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The fizzling future of arts journalism

Post #1401 • October 7, 2009, 8:05 AM • 56 Comments

This past Friday, the National Arts Journalism Program hosted a summit concerning the future of arts journalism. Summit organizers chose five of more than a hundred submitted projects for presentation in Los Angeles, and they will now vie for cash awards. The project I submitted was not among them, to my enormous relief, as it would have had me producing reviews five days a week. It is a sin against taste to force it to do something it will not. Normally, I say as much when people willfully sacrifice their taste for the sake of a supposedly higher ideal, such as when Becky Smith, upon closing her Chelsea gallery, announced proudly (emphasis mine):

I always tried to have a distinct voice and point of view, represent as many women as possible, curate from my values and not my taste and get behind artists whose brilliance and concepts were apparent in their craft.

In my case, I was setting up to force my taste to march instead of amble in the serendipitous way that it should. No good would have come of it. John Link wrote to me to say that Clement Greenberg, at one point in his career, was called upon to write on a slightly less punishing schedule than that, and he produced some of the weakest work of his career. If a man with his talents couldn't pull off such a thing, I conclude that it is not worth attempting.

Paddy Johnson, who submitted her own site, felt rather differently about her rejection, and said so in a post with a distressing amount of content retracted due to inaccuracies.

Personally, I found this whole process very confusing. First there were going to be 5 finalists, each demonstrating sustainable business models. The finalists first announced were non-profits. Non-profits usually aren’t described as business models. I don’t see why the grant application page couldn’t have used the words “sustainable philanthropically supported, and commercial business models” (though given the breadth of projects it would seem to make more sense to have two separate awards - will this be the case?).

Tyler Green, reverting to his main prowess as a writer - scolding - chimed in:

My post on MAN responded to the RFP, which was clear. The RFP stated that contest entrants must have “viability, both as a business and as a journalistic enterprise.” Non-profit organizations are not businesses. The IRS is careful not to describe tax-exempt organizations as “businesses.”

If you've ever witnessed the apoplexy that Tyler suffers when the facts reported by Lee Rosenbaum change out from under her, you have to wonder about this. It doesn't take much negative capacity to hold "viability as a business" and "nonprofit" in mind at the same time. Nonprofits are not free to hemorrhage money. The non-profit model allows an entity to allocate its resources in a different way than a for-profit entity, but everybody doing business with or within the organization has to be paid in real bread, and therefore it must use a sound business plan to bring said money into the building. The distinctions made by the IRS don't enter into the argument. (For bonus laughs, see what the runt of the Artsjournal litter had to say about the matter. Chloe Veltman, who attended the summit, posted the only worthwhile first-person take on it that I could find.) Tyler, you may not be surprised to learn, is circulating a whitepaper to "potential funders and potential partners" about a wholly nonprofit solution to the problem of dwindling arts journalism.

I didn't find the NAJP submission process confusing, but it became clear shortly after the submission deadline that they were flying by the seat of their pants. Towards the end of August they indicated that finalists would be announced on August 28, the Friday before the initial announcement date of September 1. The 28th came and went, then the 1st did as well. A note popped on the site stating that reviewers were overwhelmed by the number of submissions and an announcement would be made soon. It finally appeared, if I'm not mistaken, the weekend of the 10th. (This has all disappeared from the NAJP website, so I apologize if that's not exact.) At that point, there was a change of plan: five finalists had been chosen, anyone who hadn't heard from the committee was not among the five, and instead of disclosing them, they would pop up at the summit to do their thing. We would discover their identities then. I breathed a sigh of relief, and considered that with friends like these, arts journalism doesn't need enemies. Only one thing irritated me: an early version of the announcement, now disappeared, applauded the single individuals working tirelessly on behalf of some subject, but it did so in condolences, as a group. I inferred that such projects had been dismissed from consideration en masse. The selection of finalists bore that inference out. I would have been saved an enormous amount of trouble had I known in advance that my project was going to get tossed on the basis of not involving enough contributors. If the rules changed in midstream, as Paddy and Tyler claim, it was on this point. I can only assume that the NAJP didn't realize until the review process was underway that they weren't interested in single-person projects, much like I didn't realize that I wasn't all that fired up about singlehandedly remedying the shortcomings of art criticism until I was mired in my own attempt to do so.

