December 16, 2009 · Print This Article
Writing for the Los Angeles Times’ arts blog Culture Monster on December 14th, art critic Christopher Knight wondered why more arts bloggers did not receive Creative Capital Grants from the Warhol Foundation this year. “As writers on art, bloggers just don’t seem to measure up,” he notes (a bit smugly, I thought, although I may just be reading between the lines there).
While it isn’t possible to know which blogs and bloggers applied for grants (or how many of those got tossed out as ineligible because they didn’t fit entry criteria), a Creative Capital spokesman tells me that, for 2009, the blog category had 153 applicants. Yikes. Maybe art blogs are generally a waste or only really bad bloggers submit applications or the jury doesn’t like the form.
The bad news doesn’t stop there. Two successful applicants this year got grants to start blogs. That’s a nice vote of confidence in those established writers’ abilities, but it also suggests the jury’s rather sizable degree of dismay with existing bloggers who applied for assistance.
“Is art blogging really that bad?” Knight asks in conclusion, leaving the answer open to comments. Weighing in on the issue are art bloggers such as C-Monster and Culturegrrl as well as Donald Frazell who I’d not heard of nor read before, but he commented at least three times.
There’s some bitchy snarkery about past winners as well one or two musings on why the awards were awarded mostly to those planning projects in traditional print (“dead tree”) media. But there’s nothing that speaks to what makes art blogging valuable, what purpose art bloggers may serve within a larger art community, or why those contributions are worthy of any foundation’s support (the fact that independent art bloggers can’t make enough money off ads or other forms of revenue to support themselves is not, to my mind, a good enough reason to receive grant money. Just because you can’t support yourself through the work you do doesn’t automatically mean you *deserve* support for it).
Last week was, by many accounts, a humiliating one for Chicago, ending as it did with the announcement that the Second City had been knocked out of contention for the much-coveted 2016 Olympics–in the first round, no less. Given that Chicago had already beaten out numerous other international contenders to reach the final four in the first place I don’t exactly see why it’s considered such a crushing embarrassment to have come in fourth but, whatever…I have no dog in that fight. It’s probably just one of the many “Chicago things” that I’ll never fully understand. As an art person, however, I’m far more interested in looking at the blows to civic pride that were delivered earlier last week in the wake of the Tribune’s story on the positive public reaction to J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s outdoor sculpture “God Bless America.” Yeah, you know the one. This one:
Written by Trib reporter Steve Johnson, the article was framed by this headline: “What does popularity of God Bless America sculpture say about public art in Chicago?” This, I think, was precisely the wrong boldfaced header to attach to an article about a sculpture that has been borrowed from the Sculpture Foundation and is not, in fact, meant to be a permanent part of the city’s landscape of public art. Although the Trib’s article does make passing reference to this fact, the headline seems to imply that “God Bless America” somehow holds similar status as the Picasso, Calder or Kapoor pieces do in the city’s world-class lineup of public art.
For better or worse, Steve Johnson’s story gained a degree of national attention, not as much from Chicago’s art crowd as from arts writers elsewhere in the country. On September 30th the L.A. Times’ chief art critic Christopher Knight linked to the Trib article on his Twitter feed with the comment: “Is J. Seward Johnson trying to be America’s Worst Artist?” A few days later Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City wrote a post titled “Bad Public Art Finds Audience in Chicago” containing a point-by-point takedown of Steve Johnson’s main arguments, which he set up as follows:
“Critics can wag fingers at it — and some do — but God Bless America meets some of the fundamental tests of public art. It is noticed, it is appreciated, and, in many cases, it provokes reflection on what makes an art work original.”
I drove by “God Bless America” last week. Parking is monstrous downtown so I couldn’t stop to get out and walk around it, which is too bad, since public art–like all art–needs to be experienced in situ in order to be fully understood and appreciated. Nevertheless, I can’t offer any viable counter-arguments to Knight and Paddy Johnson’s assertions that the sculpture makes for some pretty bad art. Sure, I could attempt some sort of cultural studies-style analysis of how people actually relate and respond to the sculpture in real life (a more populist form of which Steve Johnson was basically attempting in his Trib article) but my heart wouldn’t be in it. Knight’s snarky question was a valid one, and Art Fag City’s post was in keeping with its editor’s ongoing deconstructions of the more egregious myths about contemporary art and its reception–the Trib’s article, sadly, providing a prime example of just the sort of superficial arguments that so often inform those myths.
As far as I know the Trib’s Steve Johnson isn’t an art critic or an arts journalist. He’s a thoughtful and smart culture reporter who was interested in the popular reaction to a popular work of public art in his city. My beef certainly isn’t with Mr. Johnson or with the quality of the article he wrote. It’s with the fact that Johnson’s was one of the rare “news” stories about art in Chicago that the Trib has published over the past few months. And I straight-up disagree with that particular choice of story.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even though I’m not saying anything everyone who lives here doesn’t already know: it’s a damn shame that a city of the size and cultural prominence of Chicago does not have a national voice for its art scene, a newspaper art critic of the stature of Christopher Knight who could have written about Seward’s sculpture from a critically informed art historical viewpoint as well as the more straightforwardly populist one put forth by the Trib (or, better yet, would have chosen not to make this into a story at all, given that there’s nothing particularly timely or newsworthy about it).
