The Rapidian

New Book Brings Lambert Zuidervaart Back to Grand Rapids

Underwriting support from:

Art in Public Symposium and Book Launch

 On Friday March 18 a symposium on the topic of Art in Public will be held at the UICA 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE from 1-4 p.m. The event will focus on the question "What does art need to serve its public function?" The symposium will address the issue nationally and then focus on the issue in Grand Rapids. A book launch will take place on Thursday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Organized by Paul Wittenbraker, art professor at Grand Valley State University, the symposium will allow people to explore the topic in depth. Position papers on the topic are welcome and some of those accepted will be read at the event.

The event is free, RSVPs are requested via Facebook.


Cover of Art in Public book. The art on the cover is by Zuidervaart's wife, Joyce Recker

Cover of Art in Public book. The art on the cover is by Zuidervaart's wife, Joyce Recker

More than 20 years ago, Lambert Zuidervaart began developing an idea for a book. His idea had the working title, Cultural Politics and Artistic Truth. But even for the accomplished arts philosopher, professor and author, the subject was much more broad than he expected. It demanded that Zuidervaart be reading and researching sociology, cultural studies,  economics and political science. "These are areas where I'm not an expert, so I had to do a lot of self-education."

"In 1996 I determined I actually had two books and I broke it into two manuscripts," said Zuidervaart. The first book, titled Artistic Truth, was published in 2004 and deals with questions of epistemology, theory of knowledge, philosophy of  language and aesthetic theory. "The book tries determine if in that domain it makes sense to talk about truth in art. I argue it does," said Zuidervaart.  The second part of the project, another book released in 2011, is titled Art in Public. The latest book almost didn't happen.

"In 2008 I was about to abandon the project. It seemed like the topic had become old and I didn't think the debate about public funding for art was alive anymore," he said.

Public Art Funding

After September 11, says Zuidervaart, the focus of cultural dispute about art had moved on and America was concerned with terrorism and fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The great art controversies of the late 1980s such as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ photograph and the not-to-be exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's images at the Corcoran Gallery had faded from the attention of Congress and the public. "I thought I might get a few articles from what I'd written. Then Cambridge (University Press) told me they were interested, so I came back to it," he said. The timing seemed to be right. Just after the election of President Obama, Zuidervaart saw arts funding history repeat itself: some of the discourse about funding appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts by fiscal and cultural conservatives that happened in the Reagan administration have surfaced again.

"When you look at it carefully, the government is involved in most artmaking, art distribution and art consumption. I've tried to break down the notion that only a few privileged artists and arts organizations are the beneficiaries of government attention. Our tax system has a number of indirect subsidies/tax exemptions for arts organizations. These indirect subsidies actually are more important source of funding than direct support like a grant. "It doesn't sound like it would be, but it is. The government is very involved in regulating art though copyright law, commerce and communications, all which affects the arts," said Zuidervaart. "The involvement of the state in art is unavoidable."

Art in Public Is . . .

The title of his latest book is purposeful, like Zuidervaart himself. He wanted to address the topic, but didn't want to restrict it to what many people think is public art. "Public art, as a term, is art that has direct government support or is art that is owned and operated by the government. What I'm talking about in the book is that, but it goes beyond, too. Much of the art that is made these days goes further than the audience it is intended for. It can be picked up by the media for exposure and oftentimes there is a strategy to involve more people than the original audience," said Zuidervaart.

Originally, Zuidervaart was thinking more about art in public as a nongovernmental issue, more about breaking art out of an individualistic view of what it means to be an artist or someone who enjoys art. "We tend to think about artists as individuals who do their thing and audiences as individuals and I wanted to get beyond that way of thinking. Art participation is framed by arts organizations and by the communities we participate in and belong to," he said.

Zuidervaart's understanding of the government's involvement in the arts came from his tenure as the President of the Board at the UICA from 1994 to 1998. He also co-chaired its Investing in Innovation campaign that put the UICA in its Sheldon Blvd. location.  Presently he is on the faculty of Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. "While at UICA I was dealing with details of a legal nature, as well as fundraising and fully realizing that involvement with government was unavoidable. I confirmed these notions through researching the book." Zuidervaart says his time at UICA helped shaped his views on the topic and helped him articulate the importance of public art to audiences that included individuals and foundations. "It was very good schooling for me to think in a practical way about why the arts and arts organizations are important to a community," he said.

"The arts are a very good target when it comes to budget cuts, and it is not hard to find instances of artmaking that are puzzling or offensive to much of the U.S. population. There is a notion in American culture that the arts are simply a luxury and it is easy to go after them," he said.

In the book Zuidervaart doesn't work from a position for or against government funding of the arts, but tries to show the situation as it exists and to reframe the debate in the context of three questions: Should government fund the arts? Should we be concerned about free artistic expression? Should art lead the way to a better society or is it leading to disaster? "I don't want to come down in the standard places, but try to reframe the debate," he said.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.