As recounted in Darwin's Worms:

John Cage tells the story somewhere of going to a concert of music composed by a friend of his. The composer had also written the programme notes for the music in which he said, among other things, that he hoped his music might go some way to diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert his friend asked him what he thought of the event and Cage answered, "I loved the music but I hated the programme notes." "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?" the friend asked, obviously put out. "No," Cage replied, "I think there's just the right amount."

A common presupposition of beleaguered arts journalists and those who would improve their lot (or at least keep it from worsening) posits that forces beyond the control of traditional journalism, and lack of an intelligent managerial response to those forces, has caused the diminishing of arts coverage. In his whitepaper, Tyler notes:

There is no data that points to a lack of American interest in journalism or information about art and the arts. Instead, commercial media companies are losing interest in including coverage of the arts in newspapers and magazines, the places where Americans have traditionally found their news.

I won't try to disprove that negative first sentence. I will, however, point out that the phenomena described in each sentence don't necessarily correlate with one another. Tyler envisions a nonprofit-supported arts journalism project, which once implemented will naturally attract an audience of art aficionados who would be reading the paper if only they had some content aimed at them. I tend to think, instead, that this audience was never very large in the first place, and newspapers addressed them anyway because it made the paper look more credible. This audience was small enough to sacrifice when bad times came. What's worse, though, is that arts coverage stopped making the paper look credible. The aforementioned runt of the Artsjournal litter was a gainfully employed art critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until her firing, and her M.O. is to take felt truth to its solipsistic maximum. People had been rightfully complaining about the Miami Herald's art coverage for as long as anyone could remember when I decided to involve myself in the problem, almost ten years ago, and nothing has improved. Holland Cotter, an uneven writer, at best, given to bouts of anti-authoritarianism unbecoming a person more than sixteen years old, just won a Pulitzer. I don't know how it is in other genres, but mainstream visual art coverage is wackadoodle - poorly argued, poorly formed, and based on poor observations, if any. Such writers take their vices along as they migrate to the Web, where they have no editors to tell them to shut up and do some real journalism or criticism or something. I wonder if anyone at Creative Capital or the Warhol Foundation feels buyer's remorse when they see that they gave $30,000 to Paddy Johnson so she could post things like this (NSFW). (An interesting exception to note here is the lifestyle magazines, who gain credibility when they feature the kind of coy sashay through the art world that Brett Sokol has become so skilled at producing. Sokol's as good as he is because in the midst of providing all the breeziness required by the form, he sneaks in careful mentions of solid, sincere work, like that of Mary Malm, and pans the overly theoretical nonsense that threatens to overwhelm the ostensibly serious effort behind it all. Sokol is one of the few true subversives.) As Piri Halasz astutely put it yesterday:

In the realm of art, the sad fact is that almost all of the sort of people who look at and even buy contemporary art in New York have what I consider lousy taste, so they will only read the Times if the reviewers point them in the direction of the sad kind of art they already like. I don't think the reviewers quite realize this themselves (if they did, they might have to quit, the way I quit Time 40 years ago). But they're nonetheless hired because they very sincerely like the kind of contemporary art that I consider second-rate, nor has this changed over the past 60 years (I did my dissertation on NYC painting in the 40s, and it was the same story then - which explains why nobody remembers the names of the NYTimes reviewers from those days, whereas Greenberg, who knew and praised the good art of those days in the Nation and Partisan Review, is very well remembered indeed).

