Challenging the Artworld 2%: Reflecting on Jerry’s Saltz’ Assessment of the ArtPrize model, Part 1

Art critic Jerry Saltz ready for take-off in Kronschlager’s “Habitat” at SiteLab.
Photo courtesy of SiteLab

Art critic Jerry Saltz’ ArtPrize speaker presentation on October 1, was very similar to the one he’d delivered at Expo Chicago on September 20th. He discussed his career and the path that eventually brought him to be an art critic, offered his advice to artists, threw in several good analogies, and included enough art history references to lend him credibility to arthistophiles.  The advice to artists is what you would expect: be persistent, have integrity, accept failure, remain teachable, and try not to act like asshole.  Worthy of repeating is Saltz’ assertion that the artworld is top-heavy, focused on a sliver of aesthetic output.  To paraphrase Mr. Saltz, we should stop worshiping artboy heroes of the 1970s and 80s, and challenge the old model.

Saltz recounted how he inadvertently deconstructed the art critic paradigm, when he casually posted a disparaging comment about painter Marlene Dumas on his facebook page. Instead of the conventional hierarchical model of the critic delivering an appraisal to thousands of mute readers, he received a collective, “ass-whooping from 5000 people”, who disagreed with his statement.  There are indeed viable alternatives, and according to Saltz, ArtPrize counts among them.

Saltz, telling it how it is

Saltz compared ArtPrize to documenta, a contemporary art festival which has  taken place in Kassel Germany, every five years since 1955.  Attendance at the 2012 documenta was 860,000.  ArtPrize brought 400,000 visitors to Grand Rapids, the same number of people who visit The Detroit Institute of Arts over the course of a year.  ArtPrize has a budget of about three million, whereas it cost 25.7 million dollars to mount the 2008 documenta, and a new millage tax has increased the DIA’s operating budget by an estimated 23 million dollars.  Not only is ArtPrize ostensibly open to any artist (there is an application fee, and proposals still must be accepted by a venue), but attendance is free.  Contemporary art fairs like documenta, the Venice Biennale, or Art Basel, feature artists who are typically picked in advance from a limited list, and according to Saltz, much of what’s featured is unremarkable.  By his estimation, maybe 15% is really good.  I found this to be encouraging, because I felt that there were a comparable percentage of noteworthy submissions in ArtPrize.

Geoffrey Farmer at Neue Gallery, documenta

Saltz wasn’t the only juror who expressed approval, even if approval included concerns about making the event more viable to professional or established artists. While there is room for improvement, it is impressive how quickly the ArtPrize administrators have implemented changes in response to feedback from all parties involved.  The dismissive statements regarding ArtPrize expressed by some local artists and art educators seem myopic, if not elitist.

The inhabitants of Artworld Olympus, understandably don’t want to loose their foothold, but ironically enough resistance comes from those of us on the fringes who entertain the fantasy of gaining access into that sparkly inner sanctum.  For example, Damien Hirst’s decision to bypass the gallery middleman and sell his art directly through the Sotheby’s, was more shocking than an assemblage of fetid flesh.

Post-postmodern discourse encourages the continued deconstruction of metanarratives and hegemonic institutions, but clearly there are still some sacred cows.  Even while we Rapidians encourage the celebration of diversity, support the local economy, recycle, exercise tolerance, there is an element that would seem to say, “Don’t allow the peasants to have an investment in the arts.”  To quote Saltz, “Cut it out you crybabies!”

This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

-Tamara Fox

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3 Responses to “Challenging the Artworld 2%: Reflecting on Jerry’s Saltz’ Assessment of the ArtPrize model, Part 1”
  1. There is often a misunderstanding of the word ‘elite’ of ‘elitist’ by certain individuals who promote a more populist idea of art. The word ‘elitist’ can refer to a dominating power structure but it’s root is in the word “elite’ which refers to a group of people considered (by others or themselves) to be the best in a particular society or category. I want my doctor or car mechanic to be elite. I like great art which I considered elite.

    I, along with several other artists and writers brave enough to stick our professional heads out, aren’t merely being “dismissive’ and we certainly aren’t ‘crybabies’.

