Visual Art News - Criticism: April 2007 Archives


Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is the relevance of arts programming to its community at large. One local organization (in Madison, Wis.) that I think does a fantastic job of linking its programming to the outside world is the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which runs a contemporary art gallery, a public lecture series, a quarterly magazine, scholarly conferences and more. Although the academic-sounding name makes many people think it's a division of the University of Wisconsin, it's actually an independent nonprofit that's been around since 1870 (!).


 


The current exhibition in the Academy's James Watrous Gallery is "Wisconsin's People on the Land," which is tied in with a much larger "Future of Farming" initiative. Despite our state's image (and ridiculously stereotypical state quarter with a cow, ear of corn and wheel of cheese--ugh!), the agricultural way of life is undergoing drastic changes, as it is everywhere. "Wisconsin's People on the Land" addresses these issues innovatively by involving artists, rural sociologists, folklorists and farmers. My review of this show ran in Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly.

April 24, 2007 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)


The NEA Institute has had me thinking a lot about the critic's role in his or her community, and how the theater we see relates to our communities. I live in Madison, Wis., a town of about 225,000 that is home to both the state capital and a Big Ten campus. There is no shortage of the arts here--but a really vibrant critical discussion of the arts is lacking. Sure, there are some good reviewers/critics (use whatever term you like), but the sense of a real conversation is what I'm missing. How much do critics, readers, artists and audience members engage in a real give-and-take of ideas?



Tied to this is a concern about how we value art (in the broadest terms, not just locally). A few things have struck me in recent weeks, one of which is a marketing e-mail I received from the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The e-mail urged me to go see the major Francis Bacon exhibition before it closed this past weekend. It read in part, under a section headed "What It's Worth": "Your $14 ticket provides you with the opportunity to see paintings that are being sold for $30 million at auction. Learn more about the value of your ticket here." That last bit linked to a news item on the BBC Web site about how Bacon's "Study from Innocent X" is expected to sell for upwards of $30 million at auction in May.



There are a couple reasons for MAM's pointing out on the monetary value of Bacon's paintings: it signals to an audience largely unfamiliar with Bacon that this is an "important" artist; it makes people feel OK about spending $14 on their ticket; but the third, and most potentially troubling, reason is that most of us get a kick out of seeing something that we know is worth a lot of money. (To be fair, the e-mail also links to a podcast of curators discussing Bacon, so the effort to provide real context is also there.)



I'm not suggesting that anyone who gets a charge out of something they know is incredibly valuable is a philistine - it's a pretty natural reaction. But for critics, our job (at least as I see it) is to pull at the two threads of meaning and aesthetics, preferably in plain English, and tease out something worthwhile. (What is this play/film/painting/book trying to say, and is it doing it in an interesting way?) That's why, for many of us who care about the arts, the "money question" means little. Whether Bacon is fetching great prices at auction or consigned to obscurity 15 years after his death is irrelevant. His paintings are what they are--no more, no less--and must stand on their own (now how's that for a touch of two-bit philosophy?).



In other news, a disturbed man kicked and stomped on a Baroque painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum April 4. I'm sure many will be aghast at the monetary damage that was done, but the destruction of art is most dispiriting in terms of losing something that can never be replaced. (The most interesting analysis of this incident so far comes from a Milwaukee-area online art magazine called "Susceptible to Images," in a piece called "No One Would Kick a Renaissance Painting." The writer, Debra Brehmer, argues that the passionate--if severely disturbed--response to the painting is in keeping with Baroque painters' desire to provoke. It goes without saying that she is not defending what happened, but she's clearly thinking about the aesthetic aspect of it.)



A few other random bits have been feeding into my thoughts on art's value and how we make our judgments: this piece in the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast," talks about an experiment the Post did with acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell busking with his Stradivarius outside a Metro station in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, few people stopped to listen. What's great about this essay is its refusal to judge people for not stopping or not realizing the musical greatness in their midst. The writer, Gene Weingarten, knows that people have many reasons to keep on moving. But he conjures up a wide-ranging, astute and occasionally funny meditation on how much of artistic quality is something we recognize because we're applying our aesthetic/emotional/intellectual/you-name-it faculties, and how much we appreciate something because we think "hey, that's Joshua Bell" or "that Stradivarius he's playing is worth $3.5 million" or "wow, I'm looking at a Francis Bacon painting worth $30 million."



It's all food for thought: how much do we make our own judgments, and how much do we let the marketplace make our judgments for us? And can critics (without turning into preachy schoolmarms) help?

April 17, 2007 9:05 PM |
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