This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Art and politics can bring out the worst in people. Having written a few times on FineArtViews about the lack of conservative themed artwork within the mainstream contemporary art world I feel that I need to clear a few things up. Several individuals-- mainly for the self-serving purpose of supporting their extreme political views and the goal of downplaying my opinions-- have taken my opinions out of context. I stand by my opinions -- I do believe that political bias exists within the professional aspects of the contemporary mainstream art world. Furthermore, I stand firmly on my opinion that there should be a balance of political views expressed visually at art museums-- and other art exhibit spaces-- that receive public funding.
Those who have taken my words out of context have attempted to cultivate the idea that I'm trying to force private galleries into displaying a balance of political and social opinions. One critic of my opinions actually suggested that I'm trying to destroy the freedom of gallery owners-- that I'm trying to stomp on their liberty. That is not so. Owners of private galleries can show what they desire-- it is within their rights and there is nothing unethical about how they choose to operate in that sense. It is there private business and they have every right to cultivate a specific direction of visual exploration. More power to them for sticking to their social and political guns.
My argument is that public funded art museums should be expected to have more balance concerning the political and social ideas that are displayed in regard to artwork created by artists who are still living. Obviously some art museums have a specific direction-- but many don't and promote themselves as offering an examination of the whole of art within the United States when in reality they hold themselves to one-sided political and social dogma that conveys a clear political liberal-- often extreme-- message. The problem is that art museums of that nature are funded in part by tax payers-- individuals who, when combined, represent a plethora of political and social views. The public-- as a whole-- is not being served.
NOTE: I'm not against liberal themes in art. I actually hold several politically liberal viewpoints about society. What I'm against is the whole of art being represented -- or presented-- by art museums in a way that makes it clear that key individuals are dictating the direction of how art is documented in order to uphold their personal social and political views instead of thinking of the public at large. Ideas expressed visually should be considered regardless if we agree with the message-- to me that is what our art museums should be about.
I do not think the public is being served when art museum directors and curators allow specific political ideologies to dominate under the ruse of being a mere "curatorial choice". Their choices are a political choice-- a personal choice based on their own viewpoints of politics and society. They should be expected to provide a true visual examination of the opinions of today. In that sense, they should provide balance-- they should be expected to examine a wide range of political and social views held by the public. In fact, I'd go as far as to suggest that it should be a requirement in order for the art museum to continue receiving public funding from our government-- and for museum directors and other staff involved with "curatorial choices" to keep their positions.
Again -- I realize that some public funded art museums-- and other public funded art exhibit venues-- have a specific direction as to what is explored within the space. I am in no way suggesting that museums-- or other public funded exhibit spaces-- should be forced to counter against their mission. However, for public funded art museums-- and other venues-- that claim to openly examine various issues within society I think it should be expected that they truly explore a variety of viewpoints held within the public at large instead of reducing their program to a single political agenda expressed visually.
I have upset everyone from art critics to museum staff members by suggesting this. I've even been called "paranoid" by some artists for suggesting that political bias exists within the professional art world-- and that extreme liberal views are catered to over all others. In fact, many deny that such bias exists. Others have suggested that I'm an "art world conspiracy theorist". Regardless, I stand by the positions that I have-- and I know that others have noticed the political prejudice of the art world as well.
Earlier this year art critics Ken Johnson, Irving Sandler, and Amei Wallach discussed the issue of political bias within the contemporary mainstream art world on The Leonard Lopate Show. During the discussion art critic Ken Johnson described the art world as a "liberal festival". Johnson mentioned that while art can appear in almost any form the "orders of the art world are pretty tightly policed ideologically". In other words, Johnson implied that specific political/social views expressed visually that fall outside of the liberal political box stand little to no chance of being exhibited. He stated, "There's a lot of kinds of expressions or sensibilities that aren't allowed."
