Tag Archives: Grand Rapids

Some Thoughts on ArtPrize in a New Political Reality

Dewitt Godfrey

(image: Dewitt Godfrey)

This is a blog post about ArtPrize, money, and politics. In the past I haven’t addressed these things with this level of clarity, but now is not a time for silence. We put out a statement on the ArtPrize blog about recent political developments (read it here), but I thought I’d add more of my personal take below.

I’ve been part of ArtPrize from the very beginning. I remember hearing Rick DeVos give the original pitch to me and a dozen other people who worked for a previous company he’d founded. I was stunned by the elegance and the power of the idea. I knew it would be incredibly hard to pull off, and I wanted to help. I got that opportunity and took it upon myself to ensure that ArtPrize didn’t suck. That’s actually what I told myself in my mind, “Don’t let this suck.” I poured myself into developing and refining the artist-facing portion of the event. I argued passionately with haters in comment threads. I convinced skeptical artists to enter and cautious curators and critics to visit as jurors.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, but over these eight years I’ve also come to terms with how naive I was at the beginning. It wasn’t my sole responsibility to make sure it didn’t suck, that was ultimately out of my control. The successes and failures of a thing like ArtPrize ride on the efforts of thousands of people, and even then certain elements are left to the whims of chance. ArtPrize has worked, but there’s nothing I control that guarantees that.

Last year, as we were in the hustle of ArtPrize Eight while following the news of a contentious and insane election, I started to sense a deep change in circumstance, like the ground shifting. Eras of American culture can be pretty effectively mapped to presidential administrations, without necessarily claiming a cause and effect relationship. Administrations and our reaction to them have a way of coloring the national mood. When I say “the Reagan years,” that has a cultural meaning as well as a political one. During the event this past fall it occurred to me that the entirety of ArtPrize up to that point had taken place during the Obama years. The meeting I mentioned earlier, when Rick laid out his simple vision for an art event that would take over the city, took place in January 2009, the same month Obama was inaugurated.

As we worked on the event, no one thought “Gee, this will be a perfect for the Obama era!” But looking back now, it’s clear that it reflected the sensibilities of the time. Those years were defined by hope in technology, participation, and democracy that seem a little too innocent now. Social networks! Apps! The “long tail”! TED Talks! With a little gumption and some cool tech, we can change the world! That sheen has been fading for a while now, but the events of the last few months signal an abrupt end to the techie optimism of the Obama era. We thought giving everyone technological “platforms” with which to amplify their voices would lead to a flourishing of expression, art, and entrepreneurship. A lot of that happened, but platforms like Twitter, for example, also emboldened misogynists, white supremacists, and Russian bot armies. Many news websites enabled comments, only to the turn them off years later. The elegance and simplicity of the big ideas that captured our imagination turned out to be more complicated than the original pitch. Things get messy.

ArtPrize has avoided the invasion of hateful trolls that plague platforms like Twitter and Reddit, but our early infatuation with elegance and simplicity has slowly given way to the unglamorous daily tasks of building a sustainable and consistent nonprofit art organization. We began as a wild idea dreamt up by someone with the means and the connections to get it off the ground, but we’ve become a broadly supported institution that gives artists, curators, and educators over $700,000 a year in grants and prizes. Initially, ArtPrize was an experiment in applying free market forces to the task of assembling an exhibition. ArtPrize was founded on the notion that if the carrot on the end of the stick was big enough, everything else would self-organize in an interesting way and figure out how to eat it. When the idea was announced, there were people who were confident that this approach would fail, and it was enormously satisfying to prove them wrong. But skepticism of our laissez faire model did have some merit. It turned out this was a brilliant way to start something, but it was not a great way to run something. As ArtPrize ages, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenges of any organization that supports the arts. How does the work get made? How are people supported? Who’s invited to be part of the audience? How do we keep it fresh? The giant carrot on the stick, as tantalizing as it still is, can only do so much. For everything else, we have to show up and do the work.

