Is good art definable? I’ve spent the last six years building a blog based on the belief that it is, and while I still think that’s true, the evaluation criteria probably isn’t as fixed as I once thought. Different communities need different things from art, so the same work of art might be very successful communicating to one group of people, and not at all to another.
Now, to be totally honest, I’m not 100 percent comfortable with this conclusion. If a certain amount of empathy is required to understand why audiences outside of my own like a giant sparkling pig, my usual reaction has been not to participate. That’s changed this year due to size and scope of ArtPrize, a city-wide competition in Grand Rapids that invites anyone who can come in and register in person to cast their vote on what art work they think is the best. The winner takes home $250,000. Now in its third year, the competition literally takes over the whole city; all the city’s museums showcase work from the competition as their fall program and virtually no building in the downtown core is left without a sign for something ArtPrize related. Come yesterday, 27,724 voters had cast 370,310 votes for their favorite participating artists. There were 1,582 artists from 39 countries and 43 states.
Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. People who normally would never have any interest in art are now flocking to buildings to catch a glimpse of the work. Almost all of it is for sale, though nothing can be bought until after the competition closes (ArtPrize takes ownership of the winning work). It’s exactly what I have always wanted for art, but for one thing: People have bad taste. Of the ten finalists I will see today, I expect to like only one or two pieces. Amidst this year’s top crop are the father-son living sculpture, a sci-fi eco-system sculpture, and a chainsawed log into a grizzly bear. If you want to go a little more underground there’s also a giant preying mantis with a butterfly and, of course, a giant metal dog.
ArtPrize founder Rich DeVos acknowledges that a lot of bad art comes out of a competition like this, but privileges a long-term vision that will “ignite a broad culture of creativity”. This sounds a little like PR-speak to me, but participation that engages the whole city really does increase the cultural literacy of a population. To take a corollary example: Just ten years ago, unfocused pictures with no composition were completely common. Now, due to image ubiquity and frequent use of digital cameras, those kinds of images have almost completely disappeared. In other words, a few years down the line, ArtPrize winners may look very different than they do today.
So what is it people are responding to this year? Up until the results came in, ArtPrize told me the public was heavily biased towards large immersive sculptures and environments; it would appear that “animals as subject matter” should be added to this year’s list of preferences. There’s also been some discussion that location effects the results — once artists register, ArtPrize uses a online dating-like site called “connections” to pair artists with venues — though for the most part this doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. The center core gets more foot traffic, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.
Over the next week, people will have a chance to cast a single vote for the artist they like best. In preparation for that, tonight, I will be on a “critical discourse” panel in which I will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ten finalists. I’m pretty excited about the panel — judging art is exactly the kind of thing I love to do — but I’m not convinced I’m anywhere close to the interesting voice here. This event belongs to the citizens of Grand Rapids, so it’s both with anticipation and a little bit of fear that I wait to hear their voice.