Somebody better call the art police.

AJ Blogger Judith Dobrzynski recently asked, “Are we, as a country, defining the arts down?” She questioned the quality of small-town festivals, the inclusion of “gastronomic arts” in arts education, and the merits of an exhibit at the Albright-Knox Gallery featuring photographs and videos of the local hockey team, the Sabres. I would respond to her question by first asking, Is it fair to categorically (and sight unseen) cite these activities as evidence of the lowering of artistic standards?

Just as you can find bad art in Manhattan, you can find great art in places like Fishcreek (WI). There’s a book by John Villani, 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, which highlights communities with terrific festivals, vibrant artist communities, or museums with impressive permanent collections.

And gastronomy? The study of the relationship between culture and food strikes me as a worthy pursuit for students and one that should not be assumed to crowd out appreciation for the “fine arts”. I also wonder whether its presence in schools reflects the reach of Slow Food — whose strategies for changing the relationship between people and food have been, in my opinion, more effective than those of the arts sector to “develop audiences.” (A topic for another day.)

Finally, while the 40th anniversary Sabres exhibition probably could be categorized as a “blockbuster”, is the reason the collection is assumed to be of low artistic quality because it has broad appeal, or because it was created as a celebration, or because we assume that photographs of hockey players and their coaches could never be artistic? 

I saw an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called BAM! BAM! BAM! Catching the Next Wave for 20 Years, which was, essentially, a highlights reel celebrating a festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Did anyone question its merits? Of course, I watched the video while lying on a mattress inside a specially designed structure. Perhaps that’s what made it qualify as “art”?

Dobrzynski borrowed her question from a phrase, “defining deviancy down” in an article by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which questioned whether increased crime was the result of the normalizing of deviant behavior. Beyond questioning her examples of “defining art down,” I guess I’m puzzled by the “threat” implied in Dobrzynski’s question; I’m not sure I understand who or what is harmed, exactly, by broadening the definition of art. 

I agree with Bill Ivey, who has challenged the perpetuation of a Western European artistic hierarchy in the US (in his book Arts, Inc.); or as I have taken to adapting his idea and saying—if we want to reach new audiences we may need to stop hammering so hard on the idea that Bach is intrinsically better than Björk, who is intrinsically better than my brother, who plays in a pro-am banjo club in St. Louis. Greatness can be found in the nonprofit, commercial, or amateur art realms. (And, of course, so can mediocrity.) Does it take anything away from Bach if I also consider both Björk and my brother’s banjo playing to be artistic?

PS – Sincere thanks to all who weighed in on my posts on dynamic pricing and economic impact studies and helped to generate some really interesting debates. If you haven’t checked out the comments posted by others, I encourage you to do so as they are well worth reading. 

Screaming woman image licensed from and modifed by DER.

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  1. Jim VanKirk says

    Nonsense Diane, do you at least know the difference between your attraction to your brothers banjo, Bjork and Bach. Nothing is taken away from Bach it’s you who suffers.

    • says

      Jim, thanks for yor post. You make an excellent point. Quality matters. And yes, I believe I do know the difference. I can, and do, make qualitative judgments about the artistic merits of work that I see. When I was living in NYC I saw a lot of work – 150 or more performances a year – and I didn’t value it all equally. However, what I think is unfair and unwise (particularly for a sector that has been experiencing declining participation rates), is categorically dismissing certain types of activities (“rural arts festivals,” or “blockbuster exhibits”) as being “not art.”

  2. says

    Yet again, excellent observations and you have highlighted something we all need to pay attention to — the “high arts” need to be valuable to society and part of everyday lives or we will all get altitude sickness! Really enjoying your blog — thought provoking and smart.

  3. jeff says

    As a New Yorker who now lives in one of John Villani’s “100 best small art towns in America”, all I can say is I’d hate to see the 100 worst.
    unschooled, unsophisticated artists who don’t know what they don’t know is rampant here. While I don’t need to see cutting edge work it sure would be nice to see some competent well executed art. That’s as rare here as the dodo bird.
    I’ll take the bad art in Manhattan any day.

  4. Charles Desmarais says

    It seems to me that, as usual, context is everything.

    An artist who presents his/her art as anything but the greatest is missing an opportunity; if the Met presents the work as such, it has to hold up. Bjork is not a great 18th century composer, but she is great (I believe) at what she does.

