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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



June 5, 2007

Wisconsin Triennial rides again

Jennifer A. Smith

Due to the construction of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison's downtown performing and visual arts complex, the Wisconsin Triennial--a showcase of contemporary visual art organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art--was knocked off its every-three-years schedule. The first Triennial since 2002 is now on view.

My review of the show ran in a recent issue of Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly. Brief interviews with two of the included artists and one of the curators ran alongside the review. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's visual art critic also covered the show.

Simply put, the Wisconsin Triennial is one of my favorite things on the local visual art calendar. I'd love it if it were an annual tradition, but the scope of the show makes that nearly impossible. (This year, the curatorial team whittled about 500 applicants down to about 50 exhibiting artists.) I'd also like to see it get wider coverage - I just did a quick Google News search on "Wisconsin Triennial" and only four results turn up. While the show might not be able to get national coverage (even if it deserves it), we are living in a regional arts economy, so to speak - Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago form a sort of triangle and it's not unusual for residents of one place to attend theater, visual art, etc. in another. While farther away for me, Minneapolis is not out of the question, either.

I can't help but think that with all the coverage in recent weeks about arts journalism cutbacks in places like Minneapolis and Atlanta that it will be even harder for worthy events and artists to attract attention beyond their immediate environs. There will be fewer people out there with their radar attuned to noteworthy, high-quality events. But unless the reading public responds to these cuts in arts journalism positions with an outcry (and I doubt they will), such cuts are unsurprising.

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



April 24, 2007

Rural lives, rural arts

Jennifer A. Smith


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.

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



April 17, 2007

Placing a value on art

Jennifer A. Smith


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?

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



February 20, 2007

Madison museum gets major gift from donor with no ties to city. Foreshadowing a future trend?

John Stoehr

Art reflecting local culture: A collector of post-1960s American prints told the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc., that Madison's sophisticated counter-cultural character is more suited to his collection than a city like Atlanta, whose museums chafed at the word "stoned" being used in the art.

The result is a gift to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art of three prints: Andy Warhol's 1982 portfolio of six colorful silk-screened dollar signs called "$1"; Robert Rauschenberg's 1989 color photogravure entitled "Soviet/American Array III"; and James Rosenquist's 1987 black-and-white aquatint and etching called "The Prickly Dark."

The benefactor is Stephen Dull (pronounced DOOL), a high-powered corporate executive for the VF Corp., a company based in Greensboro, N.C., whose brand names include Wrangler and Lee blue jeans, North Face outerwear and Nautica clothing. Dull is looking for an institution to give his entire collection to in future years. His collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Kiki Smith. Will this gift inspire others to donate large collections to musueums in the American Outback?

"Absolutely," Dull told the newspaper. "I've been attracted to what the museum is doing for a long time. I've seen many other museums, and this is a really tremendous institution. The new building is just a manifestation of the commitment to and support from the community to contemporary art. To me, this is about finding a place where art has the place in other people's lives that it has had in mine."

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



February 19, 2007

Good reads

Joe Nickell

Call it the curse of topicality. The week that North Carolina's Council of State is forced to vote on changes in lethal injection protocols, a regional company stages Dead Man Walking. Read about how this all came together, here.

There's a fun interview with poet Andrei Codrescu at the Idaho Statesman site; check it out here.

Apparently Monet plays well in the outback: the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors bureau announced that "the Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art injected almost $24.3 million dollars in tourism revenue into the Wake County economy - more than double the initial projection." Just think....with all that money, maybe they could buy a Monet of their own! Anyway, read about it here.

Arts advocates in Kansas were relieved to learn that Gov. Matt Blunt has included money for the arts -- a little over $8 million -- in his annual budget recommendation. Though it's a pitance, some had feared the gov was going to stiff the arts completely. Read more here.

Floridians, apparently, love Florida -- Richard Florida, that is: "The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has picked Tallahassee and two other communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Charlotte, N.C., and Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wisc., as the launch sites of the new Knight Creative Communities Initiative. It's a partnership with social theorist Richard Florida, author of 'The Rise of the Creative Class,' and Leon County's business, education and government leaders to enhance the area's economic base beyond government and education." Read more about it here.

Finally, at risk of self-promo, here is a review I wrote of the most recent performance by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. I've gotten notes of thanks and praise from members of the chorus and the audience; I've also gotten angry letters telling me I need to show "fealty" (!?!?) to the orchestra and that reviews like this "will shut down this valued institution." So I guess a mixed-bag performance inspired a mixed-bag review which resulted in mixed responses!

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



February 14, 2007

"Critiquing the Critics"

John Stoehr

Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.

What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?

As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."

Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.

There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.

Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.

But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.

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