Monday, December 20, 2010

Brian Sherwin: Art writer to be feared? Thoughts on public funded art exhibits…

Brian Sherwin: Art writer to be feared? Thoughts on public funded art exhibits…

It has come to my attention that certain individuals within the professional mainstream art world are wary of my opinions concerning the state of the art world today-- mainly my suggestion that public funded art exhibit spaces should have to explore a number of opposing social and political themes in order to continue receiving public funding. I'm not going to make a name-dropping game out of this-- these people know who they are and how to reach me if they want to pursue a direct debate on the issue. That said, I do wish to explore the matter and defend my opinion.

My suggestion is very liberal at heart-- in that I think the public would be best served by being introduced to a number of viewpoints in a visual manner based on common themes from both sides of the social and political fence as reflected in the core of national debates on key issues. To me that is balance-- and I fail to see why anyone who truly supports art would oppose my position unless their own social and political view comes before art in general and are already being served by the state of public funded art exhibits today.

I feel that my views on balance within the context of public funded art is a true reflection of the liberty we should expect in the United States-- and a true documentation of the social and political thought of our times. Sadly, art exhibits in general today tend to promote a one-sided view of social and political thought-- and many individuals, especially professionals within the arts nationwide, have become comfortable with that status quo.

Unfortunately, said acceptance of hard-line, one-sided art exhibit dictations that support their personal social and political views rob the public from exploring a plethora of socially and politically inspired viewpoints that serve as the foundation of our republic. In my opinion, said one-sidedness should not be tolerated within the context of public funded art exhibits-- and the professionals and institutions who utilize public funding while appearing to cater to one-sided social and political agendas should be called out to explain themselves. It is our money-- they should give us an answer!

In my opinion, some art professionals display a clear inability to look at the bigger picture of art-- and what it means to the public as a whole. Instead they focus on their personal views-- and therefore influence the direction of exhibits and thus visual debate… And more importantly how the history of art is documented for tomorrow. Point blank-- some art professionals place their own social and political desires before the power of visual commentary-- the strength of art-- and the needs and expectations of the public in general. In other words, institutions that utilize public funding often leave the public with one-sided views and one-sided art history. In the case of public funded museums I would suggest that many have failed at their mission in that respect.

Sadly, many of these self-serving social and political elitists, or dare I say political extremists, hold positions of influence within the arts-- they serve as curators, directors, and art professors within public funded institutions and places of higher learning throughout the nation . The individuals I speak of place art within a cage-- only allowing it to see the light of day if it embraces their personal agendas.

The proof of their public deception can be found within the public funded exhibits they are involved with-- just look at the exhibit history, look at the themes that pop up over and over again. With that in mind, I would like to point out that a professional who is unable to present social and political viewpoints that he or she does not personally agree with for the sake of public debate is simply a coward. They should leave their social or political bias at the door when utilizing public funding. If they don’t-- we, the public, should demand it.

With all of this in mind-- I think some people fear me because I don't reduce art to political extremes and social agendas that favor one side. I call for a balance of themes-- and for art that is not always comfortable. I would like to see a true reflection of the societal and political conversation spurred from the public as a whole exhibited in our public funded exhibit spaces-- and because of that some imply that I'm an enemy of art. No, I'm an enemy of extremes-- and an enemy of individuals who reduce art to a one-sided political tool in the name of culture only to serve their personal viewpoints and agenda while excluding any form of visual opposition. In my opinion-- the culture of today is inclusive and opposition of opinions should be expected and presented within the context of public funded art exhibits.

I also take this stance because I support visual artists in general-- and I’m concerned that some artists are being passed over based on social and political lines alone. In my opinion it is naïve-- and in most cases self-serving-- to suggest that all artists have a liberal bent as far as their personal viewpoints on society and politics are concerned. To imply that all artists follow cookie-cutter ideologies is insulting to visual artists and art in general. Art is as complex as society in general-- you can’t simply whitewash art to fit your social or political needs.