Now it’s 2017 and suddenly doing the work involves confronting the question of what ArtPrize will be in a new era. What is a post-Obama ArtPrize? What is ArtPrize in the Trump era, whatever that turns out to be? We’re just starting to figure this out—and honestly—we’re off to a very challenging start. This week Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Betsy has been a financial supporter of ArtPrize, through her foundation, since her son Rick founded it. She served on the board until recently. I’ve never agreed with the politics of the DeVos family. Since before ArtPrize began I knew that working on Rick’s projects meant finding common goals with people despite disagreeing on a vast array of other issues, and defending this strategy against criticisms leveled by my own “side.” This has not been easy, and I have moments of doubt, but I reject the notion of insisting on perfect ideological alignment before agreeing to work toward a common goal. It’s puritanical, petty, and it breeds tribalism. I deeply disagree with the DeVos’ politics. And I’m deeply committed to what ArtPrize is doing with their help. Is that complicated? You bet it is. Most things are.

I’m not alone. The majority of the ArtPrize staff is with me in navigating a path through their own progressive politics and the perceptions that funding can carry. We’re not alone in the art world, either. The DeVos family funds every major art institution in Grand Rapids, with as much or even far more money than they give us. The tension between conservative money and progressive art organizations isn’t unique to Grand Rapids, either. If you think there isn’t a questionable aspect to the funders of a particular art organization, you probably haven’t looked hard enough.

I’ve become pretty comfortable plotting my way through this, but Betsy’s appointment came as a genuine shock. As late as the GOP convention, Betsy sounded cautious and unconvinced when asked by reporters about Trump, even though her preferred candidates, Rubio and Cruz, were clearly not going to get the nomination. I thought, even if I’ll never agree with Betsy on policy, there’s a much more basic question of integrity at play here. Surely, she could never support a candidate who talks like an aspiring dictator, spurns philanthropy, exhibits no working knowledge of the constitution, and prefers lawsuits and crony capitalism over free markets. Trump, it seems obvious, is not a conservative in any coherent sense of the term. Even though I’ve always disagreed with the DeVos’ social conservatism and free market fundamentalism, I thought I understood it. Now I’m forced to confront the fact that I was wrong. I have no idea what’s happening. I can’t imagine why Betsy would take this job.

Betsy has taken a lot of heat in the confirmation process, and unlike most people spilling ink about her, I’ve actually met her, so I feel the need to make a few things clear. First of all, she is not stupid. She’s an incredibly intelligent and insightful person, even if her confirmation hearing didn’t seem to reflect that. Second, she’s not evil. I believe that she truly wants to improve education outcomes for children, even if I think that her policy proposals will not accomplish that. More importantly, working for an administration that shows the early warning signs of fascism is not a situation that can be redeemed by good intentions.

I can’t justify or defend the actions of the funders of ArtPrize, and I don’t need to, that’s not my job. People can defend their own actions. What I will defend is my choice to work with people, despite difference and disagreement, to support artists and bring contemporary art to hundreds of thousands of people.

Review: Salvador Jiménez Flores’ “I Am Not Who You Think I Am”

Salvador

Last week I wrote a brief, informal post about my first impressions of the Kendall MFA show, which is now on view. The post accurately conveyed my overall feeling after a cursory viewing, but it was hardly a considered review. I’m working to make time to dig into a few of the artists’ installations and write something with more substance. All the MFA grads should be very proud of what they accomplished, and they all produced work that’s worthy of serious consideration, even if the resulting critical positions aren’t always positive.

For his installation “I Am Not Who You Think I Am”, Salvador Jiménez Flores presents a series of fired clay mask self portraits hung in a line along two adjoining walls. There are fifteen masks on the walls, framed by painted strips mimicking Aztec frieze patterns rendered in a clay wash. Beneath each mask is a cursive inscription in clay wash, in Spanish, English, or some combination of the two.  There are also several small shelves topped by vitrines containing other small sculptures. In the center of the floor is a low pedestal with another clay mask, this one facing up amid a plane of clawed and mottled clay. From somewhere above the pedestal there’s a sound element, an echoey male voice on a loop that asks, “Who are you?” “Who am I?” and other simple questions about identity. There’s also a shelf with a vitrine that contains a stack of books, including The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Mixed Blessings by Lucy Lippard, among others, which seem to crush a clay depiction of the artist’s head.

