Who Gets Reviewed: Behind the Scenes at the Arts and Culture Desk
What happens to art that falls into a critical no-man's land.
Recently, Dawoud Bey wrote an editorial about the type of art that makes it into the big leagues. I won't get into all the details, but it angered a lot of people for a few reasons and I pulled it from the site.
But in the spirit of discussion, I want to take Dawoud out of the equation and re-frame the argument. Because the reality is that the issue has nothing to do with race or neighborhood, but a system in play that controls what art that gets reviewed, and what gets ignored. Aspects of Dawoud's stance were not his own, it's the sentiment held by 90% of the critics in the Chicago area. So let's take a look at the current system, discuss the system, instead of spending energy trying to kill the messenger.
So below is the argument. Then my opinion on what is valid, and
suggestions I propose as a path going forward.
There are lots of different kinds of art, but I break it down into some basic categories (although it's more complicated than that, lots of stuff crosses over). But for the sake of discussion let's call artwork either challenging art, or decorative art. Decorative art isn't bad art, it's not simple art - it can be amazing, thoughtful and professional work. But my definition of decorative art is that it works in the home. A "normal" mid-western family home, a home that doesn't want to appear weird, bizarre, or so far afield that you can't distinguish the light switches from the conceptual art they collect. Decorative art, for the sake of this post, is simply beautiful artwork that amplifies the homes attractiveness.
Challenging art, sometimes thought of as "high art" generally doesn't belong in the home unless you have a fairly open idea of decor, and visiting in-laws who are comfortable with strange terrain. One example of non-decorative work is a painting I saw at Monique Meloche many years ago. It was an oil painting of a young woman, smoking something out of a bong, and she was sitting in a position where you could see she wasn't wearing panties. This is not decorative work. Yes, it's an oil painting, yes, it's a portrait, but if you're quickly taking it down from the wall because when your mom just popped in, it's not decorative art (based on my definition).
Critics like challenging art. That's their bag. They don't review decorative art. Here's an example, Palette and Chisel, http://www.paletteandchisel.org/ has great classes and fine art is produced there. They exhibit the artists' work. No one reviews it. Ever.
Then there is a third, very controversial type of art that doesn't fit into either category - Outsider Art. This featured work by un-trained artist who created intuitive work without the influences of mass culture. Reverend Howard Finster is a classic example http://www.finster.com/. But here's the point I'm making - once he got famous and started flying around on airplanes, the artwork he made became (financially) worthless. He suddenly wasn't outsider enough and, like decorative art.. his work fell into a critical no-man's land
Those are the basics of what critics review and what they don't. Also, one other point about art coverage -- there is a difference between a review and a feature. Features are articles about the artist or gallery, but criticism is different, it's written by an art expert, and was designed to separate the museum-track artists from the non, and I'll go back to that later. Any artist trying to make it big wants reviews, not write-ups.
So that's the basics of the system for art reviews in print media.
But here's the issue at the eye of the storm, and my opinion. It's still biased. It's still racially biased, geographically biased and editorially biased. It's not the objective system it's portrayed as. Certain groups and venues have the ear of editors. They know how to market shows to attract critics, they write essays with lots of academic jargon that puts the work into a critical framework. In my humble opinion, there is a game that's played and it's not a totally fair game. I see awful art reviewed and good art ignored. And yes, right or wrong, most of the stuff that the critics are writing about today is done by artist with MFA's.
It's also my personal, and extremely unpopular view, that decorative art (as defined above), has a place at the critical table, and so do artists who aren't in a robust support system that's helping them climb the art world ladder. I could write a whole post about that, but this is already getting too long.
So what's the solution? Again, my opinion.
1. The art critics and editors need to open their eyes, go to new areas and new venues, and look beyond the usual circle they run in.
2. Grassroots, Do-it-yourself art writing on the Internet is the future.I saw a list of local art review blogs (NOT personal blogs by artists about their own work, but reviewing the work of others). I looked at the list and asked myself, "Where is the blog about Latino artists in Chicago? Where is the blog dedicated exclusively to South Side art?" It doesn't seem to exist. It needs to.
Finally, to go back to the point about art critics - I'll say "be careful what you wish for". As Joyce joked in the comment on 6/29 of her last post -- http://bit.ly/3HzhbM
- - she's right. The whole system of art critics is in question. The art critic of yesteryear, who anointed Art Stars, who decides who's cool and who's not, is dying out. In the old days, if the right critic said you were great, it meant something. Today - not so much. The Tribune cut their full-time art critic with no intention of replacing him. The Reader used to list all the exhibits opening over the weekend, but no more. Print media is in trouble and online, DIY stuff is starting to gain power.
So there ya go. That's my op-ed.