Derek Guthrie, champion of artists and cultural thinking and co-founder of the New Art Examiner is retiring. Age and ill health mean he no longer takes an active role in the day-to-day struggles of editing and printing the magazine. He will keep reading it and we will continue to consult with Derek on matters of critical writing and analysis as his insights and awareness on the role of artists today are deep. in honour of his, and Jane’s work, we reprint this Statement Originally published May 4, 2012 by Neoteric Art which still gauges the cultural process in which we are all caught.
My following remarks are only an overview. They are suggested topics for debate. There may be conclusions embedded in this, but if so, they are spare and not well argued for that reason.
Criticism is only talking about art. It is the sharing of opinion. It may be philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, critical theory, cultural politics, literature, poetry, or polemic but it is a requirement of a civilised and thinking society.
The art world is in a mess. The mess is not different from the mess that our society is in. This is a political and social issue. It is a matter of the enfranchised and the disenfranchised. It is a matter of how money is distributed. The art distribution system has to be run on the same economic principles as the political system. Whether these systems in the UK and the USA are good for art is the question. The other question that is available – is art possible or has art died? The successful artists are superstars like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Whether they are worthy or not is the simple question that is in all our minds. If we agree or disagree (and the reasons why we agree or do not) is our response not only to the individual pieces but also a response to the system and power which appoints them as the most significant artists of our time. The issue is complex as is the response to these approved artists. This places the respondent in a particular position – that he or she will naturally gravitate to others who share the same taste and ways of art is part of social definition. We may change our minds. That can be very interesting and could be art criticism.
Our media is dominated by political discussion. Our media is not dominated by cultural discussion and when it does respond it will be inside the tribe of choice – Democrats or Republicans. Somebody once said if you stand in the middle-of-the-road you are hit by traffic moving in both directions. I think it is reasonable to surmise that many of us, maybe nearly all of us, had the hope – maybe naïvely – that involvement with art will take us into a world or a way of life that would be free from the venality of the class dominated society. The romance and discovery of art, we hope, will transport us into a mythical world of enlightened people. The 19th-century attempt to provide an environment for creative people was the salon. This idea became democratised and was extended into Parisien café society – and still today we dream of that dream that in our imagination lives. It won an Oscar in Hollywood (Midnight in Paris 2011). The museum and even art departments are the modern attempts to continue to keep alive this ideal, but they have betrayed it and are no longer open to people from all walks of life, just those with deep pockets and those who can afford to buy BFA or an MFA. However, it was the achievement of the New Art Examiner that we made a little community that loved art and shared enthusiasm with others by the time-honoured process of writing. We may have made mistakes but we made a contribution that now cannot be denied. The most gratifying thing to me resulting from the publishing of the anthology was that it documented how the New Art Examiner carried a variety of voices by different editors and writers and removed the demonisation of its founding editors. Liberal America emphasises the idea of pluralism but is sometimes slow to recognising it, particularly when it is not institutionalised.
The radicalism of the New Art Examiner is that it was not afraid of discourse and the ethic should not be considered radical. Maybe it is in present-day America but there are still some people who like to think that free speech is an American value. The New Art Examiner respected passion. Today the pressures of the recession are activating voices of protest, namely the occupy movement and a scattering of websites, finding a space for new voices and seeking a new status quo – and passions are increasing.
The art system is not transparent and while this is so artists will have to live in cuckoo land as they operate in the world of which they know little to nothing – yet they desperately search for approval within it. Artists, unless successful, live in a ghetto. The hope is that their own significance and originality will filter up. Status and respect will be achieved and then they will move into an upmarket ghetto. This system has been well defined for decades. New York and London have art magazines and a market with academic infrastructures that certify significant art and distribute it to the regions that usually follow the latest fashion of the avant-garde. Regional centres do not have the critical fire-power to establish a new development or wrinkle in the culture of the avant-garde, yet regional art in Chicago made a heroic effort to work inside their own values and culture even though eventually it was not enough. As Phyllis Kind once said to me, “There are 20 or 30 collectors of my art in Chicago. I have sold 7 or 10 pieces to all of the collectors. The market has reached its potential and I have to move to New York. I cannot mark up the prices any more.”
