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Some Thoughts on Our Local Social Experiment: ArtPrize

Posted October 8, 2013 in ArtPrize

By Diane Zeeuw, Chair of the KCAD Painting program

I would like to begin my rumination upon our local social experiment known as ArtPrize by turning to the philosopher who is best known for his advocacy of the importance of conversation, Richard Rorty. After all, the promotion of open conversation is supposedly the primary impetus propelling ArtPrize. Rorty notes that conversation is valuable not because it has any sort of metaphysical grounding, but simply because as a culture we have chosen to engage openly with one another, it is our chosen project. Rorty notes that at one time, the conversation within the philosophical world had been whether philosophy “should be free-wheeling and edifying, or argumentative and professional.” By extension we might ask the same regarding the function of our contemporary art world. For example, in Social Works, Shannon Jackson notes that many contemporary art projects claiming to be community-oriented are likely to only ever engage those already “in the know.” So we might ask if there is a way to broaden the possible audience for our projects without also needing to become overly simplistic and didactic. Additionally, a question, which continues to surface every year during ArtPrize regards what can reasonably be expected of a general audience—after all, a conversation implies an exchange of views, beliefs, and experiences, hopefully with the objective of negotiating some sort of understanding.

One argument goes like this: if indeed we are trying to engage the community in a positive manner what place is there in this event for the anti-aesthetic? I would like to think that Rorty might have pointed out that the art world does in itself constitute a community with shared criteria, interests, and goals, and one key traditional function of art is to hold up a critical mirror to society. Unfortunately, within the whole of ArtPrize there is very little, if any, purposively anti-aesthetic work. (Such an experience might be encountered at the Site Lab venue, but most likely, no where else.) Additionally, a concept that would be of great interest to my graduate students, but is notably absent from the conversation surrounding ArtPrize, is the much more sophisticated and viable speculative notion of the paraesthetic. Consider J. D. Urban’s piece, “united.states: an everyday people project,” a video installation comprised of interviews with a variety of people expressing controversial views upon socially hot-button topics such as gay marriage and gun control. This piece functions by reflexively pointing towards moral and epistemological limitations, but “without becoming a replacement for them.” (David Carroll) (Huh? What does that even mean?) Or the Juried Grand Prize award recipient, Carlos Bunga, whose piece “Ecosystem” engages with relational aesthetics á la Nicolas Bourriaud. (Who is Baurriaud?) I think it is obvious why it is that we have two ArtPrizes running concurrently, and two very different conversations.

I would like to argue that while the art world itself readily identifies with the notion of a post-Art world practice, the general public, to whom many of these community-based projects are addressed, still hold a notion of art as a commendatory term, as something inherently worthy of special attention, a narrowly construed Kantian notion of the beautiful, the pleasant, or the well-crafted. To the art world it often appears that the general public is at best interested in a pretty object, and at worst, often indulging in Greenberg’s notion of kitsch. What I find curious is that we as artists and members of the art world legitimate certain kinds of socially-motivated projects on the basis of community good, but often this is not what really interests the community.

While both artists and those from outside of the art world would agree that a successful work must be something worthy of our consideration, we hold wildly divergent notions regarding just what this might mean. Despite the many protestations to the contrary as expressed both by artists and the “public,” all of the work in ArtPrize, irrespective of its media or pedigree, is via context, a member of the broad category generally identified as art. But this does not make it good art. I would argue that for a work to be considered successful within the professional knowledge field known as art, a work must also engage meaningfully with conversations of importance to the art world.

Both the notion of public space and public engagement has become intrinsic to the lexicon of ArtPrize promotional jargon. Rorty also points out that public space is one of the most important constituting contexts supporting our civic conversation. But when we try to apply some sort of definition of “public” to ArtPrize, again we have a hard time deciding just what this might mean. Are the many corporate or business venues “public” space? (On the surface, this question even appears oxymoronic!) When we start to talk about “public space” how does “community” fit into this equation? On a more trivial note, why is the public defined inadvertently as those who can afford the latest smart phone technology?

Finally, Rorty cautions us against a wholesale rejection of tradition, but also warns us to be wary of any sort of encroaching sanctification of current practices. So rather than asking whether discourse surrounding the social experiment known as ArtPrize is the inevitable outcome of a great cultural divide, he would have perhaps pointed out that a more useful question to ask is whether a post-Art world culture “is a good thing to try for.” Does the project provide us with a provisionally useful framework by which to navigate a coherent world? Does such work provide us with additional tools for “coping” with our circumstances? Does it facilitate open conversation?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Kendall College of Art and Design or Ferris State University.


  • Elizabeth VanArragon October 10, 2013

    I particularly like your identification of the two Artprizes running concurrently. This year was the first year I felt that there were two more complete conversations going on, partly because the prize monies were substantially increased for the juried awards, enabling a more significant art world-engaged discourse. But your questions ring true for me as well (art historian, modern and contemporary specialist, and public art enthusiast). Thanks for your work here.