My point is that artists are individuals at heart-- it is not like all artists are wired the same or connected in thought. That said, I know artists who conceal their social, political, and even religious views out of fear that said views will be held against them by art professionals. The fact that this ‘keep it in the closet’ mentality occurs is a clear sign that things need to change within the art world as whole-- and I think reform concerning what is expected from public funded art venues in order to continue receiving funding is the first step. The playing field, so to speak, needs to be balanced. The hypocrisy and contradictions of some art professionals should be put in check.

I know where some people will go in response to this-- they will say that I’m being “closed-minded”, ask for “proof of prejudice”, or point out the “New York City art scene”. To those individuals I say:

1. How am I being “closed-minded” when I’m suggesting that more views should be explored visually in our public funded art venues?

2. The only proof needed is to look at the themes that are predominately explored in public funded art exhibits-- especially exhibits involving living artists or art from the last three decades. The proof is in the exhibit history of public funded institutions. In fact, I would suggest that YOU have the burden of proving that my calling out of art world prejudice based on social, political, and religious views is not warranted.

YOU can start by naming one public funded art exhibit at a major art museum that has explored pro-life themes directly or one public funded art exhibit at a major art museum that has made a mockery of a religion other than Christianity. Don’t use the cop-out of saying “There are no artists exploring those themes!” or “There is no ‘good’ art exploring those themes!’. If you do you are simply proving my point because I can promise you that you are wrong.

3. As for the New York City art scene-- it may very well be that the powerful art galleries and art magazines in New York City have a liberal bent-- but to me, the idea that the New York City art scene, no matter how globally intertwined or thought-provoking it happens to be, defines art as a whole within the United States is absurd and perhaps reveals a deeper agenda fueled by some individuals within that specific group of art professionals-- which branches outward across the nation.

Obviously, based on reading opinions from key New York City art figures, they want people to believe that all artists walk on common societal and political ground. If you don’t believe me-- simply mention the needs or direction of “conservative-minded artists”, or artists who are critical of a religion other than Christianity within the context of society, in any debate spurred by a New York City art world figurehead and see how far you get before being asked to refrain from being involved with the debate online or asked to leave the building.

Censorship of opinions that point out established art world prejudice are common. The fact remains that people tend to not like opposition of their solid opinions if it draws them out of their professional comfort zone-- especially when said opinions are viewpoint inclusive rather than exclusive. It alarms me how quick self-proclaimed liberals become ultra-conservative when it comes to the visual exchange of viewpoints.

It comes as no surprise to me that certain individuals lash out at me for the balanced, and dare I say purely liberal, view I have concerning the expectations I have for public funded art exhibits. Include the fact that many individuals have openly agreed with my opinion on the matter and you can easily see why some individuals loathe me. I’m a threat to their establishment-- I‘ve trespassed on their comfort zone. Most importantly, I can't be stopped.

I simply want to see balance-- I’m not calling for art to be censored… I’m suggesting that all art, all matter of viewpoints expressed visually, should have equal opportunity to be displayed before the public in regards to public funded art exhibits. I don‘t think my opinion is revolutionary or a "right-wing conspiracy", as some have suggested… It is just common sense as far as how public funds should be used in my opinion.

My thoughts on the matter appear to only be controversial to individuals who are socially and politically content with the state of said exhibits today-- specifically those who benefit from it financially or professionally. I would go as far as to say that some of these individuals fear the exchange of opposing visual information in regards to what is offered to the public because their validity would be placed in question. The public deserves better than that-- I think we can all handle a visual debate over tough social, political, and religious issues. We should expect it!

