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FineArtViews Interview: James Panero -- Art Critic and Managing Editor for The New Criterion

by Brian Sherwin on 10/13/2011 12:32:55 PM

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, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


James Panero is the managing editor of The New Criterion -- he also serves as an art critic for the publication. The New Criterion is a New York-based literary magazine that focuses on cultural and artistic criticism. Panero also contributes regularly to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Art & Antiques Magazines, The Weekly Standard, and Forbes.


James Panero is also a curator. He recently curated an exhibit titled 'The Joe Bonham Project' -- which featured portraits of injured US service personnel by members of the Society of Illustrators and the International Society of War Artists. The theme of the exhibit was unique considering that it took place in New York and dealt with injured soldiers in a dignified way --rather than being another bombardment of the 'soldier as aggressor' visual rhetoric that is so common in the New York City art gallery scene.


Panero recently took time to answer some questions I asked concerning the state of art criticism today and the suggestion that political liberal bias -- described as a "liberal circus" by art critic Ken Johnson, dominates the direction of the mainstream gallery and museum 'world' within the United States.


Brian Sherwin: James, you are an art critic and Managing Editor of The New Criterion. Can you offer some general information about yourself and your position with The New Criterion?


James Panero: The New Criterion is monthly journal of culture founded thirty years ago by Hilton Kramer and now edited by Roger Kimball. I joined TNC ten years ago and serve as its Managing Editor, which means I oversee its print and online operations, plus I contribute a monthly column called "Gallery Chronicle" and write longer pieces on other issues, which are all available here . The magazine is based a few blocks from Union Square in New York. Since we are an independent non-profit and depend on reader support, all of the editors also do double duty as fundraisers for the magazine.


Sherwin: I know that you have an interest in how art criticism is changing in the age of the Internet. As you know, the Internet has allowed art writers to gain recognition that was once tightly guarded, if you will, by traditional print. The 'landscape' of art criticism is changing due to blogs and other forms of new media. Today we have art critics and other art writers who are arguably more well-known to the public than writers who have written for 30 years. Is this a good thing for art criticism in general?


Panero: I've written about these questions in "My Jerry Saltz Problem" and a follow up article on the the art vlogger James Kalm/Loren Munk. There is no doubt that new media is a boon to art criticism and the transmission of visual ideas. Facebook is a visual interface that allows artists and critics to post full-color reproductions of artwork with a few clicks for free, while the reproduction of artworks in print remains specialized and expensive. I enjoy seeing artists post their latest work on Facebook, and I like the dialogue that results.


Twitter is less visual, but it operates as the Internet's great content sifter with its peer-to-peer distribution. For art criticism, this means that we can keep up with everything large and small just as long as we follow handles such as @JamesPanero or @BrianSherwinArt with interesting and timely stories to share. Finally, DIY video and YouTube, for example through The James Kalm Report and Rough Cuts, can create visual records of art events that would never otherwise be documented or broadcast.


Each of these online components allows artists to bypass the traditional medium of print. This means that glossy art magazines and newspaper culture pages are less powerful than they once were, because there are now several ways to bring notoriety to art. Still, rumors of the death of print are greatly exaggerated. No online critic has yet come close to the exerting the same power in the art world as the top print writers in the largest publications. A glowing review in The New York Times can still sell out a show like nothing else.


Sherwin: The issue of liberal bias within the mainstream contemporary art world has been a hot topic as of late. Some art critics, such as Ken Johnson, acknowledge that liberal bias exists. In fact, Johnson recently described the art world as a "liberal circus" -- and implied that social/political viewpoints expressed in art that go against the grain of social/political liberalism stand little chance of being exhibited or written about. What are your thoughts on this? Is the mainstream art world controlled by a 'liberal circus'? If so, how did this happen in your opinion?


Panero: Since there is little state patronage of culture in the US, the market determines the art. So if the art world is a "liberal circus," it's because liberals are the ones buying art. The question of bias therefore must be addressed by the consumers rather the producers of art. If people want to see more art that resonates with them, they need to find and patronize those artists who speak to them. They need to get involved with their local cultural institutions and advocate for the art they like.


The rise of alternative media means that everyone has the power to discover art of every stripe. My own Gallery Chronicle comes out ten times a year and is available for free online .There are great original works of art for sale for less than $1,000 and sometimes for as little as $100 in New York's outer borough galleries. The same is true in artistic communities across the country. Simply put, if you want to change art, you need to buy art, and support the apparatus (the non-profit arts spaces, cultural blogs, and journals like The New Criterion) that work to expose serious art to a wider audience.