Here's an ugly possibility that I haven't seen anyone deal with yet: people don't pay for art journalism and art criticism because they're not worth buying. Survival as a critic, and entree as a journalist, require subscription to a contemporary canon that correlates to the slack taste of a relatively tiny population, only a vanishing fraction of whom have any real money. Thus people with credibility have insufficient taste, and people with taste have insufficient credibility. The latter writers can rant their hearts out to no real effect except the gratification of their circle. In the case of the former writers, critical opposition to developments in contemporary art comes in two flavors: politely doubtful, and ersatz, such as when Jerry Saltz celebrates human bullshit dispensers as "human bullshit detectors." Bill Wyman had this to say back in August about a paper where he once freelanced as an arts writer:

The editor of the page told me, quite explicitly that pans were not allowed. She didn’t want readers to see something unflattering about their favorite artist over breakfast. That’s anecdotal, but I’ve got a lot of anecdotes like that, and the pervasiveness of this attitude has been obvious in papers for decades. The New York Times does better work than most papers, but even it is not immune. One of its managing editors, Jill Abramson, just began a weekly series on her adoption of a new puppy.

If my hypothesis is right, then there is no solution. Arts journalism is going to slink off to the Web, where it will muddle along in the care of people with other revenue streams to support them. A collector recently scooped a journalist on the recent improprieties at the New Museum. Said journalist lamented that "market madness is now corrupting the ethics and curatorial/scholarly authority and independence of some of New York's museums," apparently oblivious to a fact that we non-subscribers have known for years: that such corruption is commonplace at contemporary institutions the world over. I try to envision a nonprofit able to support local arts coverage at any meaningful level of comprehensiveness or scrutiny, and I see an organization that depends on the very same players that the nonprofit exhibition venues depend upon. In other words, if you think there are unacceptable conflicts of interest now, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Scholarship, too, at least verbiage that passes for it, can be had for a price.

I'm doing some web development for an art gallery. I am advising its proprietor to start assuming that arts journalism doesn't exist, and find ways to connect directly with his audience. I say this because I believe that one day he will have no choice about the matter. Writers are not demanding enough of themselves, their medium, or the art that they're looking at, inured as they are to art that in turn does not demand enough of itself. They matter less and less to both the reading public and the people putting gas in the art machine. Art will never die. Arts journalism I'm not so sure about. It is suffering just the right amount.




October 7, 2009, 7:40 AM

"I am advising its proprietor to start assuming that arts journalism doesn't exist, and find ways to connect directly with his audience."

If you can get them to understand this you're worth whatever they're paying you X 100.



October 7, 2009, 8:18 AM

Right on. When I worked at and wanted to do art stories, editors laughed. When I did stories, very few people clicked. It used to be editorial judgment subsidized good journalism. Consumers just bought a paper, which included many kinds of coverage. Even if someone bought the paper to read the funny pages, it allowed owners and editors to form a quality paper with an eye to the whole. Now that editors see exactly what stories are clicked on, it's meant the death of a lot of good stories; they have to get more and more audience, and most editors just do more of what's hitting big (usually tied to celebrity).

I was excited recently to see a new gallery, Horton & Liu, active on Facebook and Youtube. They solicit questions for their artists to answer on video, and it's actually engaging and direct, which is much more than I can say for most arts journalism.



October 7, 2009, 8:35 AM

Franklin says: "What's worse, though, is that arts coverage stopped making the paper look credible."

Hear! Hear! That's the crux of the problem. If someone writes about the art "art lovers" want to hear about in the way they want to hear about it, the authority of the paper suffers. If it is one negative tirade after another, authority still suffers because the paper descends to the niche normally reserved for tabloids.

Popular art has become like a poison toad. Ugly to look at and even worse to eat. It undoes anything that gets too close to it.



October 7, 2009, 8:46 AM

The best way for Cage to reduce suffering in the world would be to advise people to avoid his music.

Cotter got a Pulitzer? Aaarghh! All I can say is that his brand of incompetence is all his own.

I have noted your positive remarks about Sokol. They make sense. I missed the reference to May Malm.

I bet if asked about this matter Clem Greenberg would have responded gruffly "Just find the best and tell people about it. That's all you can do."



