ART IN AMERICA: THE CRITICAL DUSTBOWL
By Darren Jones
A bedeviling aspect of art criticism is the hegemony of New York based publications, and a jealous inward focus, to the detriment of sustained, democratized, national discourse. The prospects for an exhibition being reviewed decline the further it is from New York, and perhaps Los Angeles. This builds a skewed mass of writing—which becomes art history—conveying the inaccurate impression that what is happening in those two locations, represents the full scope of production throughout America. With so much art excised, or never known, one can imagine how lacking the canon must be. If chronicled art in this country is to be an honest survey, the twisted irony that the American heartland is considered artistically marginal, while the coastal peripheries are identified as the center, must be reconsidered.
While some magazines do write about art in and beyond the largest cities, it would require greater consistency, resources—and inclination—to adequately analyze continental output. Even when ostensibly national outlets have regional contributors, they often lack the authority, literary quality, or prestige to lift their subjects to critical visibility. Conversely, more esteemed titles that do possess those attributes, don’t provide regular enough commentary to ignite critical mass. Between these dichotomous points, many art scenes fall into obscurity.
Considering the obscene quantity of attention trotted out for a typical top-tier artist’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Whitney Museum of American Art—usually by every major platform—criticism risks trading it’s rightful place as a progenitor of thought, for that of meek scribe to the ranking elite. After that follows redundancy. Courtney Stubbert, is the founder and director of Eugene Contemporary Art in Oregon, which since 2014 has been a nomadic endeavor, collaborating with different sites on exhibitions and workshops. He notes a wider context:
“I think that the art world largely misses what is actually happening in the art making of regular people who don’t live in large metropolitan art centers. There is no money here. And we wouldn’t want the kind of money that major art cities have. From where we sit, it looks like a corrupt and broken system that largely has forgotten what art-making means in regards to being human.”
This dearth of concern perpetuates existing attitudes, and lessens interest in looking beyond the obvious and predictable. Katie Orth is the founder of Orth Contemporary in Tulsa, Oklahoma:
“Local for profit gallery write-ups are scarce. What often gains coverage are exhibitions from area non-profits and the source of these publications has little if any interest in stating critical feedback. As a contemporary art dealer located in the Midwest, I realize that little, if any, attention is given to the galleries and artists creating work in the region. Without noted art critics paying attention, artists in the middle do not have the opportunity to be noticed and be heard by those who can elevate their careers. A summary of an exhibit is not a critique, and this is primarily what we find in the middle.”
Metropolitan snobbery toward other environments is an additional characteristic that dismisses and undermines perceptions of artistic worth, and is injurious to the efforts of rural institutions to gain wider notice, and even income. Amy Jorgensen is the co-founder and executive director of Granary Arts a non-profit in Ephraim, Utah:
“One of the goals of Granary Arts is to support the work and long-range vision of artists. Reviews certainly impact our ability to do this. They provide feedback for artists, and contextualization of their work in the larger art discussion. However, they also directly impact my ability to secure funding for further programming and operations. Recognition on a national level brings legitimacy and speaks to the relevance of our programming. This attention, and the ability to leverage it to secure funding, is critical.”
“A significant challenge in working as an executive director rurally is staying connected to a broader conversation – not making art in a closet, speaking to more than your immediate peer network. How do we participate in the art world while recognizing that the art world is not always interested in rural places? The internet obviously bridges some gaps in terms of visibility, but does not address biases in favor of urban centers, and notions of the rural as hick, irrelevant, etc.”
Compounding the situation, locally-based newspapers and magazines—typically oriented toward general arts and cultural, rather than contemporary art specifically—can tend towards platitudes, cheerleading, mere opinion or outright hostility, instead of surgical criticism. Although it should also be noted that New York boasts many dreadful writers, along with some of the best, it is a more pressing issue in smaller towns, where critical scarcity is glaring. Courtney Stubbert:
“Art world news is definitely discussed as well as the criticism that makes it through the glut of content we all consume. We do not have criticism proper in Eugene. In our free local weekly, there are some arts writers, but they typically favor theater. One long-time writer loathes conceptual art. When there is coverage of visual art it usually takes the painfully descriptive approach, and doesn’t interrogate the work. I would say criticism outside of Eugene plays the role of establishing our city as an “other”, isolated and apart from larger art centers.”
