Detroit deserves better

Jan 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

For a couple of weeks, I’ve known what I wanted to write for this column, my first as arts editor at Metro Times.

I felt I needed to wake up a semi-comatose city, and figured it might grab attention if I mentioned that Detroit art dealers, curators, critics and scholars have not-so-nice things to say about visual arts coverage in the local media. I was going to follow up their comments with a page-long rant about why I think a lot of art writing stinks, in Detroit and across the nation.

But last Friday night, I went to exhibit openings, the American glass show at College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the Alex Katz show at Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale, and something made me want to change the tone of this column. Maybe it was the energy of the people, ready and willing to discuss the current state of the arts in the city. It could have been the vibe in Susanne’s wide-open gallery. Possibly it was the clandestine cache of Alex Katz paintings I had the pleasure of viewing in her front office, female portraits hidden like young women whispering delectable secrets in a bathroom at a party. Or it had something to do with a glimpse of the sculpture garden out back, making me excited for summer talks in the fresh air.

Whatever it was gave me a new perspective on the sorry state of art criticism in the city. I don’t think it’s a blast to rewrite a piece, but I’ve learned writing only works for me when I unwrap the truth from a pretty package of powerful words and phrases. Honesty saves me from being absolutely awful at what I do.

A while ago, I asked Peter Schjeldahl, staff art critic for The New Yorker, whether or not he thought contemporary art criticism was any good, and whether or not he thought his writing, in particular, was any good. I was pleased to find out that even Peter thinks his most recent piece is the last he will ever publish because he is secretly terrified it’s the one that will finally make everyone realize what a bad critic he is. Of course, Peter’s not bad; he’s a talented and opinionated visual arts writer. He knows art history, and he is also a poet, so his thoughts are beautifully rendered.

But I asked him this question because I had recently read “The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America,” which was conducted by the arts journalism program at Columbia University in New York. Researchers asked journalists across the nation about their work. The most fascinating conclusion was this: When creating a piece of art criticism, writers are more concerned about describing the artwork and making sure their writing has literary value than they are about rendering a personal judgment or opinion about the art. Essentially, criticism ranked as the least of their concerns.

I bring this point up now because I have heard writers defend their work by claiming art criticism is as good as the art it discusses. That’s definitely not the case in our city. It is generally acknowledged around these parts that the current artwork is better than it’s been in a long time.

Art enthusiasts I spoke to for this column — people who had such harsh things to say about art criticism in Detroit — consistently describe local artists as tough-skinned, resilient and tenacious. Artists are branded as survivors, an impressive group, creating work as a link to their survival in “wild bursts of expression.” Former Detroit artist Sam Pope, a Los Angeles transplant, says, “At its core, the Detroit community is very supportive, honest and loving — a family. It’s something I miss dearly living here in Southern California.”

This enthusiasm should be sparking press coverage. Actually, the local media should be saturating the field, as much as when the Pistons or Wings are hot.

But you certainly wouldn’t know that with the business-as-usual coverage in the Detroit dailies. And TV and radio don’t seem to know that art exists.

I find it upsetting, but understandable, especially in Detroit, where art is perceived as highfalutin. It is assumed that the visual arts are linked to the European tradition of the academy, which doesn’t jibe with our working-class spirit (better reflected in the democratic field of music or the industrial-strength work ethic of athletes).

Many in-the-know Detroiters read hybrid art-design-style publications, such as Surface, BlackBook and SOMA. These mass-marketed bibles of cultural cool may be weak in content, but their popularity can be regarded as a rebellion against sometimes off-putting arts publications, such as Artforum or Tema Celeste, or downright heady journals, such as October.

For curious readers here, artist and recent Wayne State grad Nick Sousanis and his brother John, a former theater reviewer for The Oakland Press, started They’re looking to fill the niche between verbose writing in national publications and the local alternative-newspaper model of hip storytelling that Nick describes as “I went to this cool show, and then I went to the bar…” I think it’s working, and the Web site is getting a good response.

But except for a few bright spots, I know most Detroit art enthusiasts want art criticism to be different from what they’re getting. I feel the same way.

From those I’ve queried about arts coverage, I’ve learned some things about what concerned Detroiters want from arts reporting. Some of you have asked for more coverage, written by a larger pool of writers, and serious analysis of how and why the scene exists, especially with little or no help from public or private funding or media support. I’d like to add that local arts writing should reflect the qualities inherent in local art — its intimacy and ingenuity.

But I want to ask the rest of you, metro Detroiters: What will it take to get you reading about art, or at least willing to consider why you like the art you like? If you feel art is irrelevant in your day-to-day life, can your minds be changed?

For better or worse, our artists have learned to survive without much publicity. Most of them feel their work profits from it. One artist recently told me that press coverage has absolutely no effect on his art — he is more motivated when left alone.

While I understand that artists may excel in a cultural vacuum, quarantined from stodgy New York or trendy Los Angeles, I think it is important to place the Detroit scene in a broader perspective nationally and internationally. Critic James Yood has recently written, “Language is local, always local.” This is true, but we learn the most about others and ourselves in a state of relativity.

Last weekend, former Metro Times arts editor George Tysh reminded me that the community needs critics who are intelligent, passionate and, more importantly, compassionate. I agree. The point of good art criticism, I believe, is not to exhaust folks with the definition of art or the details of how, when or why it exists, but to meditate on why we should care. This is crucial, because the work created here won’t hold up in decades to come unless it means something in the larger scope of things. And Detroit deserves to share in determining the shape of things.

Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]