The Rapidian Home

What does this year's Top 10 say about our public?

Our choices for this year's ArtPrize winners reveal some of our culture's problematic preferences.
Secunda's Mantis Dreaming, one of the Top Ten, is showing at The B.O.B.

Secunda's Mantis Dreaming, one of the Top Ten, is showing at The B.O.B.

Underwriting support from:

What do these Top 10 votes reveal about what Grand Rapids values?

Do we shrug off these results as irrelevant? Laugh at the sheer badness? Or instead, can we learn from them?

Let me first clarify by saying that I realize the term public is general and does not directly represent the many who didn’t participate in the ArtPrize hullabaloo. If all of Grand Rapids cast their votes for what they deemed “good” art, we may have seen entirely different results. So, perhaps it's not fair to claim that these votes reflect the majority views of our city. Nonetheless, we can’t deny that these results indicate a milieu that permeates our local culture. For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume the old, broad claim that art mirrors cultural values. So, what do these top 10 votes reveal about what Grand Rapids values, even rewards? And where do we go from here?

In solidarity with the city that I love and want to keep getting better, I’m going to use the royal we.


1. We prefer entertainment over inspiration.

Interestingly, the term amusement is derived from the Latin, a (without) muse (inspiration), literally meaning that which is without inspiration or stimulation. Under Construction’s guess-which-one-is-real trick is the kind of game you engage in on a family road trip, when you’re bored out of your mind. Does the fact that this all-too familiar tourist attraction (it falls short of being labeled performance art or sculpture) resides in the Top 10 indicate a mental weariness or resignation? It seems we don’t even care if the joke is a good one. Humor and smarts need not be mutually exclusive in art, as Mimi Kato’s entry, One Ordinary Day of an Ordinary Town demonstrates as it juxtaposes multiple selfportraits with traditional Japanese landscape and contemporary comic style.

2. We prefer nostalgia over progression.

It appears we’d rather be reminded of where we’ve been rather than where we’re going. And I’m not even talking about a thoughtful reflectiveness. Nope, we want to look in a foggy rearview mirror. Case in point: President Gerald Ford Visits ArtPrize. Plenty of others have pointed out the shameless pandering this piece embodies, but have we asked why? So the guy looks real, why should we be interested in Ford showing up at ArtPrize? Does he have something to contribute to the discussion? Like this sculpture that gazes at its own artifice, we’re too caught up in staring at an unchanging surface to look ahead. Is the fact that three of this year's artists are repeat winners further proof that we relish the familiar at the cost of originality?

Similarly, Tavonatti’s Crucifixion refuses to bring a fresh viewpoint to iconic imagery. For those to whom the actual crucifixion means something, why are we okay with regurgitated imagery? I think an appropriate visual response to this question might be Mier Lobaton’s Serial Reproduction at UICA in which each reproduction of the Christ figure is a diminished derivative of its predecessor.

3. We admire hard work over invention.

While The Tempest II and Rain may be the more poetic and compelling of these works, I can’t help but be disappointed as to why they are in the Top 10. As I stood by The Tempest II, viewer musings were limited to the amount of effort and time involved. Similar remarks centered around Tavonatti’s mosaic. "Can you imagine how much time that took?" "My all those pieces! All that cutting..." I married the grandson of Iowa farmers, and I thank God for the Midwest work ethic. But this A for effort mentality doesn’t nurture creativity and invention. Without that invention, we will continue to be labeled a dying city.

4. We value size over substance

The word spectacle seems to be closely associated with ArtPrize, as top voted pieces share certain spectacular qualities, namely size. There is a place for spectacle, and I do love my share of outlandish theatrics. But we ought to be thoughtful about the role of spectacle in art.

In regards to theater, Aristotle claims that the chief aim of this art is to evoke pathos, or fear and pity. Many today might agree with Aristotle, that one of art’s functions is to stir our deepest emotions. About the role of spectacle, Aristotle notes, “Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet” (Poetics, Section 2, Part XIV). In other words, spectacle in itself is not bad, but quality artwork relies on more internal, nuanced means to communicate. 