October 7, 2009, 8:48 AM

John, a poison toad presented as a frog prince, I think.



October 7, 2009, 8:48 AM

In all fairness, it's a little difficult for arts coverage to make a paper look credible when the art in question is not credible itself. It's like celebrity coverage, essentially.



October 7, 2009, 8:49 AM

Make that celebrity coverage with much less profit, if any.



October 7, 2009, 9:50 AM

Not to worry about not being chosen. All of these contests, I am convinced, are set up to raise funds and get publicity for the organizers--they set the parameters so wide in order to lure in thousands of applicants who are not even faintly like what they plan to award their prizes to--but that doesn't mean you don't want to apply, because --- as w. the NYState lottery, you gotta be in it to win it.

Re negative reviews--no publication wants them. Competition for space is too extreme--hundreds of shows being available for review, only room for a handful of reviews. It's bad enough on the newspapers, which at least attract a range of advertisers outside the art world and hence can liberate their reviewers from advertiser pressure, but it's even worse on the art magazines, all of whom rely primarily on ads placed by dealers.



October 7, 2009, 12:20 PM

Well, Franklin, I agree one could do worse than Sokol, but that piece of his you linked in the recent Roundup struck me as mostly standard-issue, there's-no-real-problem-here art scene cheerleading. There may have been a tongue-in-cheek element, especially if one's determined to read that into the piece, but I expect that would be news to people like the Scholls. I give him credit for noticing Mary Malm, but one swallow does not make a spring.



October 7, 2009, 3:25 PM

is this an april fools joke?


that guy

October 7, 2009, 8:46 PM

Nice writeup Franklin. I think the CG quote goes. "All it takes to be an art critic is presumption". We certainly have that in excess wherever art criticism rears its toady head nowadays. I don't see any change pending on the internet or otherwise until solid writing about art that people actually want to see appears. If you want to take up that gauntlet be my guest. The current state of art journalism is at a historic ebb. You'll have to capture the readers attention by predicting that owning this great new painting will be worth a lot of money one day. That usually gets the masses worked up in herd like droves. You'll get clicks galore.


that guy

October 8, 2009, 10:33 AM

I just took an in depth look at the 'winners'. I mean those 'selected'(I assume to receive more funding). Which means I spent well over 2 minutes on each site.
So let me get this straight: a national summit on the future of arts journalism comes up with this:

1. Departures: non-linear community story-telling (with a massive 5 diggs! YES! Almost time up upgrade those servers!)

2. glasstire (Texas art with a paypal donate button? Charming really.)

3. flyp (which asks the rhetorical question "What is flyp?" right on its home page.) They still don't seem to know btw. But they claim it is: "a dynamic online, multimedia magazine that combines text, video, audio, animation and interactivity into a new kind of storytelling." (oh god, not more storytelling. #1 covered that already.)

4. San Francisco Classical Voice. OK, now I know about San Fransisco's dieing classical music scene. Next.

5. Flavorpill , this one might get somewhere in about fifty years. Could we tune down those ads oh, say, just a few notches. It is difficult to see what is going on. Layout is key.

Great work guys. This is why I always recommend working in a committee if you are determined to see the least interesting and most likely to fail project get just slightly off the ground.


Chris Rywalt

October 8, 2009, 10:56 AM

I have a sudden urge to change the name of my blog to "Poison Toad: Ugly to look at, worse to eat".

I know now why arts journalism is dying: Editors don't want the negative reviews. But they're what readers want. I get much more interest in my negative reviews than the positive ones. And I like writing them more, too. Mr. Greenberg is right, that all we can do is find what's good and tell people about it, as far as that goes: It's really the best contribution we can make. But we can also mock those who deserve it, mercilessly, and maybe make them cry. As many people as say there's no such thing as bad publicity, there are still plenty of people who (and careers which) are hurt by it.

Your full essay is excellent, by the way, Franklin, even if in sum it says I'm wasting my time. I'm glad you decided to pick on Paddy and Tyler, two writers who are far more well-regarded than they deserve.