This is not a city of people who know nothing about art and architecture, nor do Chicagoans evince a “fear” of the rigorous discourse that often accompanies discussion about those subjects. So why does the Trib cover art as if it its readership needs hand-holding and spoon-feeding via articles that essentially give us permission to look no further than a work of public art’s most spectacular effects?
Chicago needs at least one real art journalist with a national platform to represent this city to the rest of the country, if not the world (and by “art” here I mean fine art, not theater, dance, music, etc. if that’s not already obvious). Clearly, other arts writers across the country are still paying attention to the Trib’s art coverage and looking specifically (and exclusively) to that paper for news and insight into Chicago’s art scene and its art public. The problem is that the Trib is relying on reporters who have no in-depth art backgrounds to cover art news in this city–no dog in the fight, as it were–and frankly I find the effects of this to be somewhat humiliating.
Chicago needs a high-profile newspaper writer who is both a critic of and an advocate for the city’s art; not a booster but a person who will draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context. Chicago’s art bloggers simply aren’t able to bear that responsibility, not because of a lack of talent but from a serious lack of time, money and resources. My advice to the Trib: get freelancer Lori Waxman on staff and make her a reporter or something–I don’t fucking care, but Chicago needs to cultivate its own Chrisopher Knight some way or another. Until we do, we risk letting writers from other cities steer the discourse on Chicago art. We owe it to ourselves not to let that continue.
Here’s our midweek summary of this n’ that and other chit-chat happening in the world of art and beyond.
*Was overzealous corporate art collecting partly to blame for Lehmann Bros. fall? Former Lehman trader Lawrence McDonald speculates that indeed, it was, in his new book about the investment behemoth. Artnet fleshes out the issue in its latest report.
*Bill Viola rejects Vatican’s invitation to a summit “aimed at bridging the gap that has developed between spirituality and artistic expression over the last century or so,” reportedly because Viola disagrees with many of the Catholic Church’s policies. No word yet on whether artist Robert Gober was invited, and if so, whether or not he’ll attend.
*If you haven’t already been following this issue, this L.A. Times article provides an excellent one-stop summary of the current controversy arising from the Obama administration’s alleged attempts to “politically manipulate” the NEA and, by extension, the arts communities it serves.
*Wanna know what the Art Institute is deaccessioning this Fall? Read Green’s roundup of what they’re hoping to sell, here.
*Four Andy Warhol prints of famous sports stars stolen from Richard Weisman’s L.A. Collection.
*Annie Leibovitz finally reaches an agreement with her creditors.
*Bob Dylan to exhibit nearly 100 of his paintings in a 2010 solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. An example of Dylan’s work heads this post. How will they stack up to Joni’s, I wonder?
The L.A. Times’ Christopher Knight reviews “Sight Unseen,” an exhibition of photographs taken by legally blind photographers which is currently on view at UCR/California Museum of Photography. An excerpt from Knight’s review:
“For making art, blind artists face a special conundrum with camera-work. Photography is an artistic medium that is without tactile surface properties. Mexican photographer Nigenda highlights the dilemma by punching descriptive text into his photographs of a nude woman with a Braille writer, colliding a textual code with a visual one. Some can “see” one, the other or both.
But the medium is also one whose most fundamental property is light. (As explained by William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John F.W. Herschel, two of photography’s 19th century inventors, the basic task of a photographer is “to arrest the action of light.”) Blindness is an impairment of light perception, which several of these artists address by employing light-emitting devices, such as flashlights or copy machines..
Blind, of course, is also a word regularly used to signify a lack of knowledge. “Sight Unseen” is most successful in undercutting that notion. The show proposes that these photographs be considered more akin to Conceptual art than to traditional camera-work.”
Although Knight’s review is mixed (read the full piece here), do make sure to check out the exhibition’s website (it won’t let me link directly so just do the usual clicking to find it), which contains images, recorded commentary and essays for those who can’t make it to the exhibition in person. Also note that I narrowly avoided making a really unfortunate pun just now.
A subjective round-up of the week’s art-world events, news stories, blog links and other happenings in Chicago and beyond that are of note or otherwise got me thinkin’.
*Deathtoll of L’Aquila earthquake in Italy is at 189; the earthquake injured over 1,000 and left thousands more homeless; extensive damage to architectural monuments and artworks in the area deal a severe blow to Italy’s cultural heritage.
*Museum ethics smackdown: Donn Zaretsky’s “What’s Wrong with the AAMD’s Deaccessioning Policy” vs. Christopher Knight’s “What’s Wrong with the Argument Attacking AAMD Policy.” Go Christopher!
*The Geography of Buzz. (New York Times).
*“I’ve Seen the Future, and It Belongs to the Dead”: Edward Winkleman on whether deceased artists can bring the art market back to life.
*Ball-Nogues Studio (based in L.A.’s Echo Park) to design Elastic Plastic Sponge for Coachella this year. It’s a 250 x 25 foot sculpture made of plastic tubing that will mist water on overheated festival-goers, made in collaboration with students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci Arc). (via Culture Monster).
*Attention all K-12 art and media educators in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles: applications for Art21′s Art Educators 2009/10, “a yearlong professional development initiative designed to cultivate and support K-12 art educators interested in bringing contemporary art, artists, and themes into their classrooms,” are available now.