggest some of the actions I believe necessary for resolution, but first it is important to cite some of the conditions that have brought this conflict to the forefront of the ArtPrize conversation:

By assigning value to the arts primarily through their ability to drive our economy, and incentivizing artists with prize money and wide-scale exposure, the organizers of ArtPrize have skewed both the event and the ensuing conversation toward creative works that are easily accessed (physically and conceptually) and commodified, and have marginalized many credentialed artists and critics with divergent ideas and practices.

The local news outlets (press and television) have focused overwhelmingly on the event’s positive impact for businesses in downtown GR, and treated the actual competition and entries as if discussions of quality were irrelevant. Their biased coverage quickly established the tenor of the conversation and has further rendered the event almost unassailable by critics. Those who don’t support ArtPrize unconditionally are tagged with the dreaded “e-word” (elitist) and regarded with suspicion.

I cannot delve into all the complexities of ArtPrize at once, as compelled as I am to do so. Thus, I won’t attempt to untangle the thorny “elitist/expert” knot in this essay. Suffice it to say: We live in an increasingly specialized world. The next time we need brain surgery or a general to orchestrate our troops in wartime, we will surely call upon a specialist with education and experience relevant to the task at hand.

I suspect that one reason the General Public perceives those of us who’ve expressed reservations about ArtPrize (or its potentially negative impact on area art) as “elitist” is because they believe we are merely trying to preserve our own authority and power within the culture of Art.

While I cannot deny that any “authority” I may have in this field has been hard-won (through 8 years of post-secondary education and 15 years of professional experience) and does indeed have value to me, it has not been my motivation in critiquing either ArtPrize or the quality of the contestants.

The undermining of my authority does have consequences, in that it potentially compromises my ability as an educator to convince students to grow beyond clichés, refine their craft, and reflect critically upon their impulses as young artists. I can certainly imagine future situations in which the “popular” winners of past ArtPrizes will render that task more difficult.

However, I do not aspire to assert opinions about art that will prevail over all others, nor do I expect to persuade 35,000 other voters to adopt my tastes.

My critiques (of the current ArtPrize model) stem from my sincere desire (evidenced by more than a decade of similar efforts in the classroom) to inspire and preserve high-quality visual culture. Again, I am not seeking to defend my own platform of authority, but I do wish to protect our visual environment from the repercussions of rewarding ill-considered or badly constructed work, and celebrating simplistic spectacle over subtlety and sophistication. Such repercussions would be felt by children, adults, amateurs and professionals alike, for it is evident that poor-quality creative culture degrades the experience and discourse of public life.

An intellectually lazy citizenry is the foundation of a weakened democracy.

In other words, all citizens have something at stake in this, knowingly or not.

On the evening news, I have watched Jeff Meeuwsen implore ArtPrize voters to carefully consider their decisions, and help shape an outcome they can be proud of. I believe that Jeff and I share an understanding with respect to the significance of what is judged as “good”. We each recognize the potential consequences of this social experiment for our immediate and long-term environment.

Rather than tuck my head in for fear of being labeled the “e-word”, I am offering my expertise to facilitate such “good” judgment.

Having made that offer, it is imperative that I and other Art Experts (academics, professionals) who share this aspiration find useful terms with which to engage the General Public. Recognizing that I am writing primarily to an audience of my peers, I will suggest that we engage those who lack formal training with language that is honest, reflects our shared humanity, shows respect, and which openly communicates our desire to produce and preserve a quality culture for the benefit of all. We each need to formulate ways of expressing the true value of the arts, in order to promote appreciation for both our convictions and our specialized work.

In short, we needn’t apologize, nor should we patronize.

I believe that every artist, art educator, or student of the arts should be capable of mounting an immediate, uncomplicated argument for the cultural value of what they do – an argument that does not lean on economic viability, marketable skills, or the intrinsic value of self-expression. (As an aside, I contend that there is nothing inherently beneficial to self-expression. For example, does anyone value Mahmoud Amademajad’s expressions of disbelief concerning the Holocaust?)

Historically, the arts have been inextricably linked to technological and conceptual innovation. Artists think through and with materials and contribute to the language and scholarship of other disciplines. We have looked to the arts in order to expand our capacity for communicating difficult concepts, or to share ideas we cannot otherwise express. Art can serve to catalyze public discourse regarding complex issues (in this instance, “Art” itself!) Art reminds us that problems can have more than one solution, that small changes can make big differences, that words and numbers are incapable of expressing all that we know, and that the world is comprised of multiple, diverse perspectives.