October 8, 2009, 11:29 AM

"two writers who are far more well-regarded than they deserve"

Ah, understatement! Really, Chris, you're too subtle. And, needless to say (but I'm saying it), the number of those far more well-regarded than they deserve is astronomical (and I mean everywhere, not just art writing).



October 8, 2009, 11:46 AM

Actually, Chris, it's not that editors don't want the negative reviews, exactly. It's that they have a rather pesky conflict of interests. If the negative reviews did not jeopardize advertising revenue, those editors would be considerably more, uh, impartial.


Chris Rywalt

October 8, 2009, 11:49 AM

Obviously true. But I rarely get introduced to, say, George W. Bush or Will Ferrell, to name two individuals I consider very strongly overrated. While I've met Paddy and Tyler and smiled at them and didn't tell them how mediocre (not to say bad) they are. Of course, when I did meet them it was early in my art journey and I wasn't familiar with their work at all. And, naturally, no one knew what I jerk I'd turn out to be, so people were still willing to be introduced to me.

Come to think of it, I met Paddy and Tyler at the first and last art blogger party to which I was invited. Not that I feel I've missed anything.



October 8, 2009, 12:08 PM

I've never heard Geo. W. Bush overrated in the media, and I include Fox in that. Will Ferrell is regularly if not constantly overrated.



October 8, 2009, 12:09 PM

Chris, I suppose I quibble, but I said well-regarded. Bush hasn't been even wanly well-regarded in years, but quite the opposite. Ferrell (whose existence I'm aware of, but just barely) is presumably a more apt choice. Anyway, there is no justice in this world, or certainly not enough of it.


Chris Rywalt

October 8, 2009, 12:20 PM

W. must've been well-regarded by someone at some point. I mean, the guy got elected President. No one puts you up there if they all think you're a total hosehead.

Anyway, my point was, while a great many people are certainly more well-regarded than they deserve, I do not, in my life, encounter most of them. These few I have encountered, and may again, and so appear to me more egregious, because closer. I suppose in a more general way they're not so bad, since their incompetence doesn't result in thousands of dead soldiers in ill-considered foreign ventures, or in moving picture entertainments so devoid of humor as to be environmentally devastating.



October 8, 2009, 12:29 PM

Oh, Bush was and is well-regarded, but not by the media. If he succeeded at all, it was in spite of the media, not because of it. But that's another story, and I get your point.

I'd place Paddy and Tyler in the 'symptom' category, rather than 'cause.'



October 8, 2009, 12:37 PM

Ah, I see the nature of your problem, Chris, or part of it. You evidently still rely on or trust in the so-called entertainment industry. This, I'm afraid, is a fallacy, unless you're actually as brain-dead as said industry clearly figures and expects. It would appear that you are not, or not quite, so I'd suggest alternative ways to spend your leisure time and/or money. And yes, I practice what I preach (at least in this instance). Of course, I'm effectively a mutant, but that's a technicality.



October 8, 2009, 12:40 PM

Comment #21 was written by JACK, not Chris. Curses. And no, it was NOT a Freudian slip.


Jack (Chris)

October 8, 2009, 12:44 PM

All slips are Freudian.


Jack (the only one)

October 8, 2009, 12:51 PM

Maybe in New York, Chris, but everyone does not see a therapist.



October 8, 2009, 5:08 PM

"Scholarship, too, at least verbiage that passes for it, can be had for a price."

Sometimes I look over the art section at Books & Books, the best regarded bookstore in Miami, just to see if there's a new, uh, monograph on yet another dubious artist. There frequently is. I'm still not sure how this works, since in at least some cases, the production costs would seem to be prohibitive relative to the potential sales (if any). I can't believe publishers would be that foolhardy. What gives?



October 8, 2009, 5:36 PM

Jack, whenever I see what I think you're talking about(and I regularly do see them at the flagship Halfprice Books in Dallas), I take them as efforts of private collectors to keep the value of their collections up.