A lack of rigorous editorial standards further delegitimizes articles, undermining their value as a tool to educate audiences, or provide artists with material to advance their reputations. Grant Wahlquist, is the owner and director of Grant Wahlquist Gallery in Portland, Maine:
“I’ve been surprised that with all of the press the gallery has received, a writer has fact-checked only once. One lengthy review in our local paper was, in many senses great—the artist had never received a substantive review before and the critic was very enthusiastic about the show—but the review got some basic and fairly significant points of process wrong. As a result, the artist has not been able to leverage the review in the way she would have liked.”
Complicating matters is the sometime intransigence of smaller municipalities, toward conceptually oriented galleries that are programmatically different from local scenes. Wahlquist adds:
“Ideally, critics would view our exhibitions on their own terms and refuse to reduce them to regional concerns. My gallery is the first commercial space here that does not have a regional focus. Younger artists, critics, and curators appreciate what I’m trying to do and find it exciting, but a number of long-term Maine art folks, including critics, are mystified by it. I am still regularly asked “But what is this artist’s connection to Maine?” and “Why do you want to show this work in Maine?” This mindset often results in a lack of reviews for shows that don’t fit regional concerns, or in reviews that I think fail to honestly appraise the work.”
The combination of absent major press, sub-standard local writing, and disinterest generally, sets the course for a thin, intolerably selective repository of cultural record. Dana-Marie Lemmer is director and curator at the Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan, Alabama:
“National press could do a lot of good for artists in Alabama and our arts organizations. When presented in national media this part of the country is often depicted as uneducated, less forward thinking, and generally less than other areas of the United States. The arts are what give our communities their identity. What would it say about Alabama if we talked about our artists more? Perhaps that kind of attention would also allow local audiences to better connect with the arts, not just art for art’s sake, but the benefits of artists to their own communities, and how support for the arts catalyzes social and economic development.”
“Without a platform for art criticism in the State of Alabama, we are also missing the complete story of the South. There has been much coverage of Southern artists in the national media lately, and beautiful exhibitions at some of our country’s finest museums. But the story is of folk art, of outsider artists. And while that is a very important story that deserves telling, it is not representative of all of the art being made in the South.”
Art spaces throughout America are not idling in expectation of being reviewed however, which is sensible. It’s a sign of the ragged cartography of criticism’s legacy that they don’t. Nick Wilkinson, is the curator of Left Field Gallery in San Luis Obispo, California, and is himself an artist:
“The central goal of Left Field is to bring contemporary art to our community—which doesn’t generally get a large dose of that unless we travel to larger cities. Since day one, we’ve felt as though we were out on an island of critical abandon. And, although we have shown many artists who have had reviews in the big publications during shows at galleries in larger markets, somehow we’ve been left out of any real critical dialogue. While it is something we can hope for, it doesn’t really influence our show decisions or artist selections.”
Galleries in the largest cities can gain notice in the most coveted publications, but committed regional outlets even in greater population centers—as well as median and rural sites—that focus on their territories more thoroughly, suffer from limited reach, which forms a ceiling on their ability to elevate an artist, and can cause a closed circuitry of discourse. Despite covering their cities admirably, journals (online or otherwise) including New City in Chicago, and BmoreArt in Baltimore, as well as the statewide Glasstire in Texas, aren’t as well known further afield as they would be if they were acknowledged as experts on their scenes by the greater critical network. This doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent writers toiling within the geographic critical depression, but it does mean that their readership, and therefore influence is constrained. Jefferson Godard is the founder and director of Aspect Ratio a commercial gallery in Chicago:
“I do feel more attention should be levied upon Chicago as we create so many great artists. Institutions such as Columbia College, DePaul University, Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute, and The University of Chicago produce hundreds of BFA and MFA graduates each year. This, coupled with our wealth of museums, galleries, and a storied love for public art adds to our rich cultural environment. What is unique about Chicago is that we have a strong tradition of fostering alternative art spaces, for example, apartment galleries, often in the homes of young, innovative artists. All of this makes Chicago a cultural center. So while we may not have the same ground-floor status as New York or Los Angeles, I do feel that we provide substantial footing to the art edifice.”