    It is a myth that there is an “Artworld Olympus” that is fighting not to loose their foothold. Today the art world is not just one art world but a cornucopia of all kinds of different art worlds. As a Michigan artists for over 25 years, I have no delusions or even a desire to be able to enter the Gagosian Blue Chip art world. There are plenty of other realms to exist in.

    And where is there any real evidence of any art institute, art gallery or art organization doing or saying or enacting anything to keep the “peasants” from having an investment or involvement in the arts. Quite the contrary, art museums and art galleries work tirelessly everyday to entice and encourage people to attend opening, lectures, talks, tours, and classes. All you have to do is show up.

    But in Grand Rapids the “peasants” didn’t show up until Rick Devos developed a little game for them which was paid for by one of the most socially and politically conservative family foundations in the country. And they continue to support it because it is engineered to do two, and only two, things. The first thing they want ArtPrize to do is bring in millions of tourist dollars to Grand Rapids business. The second thing ArtPrize is engineered to do is promote the populist idea that personal opinion is more important that knowledge. Even with the award changes this year the public vote is worth twice what the juried vote is.

    It saddens me that even today anyone who expresses concerns that a competition like ArtPrize might just be using artists as an economic development ploy, or to suggest that artists should get paid for making a city more exciting or beautiful, or who are critical of a model that turns art into a a scrum or a circus gets labeled derogatorily as “elitist”.

  2. markrumsey says:

    Galleries and museums do an good job of promulgating a system of recognition for artists that are willing to jump through the prescribed hoops. They also do an excellent job at keeping art and people apart, building institutional walls whose specific intent is to separate. They also do a outstanding job of convincing artists that to be successful you have to play by their rules. They are, by their nature and intent, elitist, they derive their importance by elevating themselves above the riff-raft that is daily life and the common person. This is all a giant hang-over from the modernist idea of the genius artist alone in his studio spilling his misunderstood greatness onto a canvas – basically a masturbatory delusion of the self and hollowed-out role that an artist can play in society.
    The “artist in his studio” is an antiquated idea, disconnected from how culture currently functions. By being “in the studio” you are automatically not engaged with the world. Similarly, going to a gallery or an art museum, is like visiting a cemetery, they are dead spaces that are not about how we live now. Isolating art to the gallery environment limits its potential impact, limits its audience, and limits its connection to contemporary culture. Looking at old tombstones can make for a pleasant afternoon, but what is the impact?
    As an artist my reward is not generally financial, it is based on creating an experience that, hopefully, has some meaningful impact – maybe on an individual or maybe on a community. I am no longer so quick to write off the people of my community as ignorant because they do not have the same level of education in art as I do. I choose to use the artprize event as an opportunity to try to connect, learn, and understand more about how and why art is valued in the place that I live.

  3. markrumsey says:

    Galleries and museums do an good job of promulgating a system of recognition for artists that are willing to jump through the prescribed hoops. They also do an excellent job at keeping art and people apart, building institutional walls whose specific intent is to separate. They also do a outstanding job of convincing artists that to be successful you have to play by their rules. They are, by their nature and intent, elitist, they derive their importance by elevating themselves above the riff-raft that is daily life and the common person. This is all a giant hang-over from the modernist idea of the genius artist alone in his studio spilling his misunderstood greatness onto a canvas – basically a masturbatory delusion of the self and hollowed-out role that an artist can play in society.
    The “artist in his studio” is an antiquated idea, disconnected from how culture currently functions. By being “in the studio” you are automatically not engaged with the world. Similarly, going to a gallery or an art museum, is like visiting a cemetery, they are dead spaces that are not about how we live now. Isolating art to the gallery environment limits its potential impact, limits its audience, and limits its connection to contemporary culture. Looking at old tombstones can make for a pleasant afternoon, but what is the impact?
    As an artist my reward is not generally financial, it is based on creating an experience that, hopefully, has some meaningful impact – maybe on an individual or maybe on a community. I am no longer so quick to write off the people of my community as ignorant because they do not have the same level of education in art as I do. I choose to use the artprize event as an opportunity to try to connect, learn, and understand more about how and why art is valued in the place that I live.

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