October 8, 2009, 5:51 PM

I wanted to say that the collectors were duped into acquiring the art in those books, but actually the ones I know of really believe in it. If you google The Rachofsky House, you'll find photos of a remarkably fine example of the architecture of Richard Meier. It houses a collection largely made up of a bunch of Italian minimalists and other stuff like that. A complete disconnect exists between the building and the art it houses. It's like the Rachofskys had the building made for the same reasons the collectors had those books made. It's a presentation thing. A well made frame...dressing up a pig.



October 8, 2009, 7:26 PM

Yes, Tim, that sounds like a plausible explanation. In some cases, it may be a dealer as opposed to a collector bankrolling the publication, and possibly both. What seems clear is that these books aren't simply some publisher's idea based on perceived market interest.



October 8, 2009, 7:40 PM

In my experience, the dealers direct most of the kind of thing we're talking about.



October 8, 2009, 8:30 PM

Well, I suppose it looks slightly less bad for a dealer to engineer such a publication than for a collector to do it. The dealer is, or can pose as, an ostensibly more objective and less invested (if not less interested) party. The whole business is highly dubious any way you slice it, but I expect some people can be satisfied by a marginally lower degree of dubiousness, even if it's no better than splitting hairs.



October 8, 2009, 8:47 PM

Ha, very good, Jack. The dealer launches the collector, and then the dealer puts the collector up to the PR. Heh heh heh...



October 8, 2009, 9:21 PM

I wonder if anyone at Creative Capital or the Warhol Foundation feels buyer's remorse when they see that they gave $30,000 to Paddy Johnson so she could post things like this (NSFW).

Probably. They're more into furries, from what I hear.



October 8, 2009, 9:23 PM

In that case, maybe hipster porn isn't so bad.


That guy

October 8, 2009, 10:13 PM

If the economic correction does anything helpful for artists, I would hope for a complete overhaul of the gallery/dealer/collector/critic inbreeding that seems to thrive today. The only needed groups are artists and collectors and maybe a few auction houses. Cut all middle men and keep a few critics to point the way. Artists would make more and collectors would get better prices. What's not to like about that setup? Everyone complains about galleries and dealers because they are a pre-electronic age relic. Most do more harm than good because their biggest function is to mark up prices, some steal from artists or worse, all the while creating animosity in a field that purports to embody the greatest creations mankind has ever produced. From a purely capitalist prespective they know they are gonners. The sooner people realize this the better off all concerned will be. Most galleries act like pimps while artists are the ones with the goods. Maybe we should outlaw this trafficking once and for all.


that guy

October 8, 2009, 11:42 PM

Ok, maybe not my most popular idea. That is because most people are scared stiff of change. All that money that could be saved by collectors could be used to buy large warehouses with white walls for 'their' artists to work and show. Rather than the whorehouses we have now. Can I get a hell yeah? Artists remain indentured servants either way you cut it. Just trying to restore some dignity to a profession I care deeply about.



October 9, 2009, 6:46 AM

Piri, in #8, puts a handle on it nicely. Contests are not for the contestants, no matter how they seem in their favor.

When you really think about it, most contests are about losing. While the winners are celebrated, the major residue that is the fact after the contest is over is simple: the vast majority lost.

We can be hip and laugh about Father Knows Best or The Brady Bunch and how unrealistically positive they always worked out, but they were programs produced by a culture that was positive about itself.

Survivor was, to me, the first of the major shows to represent the feel of the then upcoming "Great Recession". While the winner's strategy is celebrated (sort of), what is highlighted week after week is the many different ways you can lose and how much it hurts to lose. The contestants are at the mercy of the contest's owners ... owners who change the rules as the game goes on, with impunity. We were aghast when we learned the producers helped some winners cheat on the $64,000 question; but in Survivor we don't call it cheating anymore, we just call it playing the game.