But should it even be an aspiration to encourage one homogenous aesthetic conversation? Merely extending the reach of dominant, urban tastes through established channels, wouldn’t necessarily speak to the motivations and concerns of all galleries, artists and their constituencies. That would presume that they share a value-currency with New York’s art world, and that if they don’t that their interests are less important, which of course, they are not. Kyle Hobratschk is the founder and director of 100 West Corsicana an artist and writer residency in Corsicana, Texas:
“there’s definitely a void of substantial criticism in, or about, Corsicana and other rural Texas towns, but the response to that is sticky. Perhaps these spaces are sacred for being undercover a bit; removed from the noise.”
If the specialness, the discoverability of a space is part of its character or appeal, how can external criticism engage without trampling on the uniqueness of the location? Ian Breidenbach is the founder and curator of The Neon Heater In Findlay, Ohio. Emily Jay is also curator there:
“The Art world has a very codified language, which often comes across as elitist and exclusionary. For a space like The Neon Heater, in Findlay, a very small city in Ohio that doesn’t have an art scene, and comes with a general public which has very limited access and prior engagement with contemporary art, it could have two possible effects. If we were to be treated like New York, it could ostracize our audience and create a barrier that they don’t feel like they can, or want to cross. Or, if a critic engages sensitively, it could provide legitimacy to what we’re doing, and aid in the education of contemporary art, in an underserved, and largely ignored rural area.”
The lean, arch, tone in New York has been sharpened on an anvil of world class institutions, hundreds of galleries, and legions of artists, but that isn’t to everyone’s taste. This isn’t to diminish what New York offers. It would benefit any artist—or critic—to spend time living within the machine, if only to reject or edit that frenetic education later. Nor is it to suggest that all artists and galleries in New York receive coverage. Indeed, frustration might be felt more keenly so close to the hum of the engine, when one is ignored by it. But there has always been an expectation that the best of artists from elsewhere will gravitate there, and whoever doesn’t, isn’t serious enough.
That assumption has entitled critics to pay scant heed to circumstances beyond the citadel, which is a dereliction of duty. The trends are for New York-centricity, international destinations, and art fairs, which leaves out much of America. This contributes to the ironic fact that New York is the most parochial, disconnected art scene in the country; because its denizens care little for what is happening elsewhere. Since it replaced Paris as the global art world center, it hasn’t had to. That is no longer a reasonable status quo, if it ever was, especially as New York moves toward its own inevitable Parisian moment. Briedenbach and Jay add:
“As wealth disparity continues to grow, the unsustainability of New York is going to take its toll on artists, financially. Additionally, the role of the artist is changing. With the rise of social media, people can still feel connected to New York, while living comfortably elsewhere and renting studios for $200 per month. Artists who are concerned about their own communities can start an art space in rural Ohio, Arkansas or Wyoming. You can give back to areas that have been creatively divested for decades by an art world that said, you have to be in New York”
How might coverage of this counter-direction be addressed? The Rib offers a refreshing, alternative philosophy. Its purpose is to disseminate national critical writing, initiate discourse and foster connectivity for and between artists and commonwealths away from the accepted nexus. The Rib was founded by Corey Oberlander, Leah Triplett Harrington, and Lindsey Stapleton:
“The primary function of The Rib is to focus on the fact that the quality of the art, the artists, the organizers, the galleries, the museums, and the related communities found in smaller cities don’t actually differ much from those found in NYC or LA. Thus, they warrant an equivalent quality of engagement.”
In positing the simple, yet wonderfully impious ethos that New York’s appetites are not superior, nor more valuable, nor even particularly distinct, The Rib stakes a bold and necessary claim not only to its subjects’ creative and social validity, but to the logic and relevance of its own presence. The Rib then is doing the most important work in American art criticism —changing it. There is, after all, as much great art made outside New York as there is terrible art made within it. The founders add:
“Provincialism is predicated on comparison; the artists, spaces, and scenes we’re interested in are not concerned with “measuring up” to any specific standard or ideation of what art is. The scenes we cover are in dialogue with global ideas in contemporary practices, but critically, are not interested in centering those dialogues. The Rib is not interested in spaces or venues that exoticize their locations, as exoticization is essential to provincialism. We’re not interested in the spectacle of difference.”
