Derek Guthrie, Co-Founder and Publisher Emeritus, the New Art Examiner
The publishing of the New Art Examiner was an extraordinary event and bears witness to an important truth: the community has the ultimate power to decide and acknowledge its own reference points of merit and appreciation. As the copy published decades ago is still vital and has relevance, the New Art Examiner, celebrating its fiftieth year in 2023 will not be airbrushed out of cultural history nor lose its relevance to past and present.
Jane Addams Allen and I founded the New Art Examiner against great odds. It came into existence as an eight-page tabloid in October 1973 without money or sponsors excepting a few brave individuals. We had been fired as art critics for the Chicago Tribune, without explanation but immediately after publishing a story on problems at the Illinois Arts Council. Soon thereafter, days before printing, Art News killed our story on Chicago Imagists going to the São Paulo Bienal although the article appeared in Studio International a short while later suggesting that it was the singers and not the song that was the problem.
This seemed to make clear for us that we had no professional future in Chicago. Jane was not prepared to be shut out of her hometown and said in simple, practical terms, “If we want to be art writers, we are going to have to be our own publisher.” A fearsome prospect. But Jane drew strength from the fighting spirit and wisdom of her great aunt, Jane Addams of Hull House, who said, “There is no point in going elsewhere to find greener pastures; what you have to do is to look after your own backyard, and if you do it well, eventually others will notice.” I am aware as I write this introduction that linking the historical reality of Jane Addams to Jane Addams Allen will be seen by some as pretentious and opportunistic. However, where but Chicago would one be castigated for feeling an obligation to continue the social responsibility of Jane Addams, who died the year Jane was born and for whom she was named? This identity shaped her life. Jane believed in the best of American tradition. She played songs from Woody Guthrie and believed in Horatio Alger’s bootstraps. Approach. Jane asked for no favors. She knew her Chicago history and the writing of Upton Sinclair, Lewis and Carl Sandburg, William and Henry James and John Dewey.
Life for the New Art Examiner and life in the New Art Examiner was difficult; it existed in a state of near permanent crisis. Friends suggested that the Examiner should evoke its hidden heritage and seek support from Hull House and other organizations that carried Addams’ name. Jane was adamant that she would not exploit her family heritage in this way. Addams’ name was printed in the New Art Examiner only once in a slashing attack in the form of a letter to the editor saying that Jane was not fit to carry her own birth name. As a young person in Chicago, Jane saw the family name evoked many times, often with missionary zeal that was lacking in substance. She saw grandstanding self-interest and political social maneuvering. As Addams’ high mindedness eventually got lost in the thicket of Illinois politics, Jane, eschewing social work and politics, sought refuge in philosophy, literature, and art, maintaining a thread of thinking rooted in American Pragmatic philosophy gleaned from her education at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. Donald Kuspit wrote in the March 2010 issue of Proof / New Art Examiner, which was then emerging in the U.K., “aesthetic experience transforms alienation into freedom and adversaries into criticality.” Those words were not written for Jane but they fit her perfectly.
As art is a visual language, it can be made and used for all purposes. Whether the purpose at times restricts or damages creativity is an ongoing issue for artists and critics alike, and even art historians. The New Art Examiner worked on the principle that vitality can only come when the writer is following his or her own basic response. Criticism has virtually died in the U.S.—a fact recognized by James Elkins of the School of the Art Institute in his pungent book, “Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?” The question is relevant, the answer remote and complex.
In founding the New Art Examiner, we learned that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality. We understood that critics do not have the last word, so we offered to all artists space to take on or reply to any critic’s comments with which they disagreed. Sadly, few did, which is an unfortunate testimony to the nature of the art scene in recent years. We believed in discussion. Again, Addams was a model as she believed in the priority/prerogative of free speech. In so doing she became a hate figure to some and was categorized as one of the most dangerous people in the U.S. The New Art Examiner was treated likewise. We could never understand why some feel that responsible free speech is not only annoying but dangerous. We were encouraging people to have their own perceptions and develop them. Issues of culture are issues of belief, and art criticism at its best deals with that nature and perception of the human spirit as manifested by the artist. The New Art Examiner was not a political agent. It had no political agenda. We believed that intelligent discussion with respect for all participants was the only way toward a full culture.
When the New Art Examiner came into existence, the Museum of Contemporary Art was only a few years old and was feeling its own freedom from perceived anti-Semitism that dominated the board at the Art Institute. The first issue of the Examiner appeared (in October 1973) with an Editorial borrowing the well-worn phrase, “Without Fear or Favor.” and it was claimed many times that we were troublemakers who did not know what we were talking about. To keep the Examiner Jane and I left Chicago. Michael Bonesteel and Ann Lee Morgan and then Alice Thorson, with great professionalism and sensitivity, took over the Chicago office and in doing so inherited the existing budget while we pioneered the East Coast.
I think it is appropriate to say now that the New Art Examiner was a cooperative. That is, all staff members, whether editor or typesetter, were paid the same. We could hardly pay living wages, and we were all equally dependent on each other. There was eventually a small incremental increase in pay each year rewarding time in employment, as loyalty was our most precious resource. Jane was offered and accepted a job on the Washington Times, and ultimately gained considerable prestige, winning awards, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and an endorsement from Carter Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Art in a public letter in the Wall Street Journal.
But the ugly side of politics entered the issue. When Patrick Buchanan, Nixon’s presidential speechwriter and adviser and a well-known pundit, attacked artists as degenerates unable to aspire to the state culture like Michelangelo or Mozart, the culture wars began. Jane quietly resigned and we briefly retired to Cornwall. Shortly afterward she gained a Renwick Fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution that brought us back to Washington that was cut short by her illness. So we returned to Cornwall and Jane spent her last years immersed in the natural world. She faced with inspiring courage three operations for the cancer that eventually caused her death.
I am so grateful to Jane, who taught me the better side of America, and for her profound reading of art. Her excellent prose, crafted with authority, inspired this clumsy wordsmith to an appreciation of the subtleties and workings of the English language. Jane started life as an artist and usually drew in a sketch book the pictures and sculptures she was reviewing. This ability, of course, was part of her understanding of the visual image and essential to her writing. It was her editing that was the cement in the early days; it gave the New Art Examiner its high standards. Her patience and commitment to freshman writers so often found original thoughts inside jumbled and mannered prose, and her caring for the budding writer helped many into clear articulation and confidence. So many writers have and will testify to finding their feet or wings in the New Art Examiner, and to a freedom that was not possible elsewhere.
One of my most rewarding memories is meeting Peter Schjeldahl circa 1976. We were smarting that week as our friend and early supporter, the important art writer Jack Burnham, had just been asked by staff at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago why he associated with “that rag.” Peter visited the office that week and observed that there was an intelligence working in the New Art Examiner that he wanted to investigate. Conversation with Peter was stimulating and satisfying. As we all shared our observations and discussed the ways and means of the art world and the molding of taste by different back- grounds and circumstances interested us all.
I wish to leave with one more recollection, an observation made by a Chicagoan who now enjoys an elevated position in the New York art scene. Jerry Saltz, a canny professional, understands, if anyone does, the dynamic of power. He once wrote, “Jane and Derek are the only people I know who wrote their own tickets out of Chicago.”
—Derek Guthrie, Co-Founder and Publisher Emeritus, the New Art Examiner