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Looks like a winner: Deconstructing the West Michigan Aesthetic

What does our culture expect in art and an artist? What can we learn from it, and where can we go?
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What do you do?

When asked what "I do" (really meaning, "what is your job?"), I respond that I am an artist. The response is generally met with a dismissive word or two and then followed by "what do you paint?" 

Memories from AP2009

Memories from AP2009 /Mark Rumsey

As a working artist I spend a great deal of time trying to determine how people act, react, or interact with art. The relationship between art and viewer is determined by how a person evaluates what they are looking at. Having traveled and presented my work to a wide variety of geographies I have come to understand the nuances that a place has on the role and evaluation of art. Where a person lives determines the level of exposure to art and ideas. It also creates a frame of reference for values and ways of understanding. What has played out as the winners of the past two ArtPrize competitions uniquely illustrates the West Michigan Aesthetic, the particular way that we evaluate art as a locality.

As a West Michigan native I have found that most people view art and artists as curiosities. When asked what "I do" (really meaning, "what is your job?"), I respond that I am an artist. The response is generally met with a dismissive word or two and then followed by "what do you paint?" From here the conversation involves me explaining my work and about installation art in general in as simple terms as possible. This process continues on with questions about finances, materials, time, etc. Void from the conversation, almost always, are questions about motivations, purpose, meaning, desires, content, context or even ideas. This later group of questions is what informs my work and is only asked of me if I am working outside of West Michigan. Based on the questions I am asked in West Michigan about my work I have deciphered how we evaluate art: The West Michigan Aesthetic (WMA).

Materials and Process

The WMA is highly concerned with materials and process; what is it made of and how is it made? Understanding materials - what is being used and how it is processed - lays the groundwork for for the WMA evaluation process. The criteria that must be met here is that the material is common enough to be understood - paper, pencil, paint, wood, pushpins, etc. Time based work, site-specific work, sound work, etc. all fall out in this phase of the evaluation. We are Mid-Westerners and we like to understand the physicality of things. It makes them real and tangible.

Time and Labor

The correlation of how long it is perceived that an art object took to make is directly proportional to its value on the WMA scale. We understand time and we value time. When something looks like it took days or weeks or months to make, then we assign it value according to the labor invested. This component does not include other time based factors but exclusively time as it relates to labor. The length of time someone has dedicated themselves to an art practice is irrelevant unless it is obviously expressed in the amount of labor visible in the final product. This indicator of WMA lends itself to celebrating scale as a vital factor in art, the larger something is the more laborious the undertaking hence the greater the potential value.

Perceived Skill

If it seems like what you have done takes a skill not possessed by the general public then the WMA valuing rating increases. The biggest factor in this field is the idea that making something look "realistic" is very difficult and takes a special gift - not just anyone can do it. This perception of skill also translates into the skillful use of a material or process often referenced to the viewers own inability to imagine that they could do the same task. Conversely, when a viewer of the WMA persuasion sees something that evokes a response of, "I could do that," or "A kid could do that," it is a determination that no special skill was involved.   

Assumed Purpose

If someone made it then they made it for a reason. All art is unique and creative, because that is what art is about, right? The WMA makes the assumption that all art is essentially the same and relies on the idea that the viewer is not creative but the artist is by default. This assumption frees the evaluation of art from having to look into the content or context of the artwork. The idea or concept is dealt with only in minor ways and with minimal vocabulary in the WMA evaluation, usually pared down to "neat" or "cool." The WMA provides a baseline that all art is of equal purpose thus can only be evaluated by what it is made of, how long it took to make, and if talent is perceived by the viewer. The WMA frees its people from the discourse of "why?"  

Disclosure: The author is an artist and has participated in ArtPrize.

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True, funny, and a little sad. But this piece only goes halfway. Rumsey does a good job of outlining the general lack of visual literacy (which I don't think is unique to West Michigan), but what's the solution? How does the more knowledgable arts community work to fill in the gaps?