"Art can appear in almost any form, but the orders of the art world are pretty tightly policed ideologically. You see very little...there's no tea baggers art at any of these fairs. There's a lot of kinds of expressions or sensibilities that aren't allowed in these. You could say that it's a "liberal festival."" -- art critic Ken Johnson
New York gallery owner Edward Winkleman mentioned on his blog that he discussed the Leonard Lopate Show debate with Ken Johnson. He stated that he told Johnson, "Even though it may take some time, I do expect to see highly conservative values being expressed in competent art work more and more.". To which he said Johnson replied, " It wouldn't matter... because people like you wouldn't show it in galleries.". That an art critic as influential as Ken Johnson would suggest this of a gallery owner as influential as Edward Winkleman speaks volumes for the stranglehold of political prejudice that is currently wrapped around the throat of the art world.
It is clear to me that art critic Ken Johnson feels that specific social and political views-- that specific conservative themes in art-- expressed visually have no chance of seeing the light of day within the larger professional art world no matter how 'good' the art is. It strikes me as odd that I'm stamped as being "paranoid" for my views considering that an art critic as influential as Ken Johnson comments on the larger problem and escapes being called "paranoid" or worse. If I'm "paranoid" does that mean that Ken Johnson is "paranoid" as well? Paranoia is not the issue here-- facts are facts. Political bias within the professional art world does exist... and it can exist at art museums-- and other public funded exhibit venues-- as well.
With all of this in mind you may be asking yourself, "Why should there be more balance of political views expressed visually at art museums and other public funded art venues?". I think the answer is simple. Tax payers help to keep these institutions open. Tax payers don't represent a dominate political or social ideology-- they represent a plethora of social and political viewpoints. Thus, in my opinion the public deserves to have 'visual options' when visiting a public funded art museum. They should not have to endure the same dominate social and political ideas over and over again upon art museum walls. They should never have to leave a museum feeling that one view or the other is held as being an absolute representation of the public as whole.
I realize that people may argue that public funding based on taxes does not amount to much compared to private donations. That said, it is doubtful that many of these institutions would want to rely only on private donations alone. Not to mention that said charge is a cop-out-- a distraction from dealing with the larger issue of political and social prejudice that is common within our public funded art exhibit spaces. Especially in regard to exhibits that focus on artwork by living artists and the trends of recent acquisitions of said artwork. Is it wrong of me to suggest that the majority of venues that receive funding from the public should serve the public as a whole? I don't think so. In fact, I'd suggest that my view is rather progressive.
I think what bothers some artists, art critics, art dealers and museum staff about my opinion is that they are content with the liberal bias that exists within the art world. They thrive in it. They want to keep some ideas away from the public in order to control the direction of how art history is documented-- how art is talked about. They are afraid of an open visual dialogue. They risk being called out as being intolerant if a shift in museum direction in regard to contemporary art were to occur. Point blank -- the direction of private galleries and art magazines impacts the direction of art museums and the majority of art world professionals are happy with the way things are. Liberal bias helps to sustain their market and place within history.
The "liberal festival", as art critic Ken Johnson calls it, of the professional mainstream art world would lose ground if art museums were required by government decree, for example, to place some focus on conservative themed art of our time-- as well as other viewpoints-- in order to continue receiving public funding. It would break their system of claiming historic context and perseverance because artists outside of the "expressions or sensibilities", as Johnson put it, that they adhere to would have a chance to be seen by bypassing the politically and socially exclusive stronghold of the contemporary mainstream art world altogether. It would force the conversation of art spurred by art world professionals-- as well as the mainstream contemporary art market-- to be more open.
In closing, I stand firm in saying that public funded art exhibit spaces should be considered a place to learn-- a place where opposing ideas are tolerated and explored-- not places where key staff abuse their positions in order to cultivate attitudes in preparation for voting booths in support of one specific political party. As for the contemporary mainstream art world status quo -- the fact that the professional art world has been "policed ideologically" in order to 'silence' ideas for so long-- I will leave you with a quote: "I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it." -- Niccolo Machiavelli
Take care, Stay true,