Utah is Every State: Visibility in an Unseeing American Art System
Each issue, the New Art Examiner will invite an art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest.
Darren Jones is a Scottish art critic based in the United States. In 2020 his work was selected for Honorable Mention at the Toni Beauchamp Prize for Critical Art Writing; in 2018 he was awarded a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He was the 2020 critic-in-residence at SPACES, Cleveland; and the 2019 Critical Fellow at Granary Arts, Utah. His book, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege, co-authored with David Carrier, was published in 2016. He is a regular contributor to Artforum, and is the New York contributing editor for New Art Examiner. Jones teaches curatorial studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. He lives in Key West, Florida, and Fire Island Pines, NY.
There isn’t a representative American art; nor is there discourse that fully includes art in America. What is meant by these rather disingenuous terms is that fraction of sanctioned art which is shown in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other well regarded provincial museums that fits certain aesthetic tenets; art that has been vetted by a hegemonic critical regime and is funneled through the museum system – from studio to collection – to the satisfaction of fiscal and canonical shareholders.
What is dismissed – or never noticed at all – is the vast creative output of artists across the United States who do not live or work close to the art system’s power centers – what might be considered the New York/Los Angeles Axis of Easel. If you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere, as the song, and the mean arc of what we are told is art history, would have it.
It is to the detriment of every stratum in the art world(s) – geographic, cultural, political, local, environmental – that this is so. Art workers throughout the country, across class, race, gender, and age, struggle to gain traction when the spotlight is fixed so far from them, and so rarely illuminates their own endeavors. The art made and shown in New York is not ‘better’ than that made elsewhere, nor is it more important; but it is marketed as though it were. As that work is seen, it is written about, and then elevated into the public realm. It becomes art history. But it doesn’t represent art history. It represents financial investment, a narrow framework of value, private insistence, and only occasionally, genuinely worthwhile art.
Each state must contend with these predicaments if its artists are to be made visible inside and beyond its boundaries – without having to leave. In this series of articles we look to the American West, and Utah specifically, to explore the Beehive State’s art scene, how it is responding to these outdated mores, what initiatives it has established, and what it might yet do to develop and elevate its position as an art producing region. This endeavor proceeded from a series of critical sessions involving art workers from across Utah, who came together in the summer of 2019 under the auspices of Granary Arts in Ephraim and its co-founder and executive director, Amy Jorgensen. The intention for this mobile think-tank, named ‘Critical Ground’, is to share and act on ideas that will develop the connectivity, efficacy and dissemination of critical and artistic engagement between practitioners and audiences.
Scotti Hill has contributed an in-depth ‘diagnostic’ survey of museums, art galleries, seminal figures, artists, public enterprises and funding sources that underscores the vibrancy of Utah’s scene, along with notes for progression. Christopher Lynn has focused on alternative models for exhibiting art, innovation, and collaborations that are helping to evolve how Utah’s artists reach audiences. This writer considers Utah’s modern artistic legacy, and how that might guide current art laborers in developing the state’s reputation, and energize its creative potential.
How to devolve power across the national art grid is part of larger, and terribly urgent, cultural tensions and conversations that have consumed the United States. We are undergoing an unprecedented reckoning. Utah, like the rest of the country, is roiling in the devastating maw of the coronavirus; the raw, tumultuous aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and the traumatic consequences and reality of racism. However we recover, it is incumbent upon us all that we do so with a restructured cultural, political and civic panorama. In the arts, as in life generally, there has to be a fairer distribution of institutional largesse, decentralized structural influence, and a final assault on the ivory towers of obscene jurisdiction that have prevailed, suppressed and dictated for too long. Only then might we pave a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable road ahead, that isn’t toll-free for only the privileged few.
Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020
3 thoughts on “Utah is Every State: Visibility in an Unseeing American Art System”
I always love your articles, and your views for emerging artists. I especially find your opinion of the NYC art conglomerate , refreshing , and something truthful they need to hear.
In 1980 I was an M.F.A. student in Bill Vazan’s class at Concordia in Montreal. Bill was a no-nonsense kind of guy who could have been a lumberjack, but instead achieved a top tier reputation for his deconstructive mosaic photography and his land art. We went on a class tour to to look at the Viking rune-stones near Boston mentioned in America B.C. Then we swung up to Lake Placid to view the art made for that year’s Olympics.
Imagine you’re standing on an empty road near an off ramp, with others from the class. Facing you is a guardrail such as we see lining all offramp. Vazan told us this particular guardrail was a work of art. The artist’s name forgotten, an Olympic commissioned artist had hired a road crew to build and erect the type of guard rail such crews always do, in a place where there had to be one by state law, except this time it was on orders from an artist instead of a highway supervisor.
I mention this negation of art, this statement that the artist is MIA, to contrast a conceptual stance (owned by the academy, i.e. the art shown in New York), to a science-driven view of art that is way more intuitive.
Denis Dutton’s youtube video, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” tells of an art instinct motivating the Naked Ape to evolve into monkeys with diplomas. Ha ha, no, that’s not what he really said, it was too close to the mark to pass up. What Dutton actually said is that art is biologically specific, driving evolution. Fascinating, worth googling.
Psychology says art is therapy, that anti-aesthetic is anti-therapeutic. If art is a biological instinct, then postmodernism would create social unrest, an interesting thought. I think a reformation is called for in art theory, that’s a Martin Luther paradigm. Torches and pitchforks.
Torches and pitchforks, indeed! That’s “where it is at”, until beautiful things get their notice.