Salvador

The masks are the star of the show, and they are masterfully made. They seem to be the result of a casting process which is then altered and distorted by adding facial hair, embedding objects, cutting, other interventions. There’s a wide variety of glazes, paints, and other materials incorporated which give them an incredible range of color and texture, while maintaining an overall cohesion. The installation, the artist statement informs us, reflects Jiménez’s experience of dual identity as a Mexican-born artist in living in the United States. He thinks in two languages and experiences a sense of double consciousness. This is reflected in the masks, which are informed by both Mesoamerican and European traditions. They strike a balance between Aztec masks and Olmec heads on one hand, and European death masks and Classical busts on the other.

The masks are evocative, disturbing, and funny. Jiménez manages to tap into something very comedic by repeating the faces over and over, showing us both the variety of alterations, and the expressions depicted in each. We get the sense that he’s playing many different roles, and this one-man vaudeville show is an awful lot of work.

Salvador

The works function both as masks–artifices meant to cover over the face–and as casts, a verbatim copy of the features of the face. Engaging the mask/cast duality is a brilliant move. He challenges us to figure out which inanimate depiction is the more truthful representation of the artist. Casts, on the one hand, benefit from a one-to-one transfer of features at scale. Each detail and each proportion transfers with all the rest. But the end result is a little too close to life without actually being alive. It ends up in the limbo of the uncanny, teasing us with the familiar recognition of a human face, only to push us to revulsion when its inanimate nature recalls a corpse. Tapping into the uncanny is a bit creepy, and it’s a big part of what makes the faces so successful.

A mask, on the other hand, seems at first to be the more artificial visage of the two. Constructed to adorn and obscure ones features, we’re in no danger of being tempted to see it as a real face. But in their artificiality, masks can reveal a lot more inner truth than bare flesh (or a direct copy of flesh). Masks reflect the fact that we always assemble and adorn a set of features to show ourselves to the world. Masks remind us that there is no version of ourselves that is not an artifice constructed of multiple parts, both by ourselves and others.

Overall, I think the masks work really well, but not everything in this installation works on so many levels, and even some masks seem to hold the others back. There are several aspects of the installation in which the theme of dual identity is made obvious to the point of being heavy-handed. The first culprit is the sound loop. I found it jarring in a bad way. A digital file is a stark and misplaced material contrast with all the rich clay surfaces and colors, this doesn’t feel like a place for looping digital audio files. And it doesn’t really add anything. The artist statement is well written, and even without that, an observant viewer can pick up that this is an exploration of identity, and that the artist is asking who he is, and by extension, imploring us to ask who we are. It’s all in the work, the question doesn’t need to be said aloud.

Salvador

Similarly, the stack of books crushing the artist’s head seems a little too direct. It seems to illustrate, in a very obvious way, the anxiety caused by the fact that matters of cultural and racial identity are both personal and theoretical. We’re crushed under the weight of history and theory, literally. The mask with the word “trapped” inscribed beneath it is kind of obvious, the rest get us so much deeper without naming the condition so directly.

These elements are a bit like that moment in a movie when the main character says the title of the movie in a line of dialogue. It’s appropriate, but it also makes us squirm because it’s too obvious. The sudden recognition of this makes us aware of both what’s being communicated and the conscious attempt on the part of the artist to communicate it. In other words, we see not only what he’s doing, we see him trying to do it, and this has a way of undercutting communicative power of the work. In film terms, it breaks the suspension of disbelief. In the experience of exploring a visual art installation, I’m pulled from the depth of reflection into a space where I’m reminded that there is a Message here that I am expected to pick up.

Salvador

I’m not saying that the work shouldn’t have meaning. What I’m saying is that the meaning needs to be communicated with balance and subtlety. If the work is about questioning identity and feeling trapped by identity, those ideas come across more strongly if they’re baked into the objects in such a way that I arrive at those concepts myself, through my own engagement with the work. The trouble with flat out saying “trapped” and “who are you?” is that it suggests that the artist doesn’t trust the viewer to arrive at these conclusions. The moments where this obviousness is troubling stand out precisely because the majority of the installation does not suffer this problem. By and large, the work contemplates identity, belief, ethnicity, and history with remarkable humor, mystery, and depth. There are only a few moments when it becomes heavy-handed, and these are all the more frustrating because the rest of the work operates so deftly.