In closing, is it so wrong for me to suggest that perhaps it would be better for those individuals to be pushed visually out of their comfort zones? I for one enjoy art that challenges my personal views. In fact, the result sometimes ends up being that I reflect on my personal opinions and reconsider some of the views that I have after viewing art that opposes my views on society and politics. That is why it is important for public funded art venues to exhibit a wide range of social and political themes-- the public in general deserves it. Anything less is a continued dumbing down of art in the eyes of the public and further dominance of a mainstream art world that often appears to place voting booths before a true examination of art in general.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. It's no matter of contention that the art world should be open to as many different types of work as possible. Variety breeds creativity, and I think nowhere more than in the art world is this attitude embraced (of course, as you suggest, it could still be embraced more.). At the same time, burdening curators to exhibit work from "both sides of the social and political fence" would have the opposite effect. This is mainly because art doesn't exist on a political binary, and to impose one on it would be unnecessarily restrictive. This isn't to say that art isn't political because, well, it always is, but it isn't always political in obvious or necessarily straightforward ways. At least, it isn't if its any good. Anselm Kiefer is an example that immediately comes to mind: yes, much of his work is about the holocaust, but after watching him for years I'm still not sure what his stance on it is. And maybe that, that inconsistency and questionability, is what's so good about it.

    I'm afraid if curators did what you're suggesting the result would be show after show of flatly politicized artwork juxtaposing different sides of contested issue. Now, I suppose this isn't without its merit, but generally when I want something like that I watch the news or C-Span, not go to the art museum.

  2. I understand your point-- but I would suggest that the blunt of mainstream curators have already made art exhibits into a one-sided political game that caters to extremes, so to speak. The same can be said for some gallerists and art critics -- look at how many use their art blogs and other forms of online presence as political tools that uphold bias. Yet some of those same individuals state that social and political bias does not exist within the mainstream art world when asked. Obviously it does.

    Think of all of the anti-Bush and pro-Obama themed exhibits that have taken place in the last few years. That said, I don't see any exhibits exploring the hardships of the Obama administration in the face of the public directly in the same visually lethal manner. Obama could make decisions that harm all of us and I doubt very much that the issue would be explored in exhibits as the failure of Bush was explored.

    Now-- I don't have a problem with curators who lock in on a single political extreme exhibit after exhibit. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable within the context of a privately owned gallery space-- but in regards to public funded gallery spaces, where I feel the public as a whole should be served, I'm not sure that one-sided views should dominate exhibit after exhibit because obviously that is not a true reflection of our republic.

    As for public funded exhibits... I'm not exactly suggesting that opposing viewpoints should be exhibited at the same time in every instance-- though that would be interesting. That said, I do think that if one exhibit is highly political in favor of a specific political party there should be a follow-up exhibit that explores the other side. In my opinion, it is all about debate-- and I think that is of great importance.

    When citizens visit a public funded gallery space, in a museum for example, I would think they would like the opportunity-- at times-- to see artwork that they can associate with socially and politically instead of exhibits that tend to be critical of about half of the population with no visual rebuttal to represent their desires-- and thus, their tax dollars. If the opposite extreme dominated I have do doubt that the people claiming that nothing is wrong right now would be complaining. As for me, I just like balance-- and I thrive on debate and being challenged.

    If about half of the population is expected to be faced with a visual challenge everytime they venture to a public funded art space I would think the other half would be up for the challenge as well. After all, many Democrats have the same idea concerning the audio challenges we face on the radio-- and I don't think they are wrong for suggesting it when it comes down to the line.

  3. True, the blunt of my thinking lately is rooted in the controvery over "A Fire in My Belly"-- which, I will add, I enjoyed viewing and I don't agree with it being banned. I did not really see it as offensive. But this much I know-- in the political climate of gallery spaces today, specifically in public funded spaces, you will never see another key religious figure explored in conroversial ways as much as Christ has been.

    If you did it would be stamped as 'hate art', 'racist' or 'offensive to a minority' very quickly-- I'm certain of that. Just as I'm sure Democrat politicians would be calling for said work to be banned. That is what bothers me about our times-- the themes that can be explored in art are being placed in a box. One box has a big OK stamped on it and the other has a NO, NO, NO stamped on it-- and because of that visual debate is being muted.

    I don't fear opposing viewpoints-- and I think I've made it clear over the years that I'm tolerant of many view points... I like to see real debate take place. I just wish others could be as open to challenge and reflection as I am and put their political extremes to the side long enough to accept that it is important to converse visually about all of these themes in order to better understand who we are and where we are going. Anything else is an institutionalized lie that clearly fosters frustration and malice instead of education and exploration.