    The Albright-Knox’s director, Louis Grachos, makes clear on the A-K website (here: that the hockey exhibition “celebrate[s] the Knox family’s important role in bringing the NHL to Buffalo,” and that the Sabres paid for it. No one is going to be fooled into thinking the museum equates this with the 75-work collection show (much of it donated by Seymour Knox) on Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Delaunay.

    The performing arts have their Pops concerts and their benefit performances. This seems analogous.

  5. Jim VanKirk says

    I’m with Jeff on this and unrelentingly pro “High Art” I also live in a small town after 26 years in the NYC Art world.
    Believe me nothing is quite as degrading as spending 8 and 1/2 yrs in various Art schools while earning 2 masters degrees in Art and Art History and then spending another 26 yrs slugging it out with every NYArt fad only to have the rest of my life and career determined by 501C-3’s run by housewives, (Well intentioned though they may be.) Art is not for children, seniors, prisoners or the disabled. Art is an intelligent adult decision by people who thrive on the sublime, in my case the visual. Honestly, I only know of Bjork through her husband and I suspect she is ill served in being used as an example in this instance.

    • says

      Lest my reference to Bjork be misunderstood – I have the utmost respect for her as an artist. I use her in the example specifically because she is an artist that, in my experience, is appreciated by many people who are serious about music, including classical musicians, etc.

    • says

      I strongly disagree with Jim’s statement that “Art is not for children, seniors, prisoners, or the disabled”, and his put down of “501 C-3’s run by housewives”. It seems as though his study of “high art” conventions has led him to feel he is in an elite class of “intelligent” people who are the only ones capable of appreciating art. I feel he has separated himself from the nux of art, the Source of art in all of us, including in children, seniors, prisoners, the disabled, and even in housewives.

      I would counter, “art is not for experts. Art is for everyone to access within themselves, to experience and to give expression to the Life around us.”

      • Suki John says

        I’m with Suzanna here. As another ex-New Yorker with multiple degrees in the arts, I can attest that art is for everyone to experience as well as to create. You will find crap in SoHo just as there are “housewives” in Peoria – or Puebla – who are great at making what many dismiss as “folk art.” What bothers me about Jim’s statement is the inherent sexism, ageism and elitism that assumes only the degreed among us know what is art of value. The ivory tower has a great stake in perpetuating itself – but many creative geniuses have lived outside of urban centers and pursued their muses without the art world’s stamp of approval. I guess the trick is to trust your own taste and aesthetic…

  6. Kurt Madison says

    Art and quality and creativity are important factors while trying to teach Introduction to Art classes in the Community College system here in Eastern Washington state. There is something about quality and the BEST in any field of Human endeavor. The Winner of the International Polka Festival is probably making High Art [whether you ‘like’ polka or not] and Friday night’s Jazz band in the bar- may be creative, but quality and ART may not evidenced. The distinctions are critical. Developing clarity about those distinctions doesn’t mean we are “THE ART POLICE’ On the other hand since only about 30% of the general population knows their primary colors [6 years of surveys of incoming students], the educational curve to get to Quality is steep.

  7. says

    Isn’t this all part of the dumbing down of everything? When I go to the “Arts” section in the newspaper (even the NY Times) I see very little visual arts. It’s mostly all performing artists – rock, country, pop, rap or whatever – plus movies. Yes there is the occasional play, dance performance or orchestral performance, but finding coverage of visual arts is harder and harder. Luckily we do have blogs to publicize some exhibitions, artists, etc., but the days of art critics reviewing shows get more clouded in memory as time goes on. Somehow the Kardashianization of culture is becoming more and more prevalent. It’s pretty mind numbing.

  8. Mary Kastlea says

    Perhaps the problem many of us sense with “broadening” the definition of art is simply that it doesn’t work–that is, our perception of art isn’t really getting broader. We are substituting what used to be considered crafts or entertainment for art and often crowding out what used to be considered “high art” altogether. It takes a great deal more time and money to maintain a quality orchestra than to stage a garage band, a lot longer (both in years and practice hours) to learn to play an intricate classicla work than a repetitive pop song, more effort to perform Shakespeare than a solo improvised “performance piece,” and more time to learn the subtleties of creating a a still-life oil painting than to plant flowers in an old tire in your front yard. We’ve become a fast-food society, and if it takes more time or effort to learn to create (or appreciate) almost anything, we’ll choose the quick and easy version nine times out of ten . . . . and complain about the waste of spending money creating the more difficult.