(These are values – lessons the arts teach – that have been clearly articulated by Stanford Professsor Emeritus of Art and Art Education, Elliot Eisner. If you don’t know him, look him up.)

 Blunt, creative spectacles that captivate by virtue of bright colors, moving parts, and sheer scale often lack these more redeeming characteristics of art. One does not attend (or erect) a theme park with the intention of personal or societal growth, but for entertainment. Many of the 2009 ArtPrize entries operate on this level – they are rooted firmly in the familiar and presume our desire for nothing more than action movies and amusement parks. Art and entertainment are often, easily, and sometimes effectively conflated. But is presenting art as entertainment the mission of ArtPrize?

Several artists responsible for the “entertainment” in this year’s competition have readily admitted to employing spectacle as a strategy to capture the public attention and vote, working big and adopting popular, unchallenging subject matter. After all, one was overheard to say at Friday night’s “Battle for the Top 10”,  “This is a popular vote, so we wanted to make something big and fun.”

If one pauses to fully consider that sentiment, one may begin to see why and how a capitalist model for art can so effectively break down the quality of art/culture and the discourse surrounding it. It is valuable, even imperative, that art production flourish outside the arena of capitalism in order to contribute freely to the intellectual and spiritual growth of our citizenry. Competitions structured as the 2009 ArtPrize has been structured serve (unintentionally) to further disenfranchise those artists working outside the sphere of populist appeal and the marketplace.

As long as the arts are viewed and applied as fuel in the economic engine, their value will be assessed thusly*. Art ideally teaches qualitative assessment skills, and yet so many of the measures for assessing the success of ArtPrize have been quantifiable: The number of voters, votes, gallery patrons, contest participants, restaurant profits, etc.

*(This is the unfortunate blowback of Richard Florida’s research. If you don’t know him, look him up.)

As an artist, educator, and citizen of Grand Rapids, I support all initiatives to reboot the conversation between artists and audiences, and ask simply that we continue to question this particular mechanism.

As future iterations of ArtPrize transpire, I hope that a structure is realized that places less emphasis on the competition/prize and successfully incorporates more opportunities for (adult) art education and moderated public critiques of the exhibited work. In Kendall’s Lunchbox Series – an aspect of ArtPrize that respectfully showcases the expertise and scholarship of the field – both content and discussion have veered toward the social experiment, rather than the actual exhibitors. I believe the real teaching/learning opportunities reside within the art itself.

The education day for area students, K-12, the audio guides, and the tutorial on contemporary art included in the preview party at the Old Federal Building have all been exemplary programming. But the UICA staff cannot – should not – do it all.

With respect to the conversation that happens inside this structure, arts professionals need to clearly understand the (non-monetary) value of what they do, develop an effective vocabulary with which to address “fans” and detractors alike, and (learn to) lead in efforts to inform our democracy, through reasonable, respectful discourse. The first language of artists and non-artists alike should be empathy. Embrace it or not, ArtPrize is now here, and has left us little room to hide behind our cynicism and doubts.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sara Alsum-Wassenaar permalink
    October 7, 2009 9:47 pm

    Elliot Eisner says that art teaches students that there is multiple correct answers to a problem, perhaps people assume that because there is not one “right” answer in art, there is no “incorrect” answers. As an art educator I find there are pleanty of answers to artistic problems that do in fact need re-direction. Sure there is validity to the experiance of fun–life would be quite boring with out it, but my hope is that people ultimately seek something deeper and more meaningful out of cultural experience. It is likely that the viewers and voters of Artprize are just going out to be entertained, therefor my question for them is: what part of your life do you think about and contemplate and seek for your ideas to be challenged in? If visual art is just a source of amusement, and all you do is watch reality TV and read People magazine, then we certainly have a problem. If on the other hand you seek knowledge and have meaningful conversations about another form of art or science or literature or whatever and Artprize was something that you just wanted to make you smile, then I am OK with that. So much of our culture is geared towards acquisition of money and mass marketing. It is sad to see the field of visual art reduced down to this mentality. One of the reasons that places like the UICA are great venues to view and exhibit art is because it exhibits the kind of art with something more to it; a meaning a message a peculiar unmarketable thing that can leave you asking more questions than you came with and can captivate your sense of inquiry. I never expected the winner of Artprize to be the kind of art I enjoy viewing, but I do hope it is not simply reenforcing a view that art is akin to seeing the latest action movie. I hope it leaves people wanting more and seeking deeper artistic experiences.

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