Sherwin: Shouldn't the public, in general, be upset if museums and art galleries -- specifically those that receive some form of public funding -- are more apt to exhibit art that conveys politically/socially liberal ideas compared to, for example, politically/socially conservative ideas? Why do you think individuals have been slow to challenge liberal bias in the mainstream contemporary art world?


Panero: Let me take this question apart a bit. First, we need to separate in our minds private venues from state-supported institutions. If you are a private, commercial gallery, go ahead and exhibit anything you like, as long as it does not violate the law. If someone doesn't like it, they can go support another gallery. The freedom of commercial galleries is one reason I support them so strongly and patronize them far more than public art institutions. I doubt that "The Joe Bonham Project," an exhibition I curated at Storefront gallery in Bushwick featuring portraits of wounded US service personnel undergoing rehabilitation, would have seen the light of day at a mainstream museum.


Museums that receive substantial tax benefits and government subsidies carry a greater public burden than private businesses, yet they often fall short in their public responsibilities. Most of these institutions receive benefits under the auspices of an educational mandate. It is not only appropriate but necessary that as informed citizens we question how these institutions are fulfilling these mandates. As someone who covers non-profit policy for The Wall Street Journal and City Journal, I can assure you that institutions that benefit from government support, whether through tax credits or grants, receive very little scrutiny from the charity bureaus of the states' Attorneys General. The AGs almost exclusively depend on journalists to bring questionable practices to their attention, and I can count the number of journalists who look into these issues on one hand.


The self-dealing of insiders--which often has the appearance of political bias--is often the way these institutions fall short, usually with trustees using museums to increase the value of their own collections by controlling what gets exhibited. Self-dealing was the real problem at the heart of the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum many years ago, where Charles Saatchi laundered his YBA art through a semi-public institution. Again this goes back to my point that art is controlled by the people who buy it. So if you have nihilists like Eli Broad lavishing his wealth on Jeff Koons, don't be surprised when Jeff Koons starts pushing out the decorative arts collections at our nation's museums.


Here's another question: Why is it that the contemporary art wings at most large institutions now all look the same (almost all designed by Renzo Piano) and display the same dozen celebrity artist names on their walls? The answer is that the same elite class supports all of these institutions, and these institutions hope to attract even more of them to their donor base. So much for the locavore aesthetic or promoting regional art.


Sherwin: Other art critics, such as Jerry Saltz -- who is known for being far-left politically I might add, tend to suggest that extreme political bias does not exist within the professional art world (all while, at least in Saltz case, calling conservatives "Maniacs", "Ignorant", or worse)-- and ask for proof of bias when people bring it up. Other art critics have stated that it is acceptable if it does exist. With this in mind, would you suggest that some art critics are comfortable with political bias dominating the professional art world simply because the professional situation meets their needs on a personal level? If so, doesn't that mean that art history as we know it -- how it is documented today for future generations-- is a sham?


Panero: The intersection of art and politics deserves rigorous critical attention but it rarely gets it. I admire people with well-argued political positions on any side. Unfortunately partisan discussions in the art world tend to devolve into an echo chamber of agreement where showboat personalities just act out a form of street theater. Some of these personalities are critics themselves who seem to turn a blind eye to the bad argumentation of their own positions or to their own self-aggrandizement. Of course, many people thrive in this one-way conversation and benefit from political conformism, but the result isn't good for politics or for art. Fortunately I think the art world has been thawing out for a while and you are starting to hear more voices across the spectrum of opinion, most recently thanks to the rise of new media.


Sherwin: The problem is clear in my opinion... some art will not see the light of day in the professional art world due to the political power structure that has contained the direction of art in regards to how it is presented to the public in top art museums and galleries. How should that problem be faced? How can the art world become a more open place to ideas in general?


Panero: The answer again is in embracing this country's alternative art scene. Some of the best art produced today is isn't being shown in the big Chelsea galleries or the contemporary art museums. It's emerging in smaller galleries and do-it-yourself venues. Again the responsibility falls to the art-buying public to put their money where their mouth is and bypass the large institutions--the art world's MSM. I would much rather support a small art non-profit like Nurtureart or Norte Maar or The New Criterion than contribute to Glenn Lowry's dry cleaning bill at MOMA.


Sherwin: Concerning art museums and other exhibit spaces that receive public funding -- do you think they should be expected to be more balanced in regard to the ideas that are presented -- specifically with art by living artists exploring current issues-- in order to continue receiving public funding? After all, tax payers represent a plethora of social and political views -- shouldn't exhibit spaces they help fund do the same unless the museum or gallery receiving funds has a clear social or political direction?


