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Brett Adds to ArtPrize Conversation

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Brett’s addition to the ArtPrize Conversation

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 (intentionally or not), 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 Professor 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 this particular model for an art-centered event 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.

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All these conversation about art are what ArtPrize organizers were hoping for. For whatever it's worth, I kind of feel like those conversations indicate that the "real art people" wish the general public had nothing to do with this event.

I also would like to pose this thought: over 1200 artists entered, hoping to win a crapton of money for their art. If they can decry the general public's lack of culture and art education, can the general public decry that our artists are selling out? Who can deny that the gigantic cash prize is the reason artists from all around the world entered?

If artists and organizers really want the general public to appriciate art, I hope this event can happen year after year with less prize money and more education opportunities, while retaining high artist participation. Hopefully over the years GR residents will learn to appreciate "good art"! No matter what, though, I think this has been good for our city.

This is a GREAT response to the criticism that has been leveled at the Grand Rapids art community for their response to art prize, and I say this as someone who is among those dishing out the criticism.  I'm honestly impressed and swayed by this piece.

Having said this, there's still some red flags that I can't help but go after.  First, there seems to be a recurring theme in the arguments offered by your expert community (no sarcasm or condescension intended there...I fully recognize the time and intellectual demands required to assert that title; I'm just sayaing "your expert community " in reference to your rightfully unabashed use of the title ), including yourself, comparing art to surgery.  I'd steer away from that comparison, because there's a radical disparity between the logical end result of a surgery and a work of art (or evaluation of a work of art); setting aside an argument that one has an inherent value (that would send us right down the rabbit hole) I think we can both agree that one has an empirically manageable standard of evaluating "success", and one doesn't; there's clearly a fairly definite dichotomy in "alive/dead" "vegetable/conscious" (again, let's not go down the rabbit hole here) that just can't be found or applied in art.  

Another flag got thrown up when you stated that "One does not attend (or erect) a theme park with the intention of personal or societal growth, but for entertainment."; this follows your comment that "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."  The problem here is that something doesn't have to be intended to catalyze discussion or thought regarding these perspectives to actually do so; this is easily shown by the fact that purely natural scenes often evoke the same chains of cognition, and they're of no less value when not intentionally provoked. 

This brings me to my primary problem with most arguments regarding artprize and the public voting; the fundamental argument seems to be that the expert community possesses the ability to evaluate art based on more precise and analytic levels, but this argument fails to recognize that these methods of evaluation are based purely on constructs created by the same expert community over an extensive and distinguished history.  Before these constructs existed, there was still art.  You probably agree with this; it's implicit to a degree in your statement that there's no inherent value in self expression, which I believe is a truism.  You can make your own analogy here; just pick an activity, create a means of analysis for it, and perpetuate that analytic framework for centuries...and it's still the same activity, of no less or more value.

Hell, I'm not even saying I have an answer to my own criticisms, or an ultimate point.  I'm just saying that these facts threw up red flags for me while reading your incredibly well reasoned piece.

Thanks for a great and well spoken piece, Brett. I often find myself seeing both sides, as a person who has an art degree but is not particularly active in the local arts scene. There have been occasions where I have seen local experts "giving the smack down" to others in the general public and it causes me to want to lash out. (I also agree that the "surgeon/doctor" analogy needs to be retired. You don't have to have a degree to be an artist, but I would not want someone without one to operate on me.) While I fully understand the need to protect the investment of years of education and professional life, I also agree that the "expert" crowd definitely needs to "find useful terms with which to engage the General Public" or risk further alientation. If the goal is to educate and bring us together, care needs to be taken.

We unfortunately suffer in this country from a long decrease in the importance of Art in our society. This is a dark road we have been heading down ever since the NEA was all but dismantled in the 1980’s. In doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if we don’t value the Arts enough in our schools, our cities, our institutions to fund Art that the publics knowledge of what Art is all about is going to decline.
Art is not this mysterious secret elite club that you can only access by membership. It seems to me that Art is the one field anyone can access freely and openly. You don’t need to a degree or membership to attend an Art opening or a lecture at a museum or to check out Art History books at your local library. You don’t need permission to visit the GRAM or the Art Institute of Chicago.
I believe that the most harm done to peoples idea about Art a notion that we have all been exposed to at one time or another. That being the myth that ‘Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.’ This little, simple statement may in fact be true but then one has to accept the sad fact that all those minds are not created equal. This little dangerous statement has spawned another familiar phrase ”I don’t know much about Art but I know what I like”. And because we have been to embarrassed or to exhausted to challenge this misconception we have allowed this notion to spread across the land like an invasive species of plant.
The average American fully accepts the fact that when it comes to science or financial matters or tax planning or brain surgery it’s best to turn to someone who has the knowledge to help us or possibly educate us about the field. Yet when it comes to Art we allow just the opposite to happen.
I don’t believe the onus is on both groups as Brett suggests. I also do not believe as he contends that the public is contentious because they perceive the experts as positioning themselves to remain in power. I think it is the lay person who is positioning to be equal with experts simply based on the myth above which they have been taught.
I am all in favor of personal opinion. I want people to enjoy, love, and participate in Art. I think conversation, education and general engagement of the public about Art is a fantastic thing and potentially wonderful for future ArtPrizes. But personal opinion is different than knowledgeable opinion and AP isn’t asking people to voice or discuss their personal opinion, they are asking them to be the judge and jury in “the largest Art Competition in the World” as to what should or should not be good Art. Would be accept that notion for the Nobel Prize?

