Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art Critic or P.R. Person

Years ago when I wrote an art column for a northern Ohio newspaper, I saw my role as one that not only announces local exhibitions, but also teaches and introduces an art historical context for many of the shows. It didn’t take me too long to discover the editorial line I was not allowed to cross. While my editor loved my writing, I had to remember that the goal of the newspaper was to bring people to the museums and galleries and there were certain shows that would be the lead story regardless of its strength. As an art historian and not a journalist, this was a real eye-opener for me. How could loyalty to certain artists, museums, and even private galleries supersede an allegiance to the discourse of art? Not only can this poisonous bias permeate throughout mainstream art criticism if not kept in check by writers, but it is the backbone of Cincinnati’s art community.

Last week while visiting a few shows at the Weston Art Gallery, I was asked by a few gallery employees if I knew personally the local artist whose photographs were being exhibited in one of the galleries. I didn’t and in fact had never heard of him. I know personally almost no local artists. What interested me were their claims to how long they’ve known him and very little comment about his work. Here we go. Another example of a Cincinnati gallery exhibiting the artist, not the art. When I saw the work, I understood why. The black and white photographs are not bad, they simply didn’t illicit any kind of response from me so I reviewed the other two exhibitions in the gallery. Perhaps in a few days after the images brewed for awhile, I would have something to say and post it on my blog. Unfortunately, the images simply faded. Until a couple of days ago when I noticed not one but two local publications, City Beat and Cincinnati Magazine included write-ups about this artist and the exhibition this month. Does this reflect an allegiance to the artist or to the gallery? I don’t know.

Two stories about this one show that ignore the other two shows in the same gallery seems a bit saturating until I remind myself this is Cincinnati. This city not only enjoys celebrating its community support of one of its own, but proudly exhibits the incestral core of the arts community. This is far more pervasive than the old adage, “it’s who you know, not what you know.” Many Cincinnati local art critics are themselves artists who have shown in a number of Cincinnati galleries or have worked or do work for any number of our city’s art organizations. Is there a conflict of interest here? I think most art critics would agree there is a blatant conflict. But here in Cincinnati’s art world, a community that literally resides in the shadow of P&G Headquarters, the symbols of successful p.r. marketing, this is business as usual. Marketing is in the interest of the arts. No matter the cost to the creative and intellectual art discussion.

Blogging about art instead of writing for a local publication helps keep the blood of a p.r. man off my hands. I maintain absolutely no allegiance to any artist or art organization here in Cincinnati or elsewhere. My loyalty is to art. Though I have to thank Cincinnati's local arts community for a wonderful irony. Its marketing strategies has made branding myself as Cincinnati’s Art Snob effortless.


José Carrilho (Go Detail) said...


One cannot please greeks and trojans at the same time.
Of course that it's easier to say "yes" about something, but it takes courage to say "no".

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Too true. I used to write about art in Cincinnati for Antenna Magazine and others. I just turned off my mind and wrote what they wanted and it all turned out just fine. *Insert smilie face here* However, that isn't being an art critic, it's just being a rah-rah man. I can say that because I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose over it.

One of the biggest problems in Cincinnati art community is that everyone wants to be seen as "Goody So and So", therefore they stick to the bland and tried and true. They try to ferret out what will sell and produce masses of that, or they try to come up with something inoffensive and yet cutting edge (!) and go for that. Not a breath of scandal, not an whiff of interest about it. Therefore no one cares. No one buys.

I used to be part of the Cincinnati art community. I was a painter who gave it up and am very glad I did. I am still constantly beset by failing artists who are grabbing at any chance to make a buck and stay in business. I tell them all that no one is going to be interested unless they have something edgy, something interesting, something *gasp* risky to say. Then say it well. They purse their mouths and toddle away. Not a good answer. The right answer is "copy Wolf Kahn".

Unless the Cincinnati art community opens itself up like any other entertainment genre (movie stars, sports stars, etc.) and lets something (anything) interesting in, they will continue to be roundly ignored, patronized and unpaid. That is just human nature. Jeff Koons showed them how, at least he is more interesting than Wolf Kahn.
---Fabienne Christenson

Me said...

Hell...I'm not even after "edgy" or controversial. My interests really is in honestly and intellectually contributing to the universal artistic discussion.

I do believe some artists here want to be part of the art world (rather than this isolated community), but I feel they've allowed development professionals to control the discussion.

Frankly, I think the Fine Arts Fund is the poison in Cincinnati's art community.

Anonymous said...

Being involved in the art scene inherently creates opportunities for perceived conflicts of interest. There are plenty of art historians, critics, curators and gallerists who are artists in Cincinnati and in larger cities. Was Greenberg not a PR person for his artists and his agenda? Do what you do and stop worrying about everyone else.

Me said...

While I'm not a fan of the linearity of Greenberg's approach to art, I would argue he was more than simply a pr man for his artists. I mean he certainly selected and promoted a handful of artists, but don't you think his focus....his interest and devotion was to art and not to the personalities?

The direction and the elevation of American art and its formal elements was his goal.