Wringing out these dark emotions benefits who? The owners of the show not only make the most money, they are the only ones who get any glory. The "winner" gets exposed as someone who goes back on his word, manipulates others, and behaves in many other devious ways. The winner is the least "unfortunate" of the group, the one who having lost his integrity, at least receives significant money for having given it up, along with "praise" for "having played the game well". This is hardly the kind of praise we heap on the Most Valuable Player in the Superbowl. In the showdown, every contestant on Survivor is a loser to some degree or another.

Now we are moving on to larger mega-contests where 16 losers are not enough. This arts journalism thing is one good example. Like Survivor, the owners changed the rules mid-stream. If, like everyone else who is suffering from the recession, you looked to that contest for suggestions on how to make a living by writing about art, the owners forced you to also join the official list of losers, because that promise was the first one they broke.

I found one bright spot recently. Well, maybe it would be better described as not quite so dim. The richest family in Grand Rapids (owns Amway/Quixtar) put on "Artprize", billed as the most lucrative art contest ever held (and it was). They put up $449,000 with $250,000 going to the winner. All you have to do is to have your work voted as the top work by the public, a la American Idol. (I think voting is in two phases, the first of which is over.) There will be approximately 1300 losers in this contest to go with one huge winner and nine smaller ones. The owners of the contest staged it for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was to goose business in Grand Rapids, which it did.

And they created a side effect of sticking it to the standard art system. Mary Jane Jacobs, one of the big curators in the Chicago "scene" could not quite ignore what went on, despite its rag-tag nature and complete by-pass of the usual filtering system for what art gets labeled "important". So she was reduced to saying things like "there are no $250,000 artists here" and wishing the first prize was smaller and spread among more contestants. I mean, even Jack will admit that $250,000 is real money, something that competes with the prices seen at his beloved Art Basel.

So in an odd way, Artprize embodied more optimism than this art writing thing. Business benefited, Grand Rapids in general got something out of it, and most of the contestants had fun, even though they lost varying amounts of money and suffered through art being valued almost purely as spectacle and vulgarian pleasing.

I suspect the owners did not lose money, though they could afford to. But back to Piri's #8, was this contest for the contestants? No way. They were the means to some other end, as they usually are.


that guy

October 9, 2009, 7:33 AM

Well said John. Come to think of it, the turner prize, and many others, turns up a consistent batch of inferior artists on a yearly basis. The directors benefit, just as your producers do above, by the negative press and public outcry it creates. I remember in Karen Wilkin's David Smith book she describes how he was awarded second place in some event and simply refused it all together. That is the attitude that we appear to have lost (or at least chosen to ignore) and maybe unable to regain as a culture.



October 9, 2009, 9:01 AM

Illuminating bit of writing, John.



October 9, 2009, 9:13 AM

They've picked their winner.



October 9, 2009, 9:21 AM

Well, MC, I've seen worse sell for more in a very prestigious context. It's hardly unusual.



October 9, 2009, 12:12 PM

One of my friends who entered a spectacle type installation pronounced it impossible for any 2 dimensional work, especially painting, to win the day before the first vote ended.

Funny how a "modest", technically competent painting won in the final count. Vulgarians know what they like and probably picked the best of the 10 that reached the finals.

The tribe has spoken.



October 9, 2009, 12:14 PM

BTW, my comment back to my friend was that if a painting was to win it had better be big, realistic, well executed, and not a nude.



October 9, 2009, 12:15 PM

I suspected that a realist work would win because this is what the majority of people think of as worthwhile art. This is wrong, but it's less wrong than a lot of ideas held by the in-group.



October 9, 2009, 12:15 PM

Thanks Tim.



October 9, 2009, 12:42 PM

"The tribe has spoken."

Well, the in-crowd won't care, not unless and until it has to.


Chris Rywalt

October 9, 2009, 12:47 PM

I think you're being extra cynical there, Franklin. In my experience, "regular people" -- man in the street, non-art world people -- can pick out really good art of any style when they're presented with it. But when given a choice between various flavors of mediocrity and junk, then competent realism wins.