  • Richard Kooyman October 11, 2013

    I question the premise that the ArtPrize model fosters conversation or dialog between the public and the professional art world but more importantly within the public itself.

    We know of the thousands of people who attend the event a very small percentage ever go to any of the panel discussion or speaker series. That reality doesn’t indicate a conversation is taking place.

    And telling your friend or even the person standing in line at the coffee bar that you voted for the Polar Bears because they were so real, is not a dialog about art.  The driving force of the popular vote is the age old myth that you don’t need to know anything about Art, that Art is simply something you express your personal opinion about.  That myth doesn’t encourage dialog and in a sense encourages just the opposite; that your opinion is immune to other people’s influence.

  • Sandra Hansen October 11, 2013

    The truth is that Michigan has cut funding for the arts consistently since 2003.  And cut again and cut again. and again… My friends who are art teachers in the schools constantly are worried about their jobs and suffer one layoff after another since art is considered non essential. Even for those students who get art classes, few rarely get art history.  Without which, art is usually taught as simply feel good, realistic, and/or pretty art. 
      The two concurrent art fairs are a good idea so that people might see the difference between feel good, fun art and more serious, or more informed art. Truthfully though, I saw very little hoopla surrounding the juried art show.  Most people probably didn’t even know it existed.  Herein lies the problem.  The “higher” levels of art are often not understandable to those who have had not had an art history class.  Too often the art world seems to put out vibes that say that if you are not smart enough to figure out what this art is about why should I waste my time and energy to explain it to you? Hence there is no dialogue.  The only real solution is for ALL students to get at least one art education class before they graduate high school and at least one more class in college. 
      Failing that, the value in ArtPrize, in my humble opinion, is that art is in the street, people are looking at it and talking about it, even if it is only saying things like I like realistic polar bears that are so cute that I plan to pet the next live polar bear I see. When ArtPrize started, Grand Rapidians were going around touching the art and volunteers were constantly telling them not to.  Volunteering in the Kendall Gallery and going around to see art myself this year, I did not see one person reach out to touch the artwork. It is a modest gain.  I also saw people going to ArtPrize who I have rarely seen in museums or at gallery openings- those who are economically lower class, and a more racially diverse group of people. Perhaps to continue these changes, rather than just willy-nilly voting as many times as you like on any piece of art that is fun to look at, ArtPrize should set up some categories such as asking people to vote on the most thought provoking art that they saw, and vote for the one with the most messy vitality, and to cast a vote for the prettiest one, and the most interesting abstract piece, etc.  It might take their art comprehension one step farther to think that art might be something more than pretty and realistic.

  • PK October 11, 2013

    Great post…as an aside, i think it is time to get rid of the goal, or even the idea, of making art for everyone. not everyone likes art beyond what is easy to read and digest in 2 seconds (like say a quilted landscape of sleeping bear dunes), why are we so fixated on engaging those people? i know many artists will probably agree that if you don’t know what i’m referencing or what i’m having a conversation with, well then this ain’t for you…and there’s nothing wrong with that really.

  • Gabriela Amaya-Baron October 11, 2013

    Hi Diane,
    My first question has to do with your argument about a place for the anti-aesthetic or paraesthetic in ArtPrize. Why does this need to be present? Yes, as you say, “one key traditional function of art is to hold up a critical mirror to society.” I take it that you see this absence as a fault. Would this be a fault, then, for any competition lacking the anti or paraesthetic? Or is it so for ArtPrize for a particular reason (of which I’m not readily identifying)? Certainly I would like to see such work included, but unless ArtPrize as an organization is actively discouraging or censoring it, I wouldn’t necessarily blame ArtPrize as an organization. As an event, yes, the absence is lamentable, so perhaps the fault lies with the “public” who would not support such work to the point that its exclusion is a practical reality; artists and venues won’t display it because it will not garner votes.

    The issue you raise with “public” terminology is intriguing; I’d not thought of that before.
    Also, the question of whether a post-Art world culture is a good thing to try for opens up a really interesting line of thought. I will have to take some time to “ruminate” on those as well.

  • Anna Donahue October 14, 2013

    Thanks, Diane, for sharing this post. As an artist I agree with all of the above comments about ArtPrize and welcome open and honest criticism. The last 2 years made the parallel discourse very obvious but I don’t think the art world (or as we like to call them= “the gatekeepers of the art world”) should be discouraged about the public’s seemingly inability to understand art.
    The general public obviously needs art education but this event has given the art world a perfect opportunity to do that and it is beginning to work.
    When the word ArtPrize is mentioned it is an instant conversation starter with absolutely anyone and people cannot stop talking about it. This is my favorite way to educate and I have had countless opportunities to explain why, for example, decorating the Calder is stupid.
    I can’t wait for the day that the judges and the public actually vote for the same winners.

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