Ocean Exodus is pure spectacle in its Monster Truck Rally meets Fishing & Wildlife aesthetic. It promises all of the fun of a spinning carousel but denies any of the pleasure. If only we could ride it…

5. We would rather proclaim than inquire.

For me, this is perhaps the most troubling revelation of the Top 10. With the exception of Rain and Tempest, each of the top-voted makes an obvious statement. In the Speaker Series last week, chief curator of LA’s Hammer Museum, Anne Ellegood urged the public, “We need to let go of the hubris of needing to know everything.” Ellegood intentionally curates work that questions what art can be and do. She seeks out conceptual artists whose work is after the mystical, the magical, the unattainable because it’s this kind of work that shifts our perspective and opens up a new space in our thoughts. In the frenzied state of most of our lives, it's certainly understandable to gravitate towards that which affirms or amuses. However, if we cannot favor a culture that challenges and moves us, we cannot expect to grow.


As Grand Rapids is experiencing promising economic growth, I sincerely hope that we don’t simply dream to be bigger, as Mantis Dreaming might suggest, but to be better than we are. And I'm not the first to suggest, the fact that we're having this conversation is a promising first step.

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.


I agree

Well said, Tori.  Your article is a great reflection on this year's Art Prize.  Good job!

Mark Rumsey also made some similar points following last year's ArtPrize. Having traveled around the world as a visiting artist, he's had the opportunity to observe how West Michigan looks at art differently. One that you two both have is "We admire hard work over invention."

First, forgive my reitterations of some of the points Mark Rumsey made last year. I'm new here, and I plan on using that excuse at least a dozen more times.

I've traveled a bit and don't consider myself a Midwesterner either, and it does seem that this glorification of hardwork is keenly unique to Michigan and other small Midwest cities.  Our greatest fear is being called lazy, it seems-- to the point of condemning others who are rewarded for having more money, talent, ingenuity, etc. without having worked as hard. 

I didn't mean it as a criticism at all. Simply that the fact that both Mark and you are picking up on similar points means something. You two are definitely on to something very paticular to the area.

I think you are asking the wrong question in regards to what does the top ten say about the general public. You are pointing the question in the wrong direction. 

The voters are at best simply responding to or at worst being sucked up by the wake of the preselection process designed by Rick Devos. From the very first visit to the ArtPrize website to the signage on the streets during the event Devos wants to insist that their is no difference between

what is professionally curated at the GRAM and work that Bob at Bob's Burger Joint juried for his business.

At a recent Cornerstone University conference Devos boasted that 90% of what goes on at ArtPrize is out of their control and issued his now famous statement, "I just want to see crazy crap all over Grand Rapids".

Imagine how different the top ten this year would have been had all the work available to vote on been professionally juried like the GRAM or the UICA or the Women's City Club.

Richard, I think it's not just one question. It's probably many questions. Are all the points you're making contributing to the final top 10 pool? Yes. Does it also have something to do with what Mark identifies as the 'West Michigan Aesthetic' and what Tori has affirmed in year three? I would say so.

There are many conditions that artists are up against when it comes to laudable art in the top 10, but to pretend that we as a public are not somehow bolstering the mediocrity is also myopic. The authors have hit upon a pattern that seems to be present through multiple years and would likely manifest itself even if all of the ArtPrize art were of a certain standard.

Tori, I think you presented a well articulated case with solid examples, and I tend to agree.  These choices do reflect West Michigan's lack of exposure to contemporary art.  

For example, how would anyone who has never seen Vincent Desiderio's "Cockaigne" 2003 make the connection to the spoof offered by Justin Hayward at the GR Public Museum?  You can view it on one level as a kind of one line joke or if you understand the original it speaks volumes about the history of painting and contemporary capitalist society.

How we change this? I am not sure but don't agree that passively the public will learn from artprize once a year.