In the meantime the same collectors, naturally, also buy the big-name artists made in New York and attend the sales at Sotheby’s. Buying and selling. When it is right to get in and out of the market is the trick of futures marketing. Wildenstein established a major international New York gallery in the 1940s and 1950s and had a branch in Chicago. It closed its doors in Chicago as the proprietor sold more art to Chicago collectors from the New York gallery than from Chicago.
So the game is like casino betting – maybe with love on loaded chips. The recent collapse of Wall Street is nominated as casino capitalism. That is when rich people – bankers and investment houses – are playing with little people’s money; along with the failure of government to protect the average saver. The museum is the casino and/or investors club which embodies power and secret information available to social networks of trustee collectors and their helpers and curators. The museums are not regulated and insider trading is given a free license under the rules of not-for-profit status and tax law. There is always a power struggle around art, particularly today as we are not sure what art is. It is like the dollar being removed from the gold standard and the market deciding its value. The market tells us that McDonald’s is good for me and tasty. We all know it is junk food. The question remains: is Jeff Koons junk food for the mind? As Jeff Koons says, “the market is the critic.” Talking about hamburgers I cannot but recoil remembering when the Queen of England visited the USA a few years ago. The usual celebrations were put in place. To introduce the Queen to American cuisine the White House decided to provide her, in the Rose Garden, with the best cuisine America had to offer: the hamburger. Andy Warhol, with his genius for the social observation of celebrity culture, pointed out that the hamburger was very democratic because it was enjoyed by everybody – even the Queen of England. The sharing of bad taste is democratic. We are all human but the reaching for something else is of interest, and the belief that there is something better is the dream of significant dreamers.
Jane Addams Allen wrote an authoritative article in November 1981 reprinted in the Essential New Art Examiner. She discussed the declining power of the art review well ahead of her time, stating that the independent critical review was obsolete. The forces of marketing and distribution were too strong. James Elkins wonders Whatever Happened To Art Criticism? – the title of his 2003 book. It is a pity that he did not read Jane’s article. Raphael Rubinstein edited a great book Critical Mess in which leading critics contributed essays pointing to the problems of critics. I quote from Eleanor Heartney, incidentally a writer now in New York, who started her career at the New Art Examiner. Her essay The Crisis In Art Criticism is in the book Critical Mess (page 103):
“There are practical problems. The venues for art criticism are limited and impose restrictions on what may be discussed. Art magazines operating as trade journals and dependent on advertising for revenue tend to focus on reviews of artists or exhibitions that are in the public eye, while art coverage in general interest publications has a strong bias towards celebrity and entertainment. Academic journals, read by few, often unreadable, and operating largely as tenure generators, are more like private clubs and forums for genuine debate and discussion. As a result certain kinds of essays are never written simply because there is no place to publish them.”
There is always a power struggle around art. To pretend otherwise is folly. We simply believe that wealth does not guarantee discrimination and a greater ability to judge art.
We are here today to talk about the New Art Examiner in the past and whether it is possible that it could have a future. The odds do not look good. I would love to be talked out of that conclusion. It is not for me to say that the blood, sweat and tears that the Examiner cost can be repeated. In 1974 everybody thought it would not last more than a few issues. If it was to happen again the name and reputation of the magazine is not in doubt. I know it has meaning and is a proven entity. Does that mean it will get support? I do not know. I can guess it mainly means some support in the form of grants, and that’s complicated as the giving of grants have their own politics. Getting a grant is like getting an endorsement and that is a question of convincing the giver that one has the right social theology and the possibility of success.
The overriding point is that Chicago is not a good place. It was not a good place in 1974. But somehow something happened and we survived. The story of the New Art Examiner is partly told in the anthology The Essential New Art Examiner. It is not a history but it has made a history possible as I wrote in the introduction. All of this is the result of community support. The New Art Examiner would have disappeared from history if it were not for the vision of one of the anthology’s editors Kathryn Born. Kathryn took the enormous commitment to create this book.
What I’m moving towards, is the reluctance and hostility of the Chicago art hierarchy – museums and art departments which have a studied indifference towards the New Art Examiner or even the idea of criticism outside their walls.
