Feedback on “Withered Arts Journalism”

When I wrote a critique of the March 25th Whither Arts Journalism in LA? public forum, I didn’t expect it to strike such a deep chord with people. My analysis of the event stirred dozens of working artists, gallery owners, curators, educators and art lovers to send me encouraging e-mails. Of the dozens who have wrote to me, none were in opposition to the substance of my critique. A few contested points here and there but still expressing general accord. I have chosen to publish a few of the responses, removing the names of the authors in order to protect their anonymity.

The administrative assistant to a museum in Southern California, wrote: “What is it with these so-called art journalists? This ‘anything goes’ and ‘everything’s valid’ attitude has persisted over the last 50 to 75 years in spite of the truth that there are standards and there are criteria for valid judgements. I have been an artist for over 40 years. I have worked for a small museum as curator and an administrative assistant for 15 of those years. I have judged many art shows as well as been in many. I have exhibited my ceramic work as well as drawing and printmaking. I have taught those subjects as well.

My styles have roamed over the entire spectrum of image making; and yet, through it all I have always known there was a solid criteria for judgement. Their replies as you described them was a cop-out; one of the worst kind. It belittled and treated with disdain people who were serious in their quest for answers to questions that trouble many. These are questions asked by ‘ordinary’ people who want to learn; who want to better themselves and their lives. No wonder they get discouraged and do not want to come to museums or galleries.”

The owner of a prestigious Southern California gallery wrote: “I enjoyed your article on the art journalism forum. I wish I could have been there. We have shown important Latin American painters since 1987. Despite having done one-man shows for many internationally recognized artists including: Tamayo, Toledo, Lam, Gerzso, Armando Morales, Arnaldo Roche, Matta, and Alvarez-Bravo, none of these ‘journalists’ has ever reviewed our shows.

Most of these critics and curators lack the sensibility to address what Jed Pearl has called ‘the stand alone value’ of the object, They look at the object in relationship to current aesthetic or intellectual fashion, but there is little written about the artwork’s particular formal merits, or how the artist’s particular gifts are connected to the lineage of art history.

So much of what Knight and company write about is nothing more than the homogenous product of the global, corporate art world. The fundamental mystery and wonder of art is, for me, how an individual artist imbues matter with something human, something at once highly personal and universal, capable of speaking cross culturally and beyond the historical moment.”

A poet living in Southern California made a few points I’ve been wanting to touch upon. Although the poet practices a discipline apart from that of the visual artist, the two are linked in many ways. When artists malign the public for having bad taste, or when critics say that ‘art is not for everyone,’ they fail to see how this is a problem of acculturation. For instance, in much of Latin America crowds fill stadiums during poetry festivals, while such an event is impossible to envision for the US.

The poet stated: “I wish I had been present at the forum because the same thing is happening in the world of poetry. Some academics say that poetry is not for everyone. But how come that is not so in many other countries? I grew up in Persia and poetry was in our blood. In the smallest villages, even the illiterate could recite poetry by heart. In Afghanistan they have resorted to sending a poet to get rivaling clans to talk to one another. This is how much they respect poets and poetry. Yet, in this country sports and television rule. Why? You were right on the dot, money and attention. Same thing is happening to other forms of art and people like you and me can either shake their heads and say: how sad… Or we can do something about it. Even the smallest contribution is community service and can have a tremendous and lasting effect on the fabric of this country’s life and culture.”

An art lover wrote: “I’m writing to express my agreement with you on several issues, and some opinions/clarifications on some points. First, it is time for art to return to craft, in the true sense of the word. Second, ‘movements’ will never cease to exist, but will no longer be geographically located: they will be geographically discontinuous. Obviously, art will not be a single sequence of movements, because it never was. Third, to reject institutional critique is to foster fascism. This should be too obvious to mention. The incapacity to perceive this betrays intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Fourth, the public’s disconnect with the arts is non-trivial and problematic. This is not an error on the part of the public; it is a failure on the part of the art.

Is the irrelevance of contemporary art illusory or real? This question merits serious reflection. Accepting irrelevance (real or perceived) is to write one’s own death sentence. Rejection of public opinion without argument reveals (once again) latent fascist leanings. Fifth, art is a manifestation of the human creative impulse. The creative impulse is a manifestation of the healing impulse. Art heals, by definition. When we heal ourselves, we heal others as well.”

An educator and gallery owner in Northern Calfornia wrote: “This is the best thing I have read in a long time. We think more clearly in Northern California. I know some of your panel and they shall remain unnamed. I am an educator and in the business of being an Art Gallery Director for over 25 years. I was a teacher, and school admistrator at the secondary level and college. I do not get involved with all the blab that goes on at the level of Art Forum, but I care for the artists and there is a difference between good and so-so art. We should all want to be educators to the public. Many readers are often blinded by those who are paid to write. I don’t think anyone on the panel ever taught in school.”

A talented figurative realist painter in Southern California wrote: “Thanks for the review. I regret that I did not know of this panel. However, I would have jumped out of my skin, being in the same room with those panelists. I respect their views and even their biases, but find it lame that we (well, not WE, but our art community folks) have given so much power to so few writers. Yes, Hell IS about to break loose. In dramatic novels, when the captain of an ocean liner proclaims “Switch to auto pilot. We have wide open seas” you can bet that there is a big wicked iceberg ahead. The idea of single individuals directing the value and longevity of the arts has cut a long, consistent gash in our history. Meet the new boss… same as the old boss.”

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