My wife loves Jackson Pollock. She loved Pollock before I did. She's never heard of Greenberg or formalism or anything. She responds to Pollock on a purely visual, visceral level.

What's good about regular people is they simply respond to art, rather than running their reactions through a "how will I look if I don't like this" filter.



October 9, 2009, 12:57 PM

Chris, when it comes to 'regular people,' it depends entirely on the person. Your wife must bring something to Pollock which allows her to get it.

Looks to me like that Grand Rapids winner is the jurors' safe way out of being asked to do something that might've been beyond them.


Chris Rywalt

October 9, 2009, 1:01 PM

What she brings to all art is naviete.



October 9, 2009, 1:04 PM

Naivete: a key necessity. I once found myself having to regain it.



October 9, 2009, 1:19 PM

Tim: the winner was selected by popular vote, just like the top 10 were. The difference was that in selecting the top 10 a "registered voter" could vote for as many as he or she wanted, just so no single artist was voted for more than once - voters were allowed to be generous with what they liked. In the second round, you had to select one and only one to receive your single vote - "the best".

So it got down to, when everyone had to choose just one, the largest group went for the waves. I don't think safety had anything to do with it. It was more like the classic I don't know anything about art but I know what I like.

Jack: The "in-crowd" cared after a fashion, because the first 3 prizes were so large ($250k, 100k, 50k) that their territory was invaded, so to speak, without asking even one of them for permission. Well, I guess they got to vote just like thousands of others. But works that fetch that kind of money are supposed to be vetted by the system, not the general public. Knowing the Devos group, I bet they do it again too, perhaps with bigger money dangling in front of the contestants and some new twists in the rules.

All in all, I liked the event. It was a crazy free for all, who knows what will happen kind of thing with a better business intention than I usually associate with art fairs of this magnitude.



October 9, 2009, 1:38 PM

John, I forgot that you pointed out the popular vote previously. Anyway, then, it sounds like it was more about crowdpleasing fun than anything else. Awfully expensive fun. And the winner's award represents a common denominator.



October 9, 2009, 2:31 PM

One is reminded of the "serious" music people (all 3 of them), who resolutely ignore the fact no reasonable person is at all likely to be interested in their product. True, the art system people have been far more successful financially, so they have much less incentive to change course, and as long as the money holds up, they rather like being part of an insular little clique.



October 10, 2009, 7:50 AM

The waves had a number of winning charcteristics, among them those on John's well-chosen list above. It also was very large, which not only increases the "skill" quotient but also adds theatricality of sort which will not comproimise its quiet seriousness and the "I love the sea" feeling which most of us carry around in our heads.

People love spectacle, but when it comes to the top they go for gravitas every time. I juried a show in N Carolina years ago which was full of the usual loud colors, juvenile angst, horriblisme and vast stretches of latter-day abstract expressionism, neo-realism and impressionism and I gave the first prize to a medium-sized, B&W graphite rendering of a group of old ladies at lunch. This caused instant and universal astonishment all around.



October 10, 2009, 8:56 AM

John, this sort of art contest, however contrived or "irregular," at least gets one thing right: it's up to the individual viewer to judge for himself. What anybody else may think is beside the point. You get to pick the winner, all by yourself, and that's precisely how it should be. All you really need is your eyes and your brain. The establishment or system is quite dispensable, especially given its track record. Screw it. Yeah, I guess that Jacobs woman in Chicago was put out.



October 11, 2009, 12:05 PM

But Jack, in this case, an individual didn't get to pick the winner. A mob ruled. So, where's the individual's protection from the mob? Is it in the fact that in this case the results of the establishment are dispensible too?



October 12, 2009, 10:34 AM

I wasn't really thinking of the actual contest results, but rather of the idea that each individual gets to decide for himself, by himself, what he thinks is best. Even in a non-contest situation, an individual's decision will never be the same as everyone else's, but that's not the point. The point is to make it clear that YOU decide. What others decide is their affair.



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