The second city as an empty city. It is also part of American culture and that is draining away. I do not think that an original and innovative voice can make its way through the labyrinth of procedures – of social networking and deal making, the demands of the market, the politics and academic trading of the tenure which in spirit is no different from the trading between Congress and lobbyists: money for votes. I’m not sure it is a manifest destiny. We all know that four governors of the state of Illinois as well as the chief of police have been indicted for corruption and torture in recent years. This always leaves the unanswered question – how does this affect the civic life of the citizens? I think it empties it out and makes the situation a vacuum. I believe this sets in place a destiny in which there is no filtering up, only filtering down. This is not good news for those outside the system. It is good for those that manage the system. As Sam Gilliam the Washington DC artist once said to me, “there are two kinds of artists – ones that move the system and ones that fit into the system.”
‘Manifestation of human achievement’ is the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of culture. Chicago around the turn-of-the-century contributed remarkable architecture to American culture. Chicago is a living museum of early modern architecture. The urge to monumentality can be achieved inside the space of real estate. Heroic materialism in its glory adorns the city and the lake-shore with the exception of the Trump Tower. But what has happened in the alleyways behind the tall buildings, in the shadows? Gangsters, Nelson Algren, Mayor Daley, Ivan Albright, the Chicago Imagists and the Monster Roster. They all struggle with the dark or are dark. I leave that distinction to you
We are talking inside the context of Chicago. Chicago is, in part, my context but I have other contexts as did Jane Addams Alan. The plight of contemporary art as well discussed. Art supports a huge industry of education, trading and investment. This system has been captured by celebrity culture. The strains in our political system are the demands of celebrity culture superimposed upon the political system. Hollywood and the White House are interchangeable on and off the screen. Celebrity culture is a culture of mass media, something that Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons analysed very well and cashed in on.
The difference between the mass market and the museum along with the educational system is that the museum and educational system are meant to respond to a different voice than the norm: those that seek something better than the banality or the humdrum of the market. The authority given to those systems, with their tax-exempt status is not-for-profits, based on the idea that thinking and creative production are to be considered inside the idea of the humanities, which is not determined by the strategies of marketing successful products. Yet the market and the academic/museum coalition are in bed with each other. The Republican primary illustrates the process of making a product for a person to fit into the White House. Marketing is more important than the product. American democracy is degenerating and if that is so, then so will the culture. We will have to look to those who resist and art history provides many sterling examples of this to think about. Culture will degenerate unless the subtle tyranny of the media and PR is recognised. Orwell called it Big Brother and also pointed to the inevitable lust for power in his book Animal Farm with its famous invocation, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
Patronage of art is hoped to have discrimination. It is fashionable, and has been since New York became the world centre of contemporary art – to recognise the artist as heroic resistor even if he or she is not. Jackson Pollock was a suitable icon during the Cold War as Harold Rosenberg pointed out with his words, “the tradition of the new” and “the herd of independent minds.” The new emerging culture may have had built in defects. I cannot miss this occasion to point out that it was the Partisan Review, a small left-leaning publication, that provided the platform and thinking which developed modern art criticism in the US.
Whatever sophisticated resources are mustered by the MCA and the Art Institute they completely missed out on the originality of thinking and the contribution of the New Art Examiner to Chicago culture and the long list of professional writers and academics to emerge from the publication. They responded with usual American or Chicago fear of originality or difference as it might be destructive or belong to the ‘other side’; usually applied to intellectuals whose primary purpose is not love of money. As George Bush Junior said, “you’re either for us or against us.” I think this thinking is a form of fascism, as is water-boarding. The phrase originally came from Lenin.
Chicago is the same town that once carried a literature emanating from large feelings to all men in all tongues, for it was here that those arrangements more convenient to owners of property than to property-less were most persistently contested by the American conscience. The following words are courtesy of Nelson Algren:
“Chicago has progressed, culturally, from the second city to the second-hand city. The vital cog in our culture is not the artists but the middle man whose commercial status lends art the aura status when collected into a collection of originals. The word culture now means nothing more than approved. It is not what is exhibited that matters as much as where, that being where one meets the people who matter.”
The people who matter control money. The New Art Examiner survived on a shoestring. A fact of life once observed by Franz Schultz in the MCA catalogue Art in Chicago from 1996 was that “the New Art Examiner was the most important thing to happen in the Chicago scene in the 1970s and 1980s.” He also wrote that, “Chicago is in an asshole but it is my asshole.” I will agree with Franz except for this very last observation.