 Why don't we ask ArtPrize, the biggest art event ever in Grand Rapids, what they plan to do to fill the gap.?  The sad reality is that on one level ArtPrize,  being designed with the emphasis on the public vote, creates the gap. ArtPrize is a clever shell game where they can point to the occasional speaker or panel (Poorly promoted, poorly attended) while at the same time promoting the major focus of ArtPrize: that people just need to come down and vote their opinion.

The question of visual literacy is very different that what I have presented. What I am talking about is that there is a sense of visual understanding and it is based on a variety of physical, cultural, and social understandings that exist is West Michigan. I am not assuming that people need to be educated in a certain way, but instead, offering that from my observation that people evaluate things in a way specific to how they understand the world around them. I also do not see that the role of the arts community is necessarily one of informing the populace of how they should evaluate art. As an artist, I make things in a particular context and am more than willing to discuss my work, but it is not my job to frame the entire conversation. What I have presented here is not a dilemma to be solved, it is a series of observations about how art is generally evaluated in West Michigan. I am not saying that the process is in error. 


What is the difference between "visual literacy" and " visual understanding"? Your article about the WMA begs the question,' Is it a good aesthetics'?

I appreciate your perspective and analysis. I have heard numerous people make statements about the results of the last two ArtPrize classes of winners and come to broad conclusions based on these results. Attributing value to the results of ArtPrize is problematic in several ways. Artprize does not represent an accurate sampling of art, so the results are not a valid basis for broader conclusions about our regional aesthetic. Any valid result would require the sampling of art to represent the full range of powerful (and accessible) work going on in contemporary art worlds (including the local). This would also require that those works be presented in ways that let their full impact be experienced; in deliberate and supportive contexts.  Also, the reductiveness of voting does not give us access to the complexities of the experience or it's resulting effects.

While I don't think WMA or the ArtPrize Awards accurately represent where I live, I do recognize the power of conclusions such as this to institute aesthetic values. Once instituted such conclusions have cultural and political power, if not on our cultural institutions and our ideas about ourselves and our community, then definitely on entries for next year, which in turn will have similar effects.

I was not alluding to the winners as the reason for my theory, merely an example that correlates with years of observation. The conversation about art within the art community is very different than the conversation about art by the community at large. Unfortunately art, and most certainly art engaged in contemporary forms and ideas, is not well valued in West Michigan. (Can anyone name five local artist that make a decent living solely from their art production?) I would argue that the ArtPrize event does give voice to the aesthetic values of our region, which is not necessarily the same voice or values as the art community. I see the conversation about such aesthetics as descriptive, not prescriptive.

Oh my stars! I wish you had been at my house last night. I was totally having this same conversation.

The result of my porch conversation last night was that people like things that are big and realistic, for many of the reasons you enumerate above. "Big" is actually kind of interesting, because of how it bolsters other WMA criteria. For example, we do like stuff apparently labor-intensive pieces. But when there are 50 people behind you trying to see the same small piece, you probably won't notice the level of craftsmanship. You can stand in front of an enormous picture for quite a while. You can get a conversation going about it with your kids, who because of its size, can see the whole thing too. How people experience a piece, I think, has a lot to do with whether they vote for it or not.

In response to some of the other comments... I really think some bloody curating would help this whole thing along. Contemporary art is intimidating and alienating for people who don't have a lot of experience with it. Maybe if it were tastefully displayed in a venue people already felt comfortable in, yet still took seriously (so not, say, Biggby), people would be less turned off. I think your average WMA-er would have a totally different encounter with a video installation at their church than at UICA.

It's interesting, though, that the Calder or the Maya Lin piece on the mall, which everyone loves, don't fit at all with the WMA, except maybe perceived labor. (Who the hell knows how it was made, but it must have taken forever!) My prediction is that some enormous, non-mural piece could win next year. It should be a public space people feel safe in, have some sort of movement, and not be at a venue that will define it (e.g., the Elephants were "kids' art").You heard it here first folks!