  9. says

    Diane, thanks for your provocative post. I also recently read and greatly enjoyed “Surviving the Cultural Change.” If you ever pass through Minneapolis/St. Paul, please let me know, as I am on the steering committee of a local arts and cultural policy study group, and we would love to have you as a speaker. I’m also curious how you like your program and whether you plan to go the professor route post PhD.

  10. says

    Thank you Mary. I have a strong opinion about this and I’ve been a little frustrated regarding this topic. It’s not all art. It doesn’t all have equivalent value. We’re not all Olympic athletes are we? All art is not great art or even good or even art. And it is my belief that people are too afraid of being politically incorrect to say it. And here’s the sad part, there are many people making money selling bad art to people who don’t know any better, just because some so-called expert gives it a story, uses some rationalization, and calls it good art. It’s not. What’s wrong with striving for excellence? That’s not something to be ashamed of in our culture and we should stop treating it like its a disease. As well we should stop coddling people who pull some solid substance out of their underwear and tell them what a wonderful unique thing they produced. It’s not all the same and it’s not all good. And many people can feel it, even if they can’t articulate it. When I look at art today, I wonder why there is so much graphic design masquerading of art? Great art is qualitatively different than decoration and design. I’m not saying don’t consider it. Do consider it. Think about it. Look, listen, taste, watch, hear, feel. see, experience. I just don’t believe in the “its all good” mentality. But, I do agree that it’s not about what area of the country you live in. However, it may be more difficult to find less densely populated areas if there are less opportunities to show it and see it.

  11. Tammy Regimbal says

    I wonder if those that enjoy the privilege of a good education realize the position of those without. Speaking as one of the under-educated, we tend to survive on instinct and common sense; neither of which is much help in understanding and appreciating fine art.

    At some level we realize that there is a difference between the mural on the monster truck and a Picasso. But if we’ve begun to refer to the mural as “art,” what is that, if not an opening? Maybe even a plea for help in understanding what all the fuss is about?

    Exclusivity tends to limit the audience; which is a problem if we don’t want the masterpieces behind the closed doors of those that can afford – ahem, understand – them best. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  12. Sharon DeMark says

    I understand the concern about quality, about defining “art”, but as I see arts non-profits struggle to stay open for their ever shrinking audiences, can we really afford to be less than generous in our ideas? Exclusivity serves no one; it just helps dig a deeper divide and gives people grist for the mill to write negative comments about public funding for the arts in their local papers.

    Creativity is an essential part of being human; it’s not assigned to just a few privileged souls. As artists/arts organizations, let’s open our doors as widely as possible and invite people of all ages, sizes, and colors each holding on to a different understanding of art to share in that experience. As difficult as this can be, this democratization of arts is imperative if we want the arts to not only survive but thrive

  13. says

    Yes! Cutting edge work can be found in many places outside of major metropolitan areas — there may not be as big of an audience for it (Internet helps) and they may not get as much exposure, but we need to lose the attitude that “bad art in Manhattan beats good work in a small town”. That’s ridiculous. I curate a gallery in a small town and my main mission is to bring in cutting-edge contemporary work. Along the way I’ve found that many of the area artists can hold their own with the nationally-known artists. Don’t complain about the arts scene in your area unless you are actually doing something to improve it!

  14. says

    Seems that the term “high art” automatically brings to mind a way to infuse elitism into the art world. Art should be accessible to all and, when considering exhibit or performance options, contain elements that can draw in new audiences. The elitist mentality is one that perpetuates a method of erecting barriers to participation by new and important voices in our society. I applaud curators and directors who allow new work to be shown and new artists to express themselves.


  1. […] Last week, I wrote a response to a blog by Judith Dobrzynski in which she asked, “Are we, as a country, defining the arts down?”  I essentially challenged her question. Responses to my blog varied, with one person calling my views ‘nonsense’. A few days ago, I happened to read a provocative new pamphlet by Counterpoint, the British Council’s think tank, called “Culture and Class,” which goes straight to the crux of last week’s conversation. Author John Holden describes a culture war being waged on two fronts:  the first concerns who has access to ‘culture’ (as traditionally defined) and the second concerns who gets to decide what ‘culture’ is, in the first place. […]

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