I do not know the details of the death of the New Art Examiner. It became compromised it moved in to the academic orbit – more to the point the art historians tenure club. I know that it gave up its original cover slogan The Independent Voice Of The Visual Arts to be replaced by The Voice Of Midwest Art. Jane Addams Allen and myself were elevated to the high sounding title of ‘publishers emeritus’. But this was a ritual sacrifice in the same way that an animal which is to be slaughtered is adorned with flowers. It signalled our death in the New Art Examiner as we could no longer contribute as writers. Even with this caveat it remains true that many excellent and valuable articles were published, but the orbit became restricted. So the New Art Examiner was born as a resistance to censorship and it died when it exercised censorship.
As a matter of interest aa 1975 article in The Essential New Art Examiner written by Jane Addams Allen and myself entitled The Tradition was the same article that was lifted three days before publishing by Art News and later accepted by Studio International. I do not think the editors of The Essential New Art Examiner realised that this article was such a cause célèbre. Its content is sane and not destructive. Today it causes no anxiety.
I have to be careful here as I do not want to be seen as whining. The New Art Examiner, in spite of its hardships, gave us a dynamic life and a little footnote in history. Occasionally, I am invited to give lectures, even if sometimes for no money. I wish to avoid seeming to be the presence of an oldie trying to keep in the spotlight after his time has passed. I would like to quote from Nelson Algren again – his words are better than mine:
“Make the Tribune bestseller list and the friends of American writers the friends of literature, the friends of Shakespeare and the friends of Frank Harris will be tugging at your elbow, twittering down your collar, coyly slipping a little olive into your Martini, or drooling flatly into your beer with a droll sort of flattery and the cheaper sort of praise, the grade reserved strictly for proven winners. But God help if you are a loser and unproven to boot, bushy tails will stone your name.”
Victoria Waxman has made sure we have not made the Tribune list.
Times have changed and online culture as a new element in our lives. However personally, I do not think it will eliminate serious print culture. A book or a magazine is an object that has a physical presence. It is not fugitive. A magazine or book has an immediate presence when on the bookshelf.
If the New Art Examiner is to return it will have to have an online site. I may have a site donated in England. At the heart will be the community of the office working together to collect information, discuss information, share networks, and have a place for writers to visit and above all gossip. Even if the New Art Examiner produces only 4 to 6 issues a year it will be a start. Here, I would like to say with emphasis that the New Art Examiner did not claim authority other than a collective of writers of authority. It was also quite happy to give equal space to all. In this it was democratic. Not that many availed themselves of this opportunity to do so. Roger Brown did once. He called me ‘fat filth.’ We printed his letter.
Artists, even if not original, are more important than collectors. Artists make art, collectors arrive after the art is made, but I have met some collectors whose company is preferable to some artists.
The system correctly assumes there is a permanent supply of artists just like oil. Oil will run out but artists will not, therefore they have no value. BFAs andMFAs are an attempt to gain value. They are the inflow that is needed to feed the art machine to make sausages of cultural products – as Marcel Duchamp implied with readymades – which, if well package, adding a little spice of publicity will sell.
If there is to be a new New Art Examiner it will have to avoid xenophobia and not be afraid of the local provincial power base. I dream of a New Art Examiner in part like the old one – Without Fear Or Favour – that will have roots in Chicago but would deal with the wider world of contemporary art in which a new critical language can be found which will be able to review an artist showing anywhere and that will make sense to a reader living far from the exhibition. This is a tall order. Chicago is so retarded that there is not even a working archive of the New Art Examiner in place. Therefore future scholarship and research is denied
I want to conclude with the words of the only artist in Chicago who has had a street named after him.
“Where have all the people gone? Electronic shadows are former cells watching video screens, ignoring the right of refusal … Perception, all that we experience through our sensory apparatus, is being affected by the rapid acceleration of media related technology. Our view of the world is changing as the global environment expands through media accessibility and the information reservoir gets deeper. My belief is that these elements (good or bad) have woven their way into the collective fabric of our lives. I also believe that any artist always works within the context and conditions that are indigenous to his or her own time and, in doing so, reflects the energy, temperament and attitudes of that climate. Paint may seem like an outmoded medium but the human imagination is endless. (Ed Paschke – Speakeasy February 1981.)
If the imagination can be fired again and if there is enough momentum I would like to help out. I still have a network of active art thinkers who respond to a call from the New Art Examiner is writing for the New Art Examiner is considered prestigious. I can help out with my experience and knowledge of publishing. I cannot lead it. It has to be driven by a new generation.