This surgery analogy thing is out of control.

If I go to someone to have my taxes done, I do so because that individual can refer to an objective set of guidelines, the federal tax code, and produce empirically manageable results.  If that individual deviates substantially from these standards, there's going to be a definite detriment to me; I'm going to suffer a financial loss.

If I go to a scientist to have my drinking water tested for impurities, I do so because that individual can refer to an objective et of guidelines, whether that party uses a spectrometer or something else, that allows the party to produce empirically manageable results.  If that individual deviates substantially from those standards, there's going to be a definite deteriment to me; I'm going to suffer an impairment to my health.

If I go to a surgeon...well, to cut to the chase, I die. 

If I go to an art expert and seek an evaluation of the art of my own or that of others, please explain to me how the outcome is analogous.

I don't mean for this to be a criticism.  But this analogy is being made in literally every pitch for the problem with a public vote that I hear, and in my personal opinion, it doesn't work.

Corey, Your personal opinion about what you like and prefer in Art is yours to have,hold, and cherish. But Artprize was not simply asking you for your personal opinion. It was asking you to be the judge and jury as to what is good Art. Art has a history. It has reason for what happened and developed. There are entire careers where people study the history, the purpose, the techniques and the philosophy of Art. It is a profession. Now you may say that Artprize was just that...a culling of the populist opinion of Art. I'm suggesting that if professional Art Competitions are going to be reduced to populist opinion that there is a dangerous premise hidden there. Do you want the public to pick the books your local library will shelf? Which public body will do that? Conservatives? Liberals? Why not have the public pick who will win the Nobel Prize? Those might seem like silly question because we all undersatnd that to judge those types of things you should have some idea about what you are talking about. Why is Art any different?

Ah Richard. I knew it would only be a matter of time before you showed up. :)

I understand your view but don’t agree. I know that the only way you’d be happy is if Artprize was made a juried contest with no popular vote. That’s not going to happen and if it did, it would lose most of its public interest. Is that truly the result you are seeking? Would you be satisfied if there was a juried award alongside the popular vote?

One thing to realize is that Artprize is only tangentially about art. It is more about economic development for GR. Consider it similar to the Kalamazoo Promise which is an economic development program that is also educating young people.

You may prefer the idea that "Artprize is only tangentially about art" but thats not reality. ArtPrize was not announced, billed, advertised, promoted or explain as a economic development plan for GR. Artists didn't pay a $50 application fee and spend hundreds of hours working to participate a program like the Kalamazoo Promise. They entered what was billed as "the largest Art Competition in the world".
Since you asked, I would be happy if ArtPrize 2010 was a professional juried event and their was a popular vote along side.
And in the long run it's ancillary effect would be a better economic development plan for Grand Rapids.

Richard, my assessment that Artprize is primarily an economic development tool is not my preference, per se, but more my cynical assessment of reality.

Glad to hear your vision of Artprize does include a place for a popular vote.

Thats a sad notion of Art.

Richard, I may just be misreading things, as my experience is restricted to this conversation...but it seems like when you respond to people's posts, you're not actually responding to what they said at all.

For instance, Amy stated what she felt the objective of Artprize was.  You responded that "it was a sad notion of art."  I don't want to put words into people's mouths, but I don't think Amy was trying to convey her personal convictions about art itself.  

Lets say Amy is right. Let's say Rick Devos had no real intention of promoting a dialog about art and having an international competition. Let say, as amy suggest , that what he really wanted to do was fill his family hotel and bring dollars to the retail section of Downtown. That is a sad notion and a misuse of Art.

Richard, I think my perspective is just radically skewed from yours.  I can definitely see where you're coming from as an artist; I think we're just operating in two different paradigms.  I perceived the event as tremendously positive for the downtown area, but I think I need to recognize that I'm just not involved enough in the arts to really understand the mixed feelings that a lot of local artists have about it.  My honest and probably oversimplified opinion is that considering the state of the local economy, any real negative effect that artprize had on the GR art community and how it's perceived outside of the area has been offset by the tremendous economic spark that the event generated.  Frankly, I'm a critical guy, and I was ready to rip into this event from the outset; I'm honestly surprised and impressed with how successful the event turned out to be. 

Regarding Amy's suggestion, I don't think there's any question that the primary motivation for the event was economic.  Under different circumstances, I'd be more disturbed by the implications of this; right now, however, I'm willing to give it a pass because even if it did line Rick's pockets a little, it also helped out some struggling businesses downtown.  If even one set of doors is able to stay open because of the boost this provided over the prior weeks, I think the tradeoff is worth it; the downtown area has really progressed over the past couple decades, and in my relatively uneducated opinion, the economic shitstorm unfortunately occurred at a critical time in development.  The city needs events like this right now to sustain things. 

But again, it's easy for me to talk about net benefit outweighing any detriment when I'm relatively uninvested in the art community.  So I think I need to keep that in mind when I'm responding to things like this. 

I don't think AP had a negative effect on the local Art community. I don't think I ever suggest that. And it did have a great impact on the local economy and I'm certainly not suggesting that is bad. I don't even care that it line Rick Devos's pockets, as you say. Good for him. I'm glad the public thought about Art, looked at Art and came downtown.

What I am concerned about I tired to clearly express in two Facebook notes which I published, one at the announcement of AP and a review of AP that I just published. They can be read at
Tomorrow I'll post the review also at