Artprize is dumb and harmful to art and artists.

1. The premise of artprize binds art to money. This rewards spectacle, which is not the same as art.

Like capitalism, artprize does not reward bad luck. Artists become casino gamblers, feeding their dollars and their work into a machine with worse-than-random odds. Viewing art, learning about art, discussing the merits of art, building a public audience engaged with art — none of these things are made better with a hokey lottery attached.

Judging the best cuisine by public vote, results in McDonalds and Applebees. Similarly, artprize does not allow consideration of smaller pieces conceived without the intent to provoke a broad public response. Repeatedly, the artprize public has chosen meticulous production, imposing scale, systemic and repetitive techniques. 

Art is often not regarded as valuable and profound in its own time. Tchaikovsky died thinking his most famous ballet was a failure. But artprize presupposes that good art must immediately impress a broad audience. The Mona Lisa is not a very big painting. It would look fairly small sitting in the fountains at a convention center or presidential museum, next to towering elephants.

Not every human effort must have a monetary value assigned to it. Good, interesting art need not be huge, complicated, or time-consuming. Artists know this, but perhaps this is a tough sell in “my kid could do that!” country.

2.   The winning art sucks. I mean, It’s really, really terrible. The public winners reinforce our image as red state rubes.

25% of winners are gigantic quilts by the same lady. The treacly military boosterism has ranged from open white supremacy nostalgia (cavalry drawing) to mawkish sentimentality (warrior dogs – which recalled CIA torture of muslim prisoners – a literal dog-whistle lolol). The bizarre crucifixion piece overwhelmed, all garish color and size, like a shiny Cadillac limo with gold trim and fur seats once owned by Elvis.

West Michigan sure likes to trumpet its “work-proud” mentality. That art took a lot of time to make. That artist must have worked really hard. Really makes you think about sacrifice and honor, and the northwoods, and Jesus. Must be worthwhile. My kid couldn’t do that.

3. The family’s politics are nightmarish and simply cannot be supported in a modern humanist cultural conversation.

“I don’t get into that stuff.” – Rick DeVos, when asked about his family’s politics. and “I just want to see crazy crap all over downtown.” – Rick DeVos, when asked about the validity of the art, in relation to its cultural merits or ultimate purpose. Implicit in this statement is the acknowledgement that spectacle is the goal.

These are facile, unserious, and childlike avoidances of some serious issues, which someone in his position of wealth, and the influence it buys, would do well to address.

The family who founded ArtPrize® despises gays and spends profligately to harm them politically and socially. A long-time board member and financial backer of artprize has been in the news recently, you may have heard of her! She was appointed to lead a federal agency she apparently thinks shouldn’t exist. This family is intimately and thoroughly involved in a Calvinist/pre-destinationist Christian sect that (like most) claims to have the keenest grasp on The Correct Moral Principles Of Mankind. Yet the family stays silent regarding the monster in their midst. They apparently love Christ but ignore the most notorious mercenary commander of our time, a man unwelcome in his homeland, a man who directs a private army of murderers at the behest of the top dollar.

So they want us to enjoy their “radically” “disruptive” little boardwalk picture show without so much of a word about this? There will be no reckoning, no shame for these people?

If you are going to throw your family’s money around to be the loudest voice in our cultural conversation each year, Rick, then you should probably admit that your family isn’t about the open sharing of culture at all. They aren’t about living by the received wisdom of Christ either. They’re about controlling the conversation and making money. 

Artists, why are you paying $ to enter this silly contest that associates your work with Dominionists who are so clearly on the wrong side of history? Why not ask a restauranteur if she will display your art, without the bogus contest stuff? Hey maybe y’all could start a fringe festival and piggyback on the crowds coming to town for artprize? Or maybe organize some protest actions? Inject some more defiance into this stuff, please? Shoot for zero votes. Tell your friends to avoid the vote. Let’s see a juried prize winner get fewer than 100 public votes. That would be a statement — a sort of jury nullification. Hey, if we hate Betsy DeVos’s dumb policies enough to whine about it on Facebook, why not, you know, consider avoiding this fiasco she helped fund and sat on the board of until… last year.

Venues, why are you associating yourselves with this useless contest? Powerful people who seek to cripple public education; to restrict choice in love, for families, for health; to dictate their sad twisted patriarchal morality into legislation — Are these the “family values” that should dominate the art scene around here? Second-, third-, and fourth-generation nouveau riches, who have never scrounged to make rent and eat and get to work on time? Unlike, you know, artists who need exposure? It is unsound to be a politically progressive employer yet allow your dining room to be co-branded like this.

Serious Local Art Institutions, why are you allowing your season calendars to be cramped by this mess? Why are you allowing these people to continue dominating the cultural conversation in our city? Agree to display controversial art. Challenge audiences to spend time with smaller, more intimate pieces. Ideally, turn down artprize as a venue and allow yourselves the space to dictate your own early Fall exhibitions. Who knows? You guys are screwed one way or the other every year.

Anyway, it’s all pretty foolish and worthless. Whole thing is panning out as a failure, going into the ninth year.

I wish good luck
to the building-sized quilt
depicting police dogs
surrounding Jesus
as he aims his AR-15
at a gay Syrian couple
being turned away at the US border,
supertitled “PSALM 108:13”
and “9/11 NEVER FORGET”
in golden thread
hand-embroidered letters
20 feet tall.
That took a really long time.
Those ladies sure worked hard on that quilt.
Top 10 easily.
Too bad I can’t vote for it
more than once!

— Russell Gorton
Grand Rapids, Michigan
September 18, 2017

Update 9/20/17 — some responses and answers:

I received some comments defending the artists, pointing out that because of artprize, artists are able to have their work seen by throngs of people, build relationships with venues, maybe contribute to a sense of civic pride. I agree artprize has drawn an unusually large audience to see art, and that has intrinsic value. But the lure of the prize incentivizes a certain kind of public art, which usually tends to  suck, while the rest of the sleeping-in-their-cars type artists are still paying $50+ to show their work in a restaurant booth or church lobby somewhere. Multiply that by the # of entries, and AP is earning a significant chunk of the prize money from the artists themselves.

I do not hate on any artists for showing in artprize. Artists should do what they do, when and where they want to do it. I felt that a critical analysis from a leftist perspective would contribute to the discussion around artprize. Now that it has had eight years to demonstrate what it is about, some conclusions may be drawn.

Can artists and venues attract crowds without big prize money attached? There are numerous other art fairs and shows throughout Michigan and the Midwest. My problem is with the prize money, where it comes from, and the assumptions it brings about human or social value being inextricably connected to financial wealth.

I was taken to task specifically over my derision regarding the quilts. I’m not belittling quilts, it’s a perfectly lovely form of art. I just point out the absurdity of the public voters picking not one, but two giant painstaking quilts as some notional “best” art. Nothing inherently wrong with the quilts; it’s the neopuritan ethos of them and their scale and subject matter, that appealed to the broad audience around here – is the idea I’m putting forward – that this desire to reward laborious craft and settler values for their own sake is a reflection of the reactionary white grievance tendencies of our region.

Like many white men learning to be allies, I have work to do but I in no way intended to belittle quilting as an art form or as “women’s work”. Feminism has benefitted me greatly and I am grateful daily for the women in my life who shape me.