Panero: I would never want to replace the politically correct art of the Left with PC art on the Right. One of the fallacies of the Left is that all art is political--that there is no room for art outside of class struggle. Really, most art is *not* political. In fact, art can offer us rare relief from the 24/7 onslaught of modern politics. Rather than advocate for a quid pro quo where "art that conveys politically/socially liberal ideas" gets matched with "politically/socially conservative ideas," we should insist that our museums exhibit art of the greatest importance, beauty, and quality, regardless of politics or the self-interest of insiders.


Sherwin: What about art schools and college art departments in general? Having interviewed over 500 artists I know that liberal bias exists in many art departments across the nation. I know professors who say they are "content" with that. I know artists who were told outright that the social and political ideas they chose to explore-- mainly conservative ones-- were not acceptable because they did not "fit" the program -- while artwork exploring the opposite view was clearly accepted. How can we make sure that college art departments respect all students regardless of their political or social viewpoints -- and allow them to grow without being hindered by bias? Could that be another issue involving public funding being used as a bartering chip in order to promote balance if adequate reform were to occur?


Panero: Are mainstream art schools biased? I recently wrote about one test case at Pratt. Unfortunately there's little way to move an institution that has a large endowment and a constantly renewable student base willing to go into significant debt (with the Federal government's assistance) to pay for the honor of a name regardless of the quality of the education. The only answer to the art school problem is to opt out of these schools entirely. Seek out the alternative to our art education system. Vibrant non-accredited ateliers are cropping up across the country. Start with learning classical technique at schools like the Grand Central Academy. Even the moderns, from Picasso to de Kooning, had classical training.


Second, it's important to hire outside of the academic system. That great director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, doesn't have a Ph. D, something unheard of for a younger generation of museum professionals. We should value real art-world experience over an advanced degree that is merely a mark of political compliance and intellectual servitude.


Sherwin: We all know how art played a role during President Obama's historic campaign in 2008. The Democrats have long been quick to embrace artists as a means of spreading political messages to the masses. With that in mind, why have the Republicans been slow to tap into that same kind of visual energy? After all, conservative-minded artists do exist -- artists who vote Republican exist as well. Why are conservative politicians not exploring this aspect of culture as a means of gaining momentum during campaigns?


Panero: The Left have a long history of usurping art for political purposes. So does the Fascist Right. Just look at the agitprop that came out of the 1930s on both sides. The political correctness of that period was devastating for artists who deviated from the party line. Many of us today therefore tend to have a distaste for art in the service of politics. Sure, much of today's conservative platform would help artists, who are really like small business owners in need of lower taxes, deregulation, and zoning that doesn't impede the free market. I recently wrote about an issue affecting the artistic neighborhoods of New York's outer boroughs in an article for City Journal called "New York's Pioneer Zones". But let's argue these points on substance, not appearance. Then again, if someone wants to make a satire of Shephard Fairey's Obama/Che poster, go ahead.


Sherwin: Many artists keep their political and religious views closeted unless said views 'fit' the current state of the mainstream art world. I know that as an art writer I've been told in the past that making the conservative views I have known-- and being openly Christian -- is "career suicide". With that in mind, what advice do you have to artists-- specifically emerging artists-- who are nervous about making their political and religious choices known out of fear of experiencing professional bias? Should they keep information about themselves to themselves -- or is it important to take a stand?


Panero: The answer to this question relates to some points above. Most art is not political, so the time for artists to "take a stand" is not through their work or against their patrons. Who cares if someone buying your landscape painting doesn't agree with your position on hydro-fracking or TARP. Don't take a stand over your paycheck. Instead build your career and then support whatever you want.


In this country the consumer decides, even when you're buying a set of ideas by making a charitable donation. In the public square, however, as opposed to the artist studio, we all have a responsibility to be active citizens. Here we can disagree, and only fools object to dissent itself. Sure, a conservative Christian can't use politics for career leverage like the art world's Al Sharptons, but is it really "career suicide" to express conservative or Christian views as a critic? Your own success, Brian, would suggest not.


Sherwin: In closing, is there anything else you would like to say about art criticism or the other issues that we have discussed?


Panero: Read my column, buy some art, and change the world. It's that easy.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: advice for artists | art appreciation | Brian Sherwin | exposure tips | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Kenneth Jensen
Brian, Thanks for your interview with Panero. I liked the questions you asked and feel thay were very pertinant to today and I apprieciated Panero's answers.


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