Mera Rubell Didn’t Mean To Scare Us

PH2009121704986Sometimes, because of insecurities, we see critique as criticism.

By example: the energy created by the journalism around Mera Rubell’s recent set of studio visits.

As noted by the Washington Project for the Arts, “Coverage of Mera Rubell’s DC studio tour by journalist Jessica Dawson in The Washington Post touched a critical nerve in the DC arts community, and set off impassioned conversations on social networking websites such as Facebook about the quality of life for artists in the area. Artists, writers, and arts professionals weighed in on aesthetics, isolation, ambition and support for the visual arts.”

Dawson’s Washington Post article, titled Collector Mera Rubell makes the rounds of Washington’s isolated artists includes the following quote:

“The pecking order is so vague here, so nebulous,” the collector says. In New York, top artists become untouchable. For them, it’s a badge of achievement to pull up younger ones, to mentor them. Not so in Washington, where no one knows who’s on top and everyone is on the defensive. “It’s like children fighting for their parents’ attention,” Mera say. “It’s basic competitive survival here — you don’t give an inch.”

Journalist/blogger Kriston Capps’ article about the same event for Art in America, includes the quote:

“I think they’re hungry for community. I’m not saying it’s unique to D.C., but it’s the reason so many artists go to New York.” Less prosaically, Rubell offered what she perceives to be the impact of international museums on local artists. “This is a place with some of the greatest museums on earth. But artists aren’t part of that family. They’re more strangers than the tourists. It makes them feel provincial. If you put a kid down enough, he gets discouraged.”

The response to Capps’ and Dawson’s journalism in online media has been somewhat surprising. Capps himself blogged that Dawson’s story was a “cynical exercise”, and that Rubell’s visits were like “an auditor” trying to “suss out a cyst”. In point of fact Rubell was selecting works for a new exhibit. Her assignment was not a comprehensive review of the District art scene’s mental health.

Were she charged with that task, I think she would have seen it possesses a schizophrenic quality. It seems like when we’re not busy crying, we’re busy insisting that we’re doing great. I think the reason we cry and then claim not to be crying is that we don’t want anyone to be responsible. Many artists are also involved in arts organizations, and arts service organizations, and curating, and journalism… many of us wear multiple hats, and have intimates who also wear multiple hats. We don’t want it to be our fault/anyones fault.

In the discussions around Meera’s statements some have suggested that journalism is failing us (ah, an outsider to blame!) It’s solipsistic to blame journalism for calling attention to this, but inside that, there’s your basic chicken/egg kind of an argument. As Lenny Campello wrote in a discussion on facebook, “The question is: if they saw coverage in the media about the art, would that trigger them to visit a gallery?”

The dance community in DC has been through this exact same thing. I transcribed a meeting between the District’s dance critics (wash post, wash times, etc.) and the dance community two years ago, prompted by community outcry about decline in coverage. And just like in the dance community, the visual arts community can complain about wanting more coverage, but newspapers are not a public service. They’re a business. When a business goes bankrupt it’s nice to say that it’s cause the marketing people did a bad job. But maybe the product sucked. Or maybe the service sucked. Or maybe the customer service sucked. Or maybe there wasn’t enough funding. Or maybe… Arts coverage has declined because there isn’t the interest, and the business model no longer exists. New models may emerge that serve the public and the arts community. I believe that with Bourgeon we’ve found one.

I think there’s a culture of inflexibility, fear, protectionism, power, and politicism that contributes to aesthetic blindness. I’m looking forward to attending the WPA’s upcoming panel discussion on the arts criticism in the DC area. I wonder how similar it will be to the one two years ago with the dance community.

Running for cover(age): A panel discussion on arts criticism in the DC area

Moderator: Kriston Capps
Panelists: Jeffry Cudlin, Isabel Manalo, Danielle O’Steen
When: Monday, January 4, 2010 from 6:30-8:00pm
Where: Capitol Skyline Hotel (lounge), 10 I Street SW, Washington, DC, 20024
(Free and open to the public)