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. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 18,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites. 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.
The art competition known as ArtPrize was ridiculed by the mainstream art world from the get-go. Trust me on this -- I was an early supporter. Almost every art writer I know of -- specifically in NY circles -- knocked it at first. Now ArtPrize has 'landed' art critic Jerry Saltz as a juror... and has had high traffic NY art blogs, Hyperallergic included, backing them for nearly two years. Interesting. Does this mean ArtPrize has validation now (at least the NY variety of validation)? OR can acceptance be bought -- while political/social ideology is thrown aside? Things are getting interesting in the wider discussion of art within the United States.
I'm fascinated by the reach that ArtPrize has gained in the last two years -- especially when I think back on all the early criticism against the event. I can remember all of the 'public is stupid' rhetoric coming from some circles of the art world. Today... some of those same circles appear to be embracing the spirit of ArtPrize. That shift in opinion is of extreme interest to me -- though I do wonder how authentic it is... and how much money may be a factor in swaying opinions. I say that because one of the sources of funding for ArtPrize should not sit well with some of the NY art scene 'think tanks' (Jerry Saltz, Hrag Vartanian, Paddy Johnson) who have shown support for ArtPrize. I base that on what these individuals have said concerning specific issues over the years... compared to what one of the major backers of ArtPrize supports.
As I mentioned on the BrushBuzz Art Forum, there are some contradictions to consider when exploring the burst of NY art world acceptance that ArtPrize has received over the last two years. Point-blank -- ArtPrize does have politically / socially conservative roots... the same can be said for Grand Rapids (where ArtPrize takes places) in general -- and as we all know, conservatives tend to go against the grain of the NY art world majority (though a minority when one considers art scenes throughout the United States). Just ask art critic Ken Johnson -- who described that 'world' as a "liberal festival"... a place where ideology is "policed" by the powers that be). In that sense, the union between ArtPrize and NY art world 'insiders' is like a clash of two worlds... two worlds that rarely find common ground (I suppose money helps to lubricate interactions).
Why do I suggest that ArtPrize has conservative roots? Simple. Early funding for ArtPrize was provided by the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation -- and as far as I know, the majority of the prize money still comes from that source -- and no matter how you slice it... the DeVos family supports far-right conservative agendas -- including support for creationism taught in schools, anti-gay legislation and positions against worker unions. Those factors -- in addition to their far-right conservative viewpoints in general -- reveal the contradictions (by working with -- and accepting money from -- ArtPrize) that surround some of the NY art world figureheads who have suddenly embraced ArtPrize over the last two years.
To understand these roots you must have knowledge of what The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has supported over the years. For example, the foundation has funded affiliate groups involved with Focus on the Family -- which is known for working against LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. The foundation has also helped fund the Council of National Policy (Dick DeVos is a member) -- which the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) has described as, "an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who gather regularly to plot strategy, share ideas and fund causes and candidates to advance the theocratic agenda.", and "leading force in the Dominionist movement". Point-blank -- the same foundation helps to fund ArtPrize.
There is a deep political connection here: The Council of National Policy has close bonds with politicians Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney -- and television evangelist Pat Robertson. Furthermore, Dick and Betsy DeVos have close ties with the Bush family (Betsy DeVos raised over $150,000 for the 2004 Bush reelection campaign) . Considering this background -- these connections -- and knowing the social/political leanings of Jerry Saltz... well... something tells me that Jerry did not do much in the name of research before throwing his name into the mix. OR perhaps those "Maniac" conservatives are not so bad -- IF the price is right? Tell us Jerry. (Note: Saltz regularly describes all conservatives as "maniacs".)
Some of the loudest critics of ArtPrize have ranted about these issues for years. For example, artist Richard Kooyman has been extremely vocal against ArtPrize and the DeVos family -- he has suggested that the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation is utilizing ArtPrize in order to direct the public toward a more conservative approach to art and art appreciation. Kooyman warned -- during several debates with me -- that ArtPrize would 'buy off' art press/media and gain footholds in major art scenes in order to spur further indoctrination of their ideal (far-right conservative) view of art. Could it be that Kooyman was on to something? Food for thought -- I'm still digesting.
I don't necessarily agree with Kooyman 100% -- but I DO understand why he is concerned... and I can see how his theory applies concerning the recent burst in support from NY art world 'insiders'... and how easily some of these individuals appear to have cast aside their principles concerning specific social/political issues. Point-blank -- I know that other art writers, including art blogs that now support ArtPrize, once shared some of Kooyman's concerns about funding. I suppose that may reveal the power of blog ad sales and blog sponsorship within the NY art blogosphere... they are doing exactly what they once criticized art magazines for doing. That is a topic for another day.
How has art critic Jerry Saltz contradicted himself by being involved with ArtPrize? There is a simple answer to this question. His involvement -- considering what the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has supported, both politically and socially -- goes against the almost daily political rhetoric spewed on his Facebook Wall. For example, Saltz is fond of calling all conservatives "maniacs", or worse. In addition to that, Saltz -- on Facebook -- has suggested that both conservatives and Christians are "ignorant" in regard to specific political/social stances. If that is the case -- if Saltz truly believes that... why is he involving himself with an art organization that is heavily backed by a foundation known for embracing far-right Christian/political ideology? Why is he involving himself with a foundation -- even if indirectly involved-- that rails against some of the very things he claims to support? It does not make sense... unless, perhaps, Saltz is a closet conservative... and I'm not exactly joking when I say that.
Jerry's aggressive negative attitude towards conservatives and Christians (front, or not) tends to be shared by the majority of Facebook 'friends' who are 'active' on his Wall (those with different opinions tend to be asked not to comment -- OR end up being blocked). I wonder what the Church of Saltz will say about his involvement with an art organization (ArtPrize) that receives heavy funding from a foundation that opposes their social/political stances? I'm certain they will find justification -- and continue their 'praise'. Again, things are getting interesting in the wider discussion of art within the United States.
Don't get me wrong -- Jerry Saltz has every right to criticize conservatives AND Christians if he desires. I know that he will continue to 'hit' both with a hard-line approach (he will deliver what his followers want to hear). That said, I find it interesting that he accepts money (assuming it is a paid 'gig') from an art organization that has been funded by an extremely far-right conservative source -- a source that opposes much of what Saltz claims to support personally, socially, and politically. (Note: The same could be said of Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic). I suppose principles can be cast aside if the price is right -- again, assuming Saltz has been paid for his ArtPrize involvement.
If the situation involves money... perhaps Saltz should not have criticized Morley Safer of 60 Minutes about the money factor of the NY art world? If that is not the situation... the involvement still conflicts with the authenticity of his social / political criticism -- which appears to walk hand-in-hand with his style of art criticism in general. After all, in the 'world' of Saltz... indirect support of key political/social issues is just as bad as direct support. He has warned about that during Facebook debates with artists. He has contradicted himself... and all that he stands for -- based on his own words. His soapbox is broken -- but the blind will still 'see'... and follow the direction of his words.
In closing, when I interviewed Rick DeVos (the founder of ArtPrize -- and son of Dick and Betsy DeVos) for FineArtViews -- he made it clear that some art world 'insiders' are not comfortable with specific aspects of the competition. He also stated, "I wouldn't completely rule taking or duplicating at least elements of ArtPrize elsewhere." when I asked if ArtPrize would take place in other cities. It would be interesting to see if that happens in NYC at some point... to see what kind of art would dominate the event -- to see who jumps on the bandwagon next. I hate to say this... but perhaps Richard Kooyman was right about a few things.
Take care, Stay true,