How else might brittle precedents be dismantled? What marvelous intent would be conveyed, if major publications opened offices in centrally located cities—or relocated entirely? Outlandish perhaps—or not. The most ambitious art critics strive for New York. But what then? Become one of a thousand, underpaid, faceless, contributors recycling and picking over the city’s largely moribund artist corps? Critics could prospect for more interesting themes, at no great cost, on returns to one’s hometown, or state; or by stepping outside the white circus tent when at an art fair in a new city. It is reasonable to divest New York of some attention in favor of incorporating other places, and for art workers based there to disrobe themselves of their prejudices.
Institutions throughout the country might consider extending critical residencies, as they do for artists. That isn’t to ignore the fraught economics—critics are as poorly recompensed as artists—so an invitation would need to provide funding, and not every organization has the means. Educational establishments, and arts non-profits have shown foresight in this regard, with the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, and SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio, just three examples at the vanguard. But many more—particularly privately funded—endeavors have greater agency than are currently offering to share it. Small cracks can cause great shifts.
Key West, Florida, offers mainly traditional art, from gaudy, touristic mementos to accomplished landscape painting, but there are efforts to inject conceptualism into the mix—it is a scintillating dynamic. Jed Dodds is the executive director of The Studios of Key West, which offers an artist residency program, gallery exhibitions, and educational workshops:
“Serious criticism is a way to grow our local audience in several ways. It can attract more sophisticated art consumers; educate the folks who are here already and have a sense that the arts can serve our community, but don’t know much about it; and it can manage that process consciously. I think that art discourse needs us as much or more as we need it. Art and criticism have become increasingly unmoored from any sense of place, which not only yields monotonous and solipsistic work, but a lack of perspective. There are serious issues in the world that are best understood from the places where they play out. To take the obvious example, climate change looks very different on an island where the average person lives about 8 feet above sea level. Every place has its stories to tell, and art – hand in hand with serious criticism – can help us actually understand one another”
Meow Wolf in Santa Fe—a city suffocating under the yoke of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the pungent legacy of her tawdry flowers—is an exciting example of developing attitudes, that is now expanding nationally; and the Tulsa Artists Fellowship in Oklahoma, provides unparalleled support for artists and writers for up to several years, vitalizing the arts district there. Carolyn Sickles is the executive director; she speaks to what is being missed when criticism bypasses such localities.
“We believe that effectively positioned contemporary artists, and arts workers will challenge, agitate, educate, and transform society. Tulsa Artist Fellowship strives to be a globally recognized model for mobilizing communities with the transformative power of art. Our socially engaged arts practitioners exist within a region ready for, and deserving of, critical discourse.”
There is no limit to what can be achieved when artists who remain within their home districts, forge their own paths and stories. Their impact is more likely be felt than in an environment saturated with too much art. They may be speaking to audiences without an art education, and they might initially be unsure, or even hostile. But if there is suspicion, it might be a preferable type than that of a dismissive art world; and it can be overcome. If community is fostered, ideas developed, and civics engaged so that energy and intrigue are generated, art criticism—and perhaps funding, in this richest of countries—would follow like a hungry dog.
Artists, cultural thinkers and organizations everywhere are moving ahead, and although they would welcome its insight, they are not waiting for assent from a literary system, that is structured to help so few. We might take note; as critics sideline, so criticism is sidelined. But if existing standards were to nourish and evolve fresh approaches, and loosen the aesthetic parameters of what art should be, and where it must be made, then a compatible version of new criticism, serving—rather than suppressing and ignoring—the majority of its citizenry could be established. Only then will the truth of American art history be recorded.
Darren Jones is a Scottish-American art critic and the US Editor-at-Large for NAE
A project supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program
With many thanks to the following, for their generous responses
Grant Wahlquist Gallery, Portland, Maine
The Neon Heater, Findlay, Ohio
Aspect Ratio, Chicago, Illinois
The Wiregrass Museum, Dothan, Alabama
The Studios of Key West, Florida
100 West Corsicana Artist and Writer Residency, Texas
Orth Contemporary, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Tulsa Artists Fellowship, Oklahoma
Granary Arts, Euphraim, Utah
Eugene Contemporary Art, Eugene, Oregon
Left Field Gallery – San Luis Obispo, California