The Road of Good Intentions Is Paved with Painted Pigs
The Stranger’s Departing Visual Art Critic Re?ects on Ambition, Naiveté, and Why Seattle Still Isn’t a Great Art Town
Even as I hate the valedictory impulse to generalization (I much prefer the small specific), I'd be remiss to leave this city without some sort of fond or not so fond farewell. Even as I write this I'm swinging pretty wildly between feelings of nostalgia and good riddance--not entirely surprising, since Seattle's art world is rife with the kinds of contradictions that so firmly cement us somewhere between backwater and art capital, and that pulled me regularly between pleasure and despair. Good work by really very talented artists on the one hand; a patronizing, social-work-driven attitude about art on the other. A whole lot of lip service paid to the idea of art, but very little money backing it up. There's sophistication, and there's naiveté. In my very first weeks of writing The Stranger's art calendar, in 1999, I got an indignant letter from a woman whose show--in Bellingham, quite out of the range of The Stranger's purview--we had failed to include in our visual art listings. It was cruel of me, she wrote, to ignore her show, because art had--literally, she said--saved her life.
Probably you already know that I take a dim view of ascribing life-saving qualities to art. I tend to take a view more in line with critic Dave Hickey's in his essay "Frivolity and Unction": "We could just say 'Okay! You're right! Art is bad, silly, and frivolous... Rock and roll is bad, silly, and frivolous. Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous. Next question?' Wouldn't that open up the options a little for something really super?--for an orchid in the dung heap that would seem all the more super for our surprise in finding it there? And what if art were considered bad for us?--more like cocaine that gives us pleasure while intensifying our desires, and less like penicillin that promises to cure us all, if we maintain proper dosage, give it time, and don't expect miracles?" (Good God, but the man can write!) In Seattle, the general drift is toward penicillin, toward the cure-all, and also toward a rigorously democratic idea about art, one that encompasses album covers and industrial design and accessibility and education. In many ways it's fitting, if not emblematic, that Seattle's progress in art, to much of the art world, is tied to glass: The Studio Glass movement, with Dale Chihuly at its prow, is characterized by a distinct defensiveness about taking a medium out of the realm of craft and trying (forcefully, willfully) to place it in the realm of fine art.
The contradictions we face here make for both good and bad news. The bad news: Seattle is not a great city for art or for artists. The question of what it would take to make it a city taken seriously by the rest of the world (local artists sought out by collectors from elsewhere; artists moving here from elsewhere; local art writers regularly represented in national and international publications) has no simple answer, perhaps no answer at all. What I can tell you is that there isn't enough of anything: not enough good galleries showing risky work, not enough money available to artists to try new things and possibly fail (a great deal of the available funding is project-dedicated, so that failure is not an option), not enough critical outlets, and not enough critics, in the outlets available, thinking interestingly and hard about how art does what it does and how the work in this city compares to work in other cities, or (perhaps most importantly) willing to risk letting the public know when the art or the curatorial practice fails. And, of course, there are not enough collectors (though God bless the ones there are) willing to tear their gazes away from New York and Los Angeles and London and Berlin and buy the work (quite often the peer in quality of work from those other cities) right under their noses.
This is an inelegant knot of a situation, because it's not entirely clear which problem should be solved first. It's a series of exquisite dead ends. If there were more money for artists, there'd be more good art, and more galleries would open. If more galleries opened, there'd be more opportunities to see good art, and the Seattle viewership would increase--maybe skyrocket--in sophistication and collecting. If Seattle artists were getting more national attention from critics, national agencies and foundations would direct more money to artistic production, and there wouldn't be this constant stream of artists leaving for places where they'll get noticed. But my instinct is that no single advance would create the rising tide that Seattle needs. Somehow the base has to expand all at once.
What must happen, what absolutely must happen, is for this city to get over its ambivalence and distaste for ambition. You don't become a great art city by filling the street with painted pigs. You become a great art city by supporting artists doing what artists do. Everyone, from the National Endowment for the Arts on down to teachers and well-meaning citizens, likes to yammer on about how important art is to how we see ourselves as a civilization, to advancing as a civilization, and yet where funding is concerned, art is consistently lumped in with education and social work and even tourism. This attitude produces a lot of bad art and, instead of creating respect for artists, makes artists into propagandists, educators, and decorators. It's an unfortunate contemporary convenience that so many disparate activities--from after-school programs to public art to unrestricted money for artists--are collected under the same rubric, under the same innocent-seeming word. To do this is to make conflicting claims for art, as Bruce Bawer wrote in a pointed critique of the Poets Against the War anthology (which included, alongside poems by established writers, poems by children): "What does it mean to profess the inestimable value of the poet's role in society... and then to suggest that even an 11-year-old can fill that role?" This sort of confusion about what art is for produced such disasters as Pigs on Parade, the "arts tourism" championed by Michael Killoren at the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs a few years ago, and the repurposing by committee that transformed BAM from an interesting contemporary museum into a community crafts forum.
Think of it this way: Should Little Leaguers play in Mariners games? It's the same sport, after all. But of course not. Somehow acknowledging that some are more talented than others (to say nothing of higher paid) doesn't rankle so much when it comes to building stadiums. I am so tired of the pummeling taken by what's commonly known as elitism, this insistence (itself quite sniffy) that art is somehow out of the realm of common experience, that its pleasures are not available to everyone. Certainly it's become more common to have to, you know, read something (a plaque on the wall, an article in a newspaper, an artist's statement) in order to begin to understand a work of art, but this is what great contemporary art does: It advances through ideas, by engaging our minds. And art galleries are perhaps the only venue where art, any art form, is free to the public. It's all there, available and wanting nothing more than your attention.
Don't get me wrong: It's nice that Seattle is so concerned with human enrichment and better lives for everyone. It might very well be the case that the Bellingham woman's life was saved by art. And it may well be the case that art keeps kids off drugs, cures cancer, enhances self-esteem, and makes America great. But please understand that I write this only out of real ardor for and delight in art: All of those things, and other positive aspects (like helping the economy, like attracting the so-called creative class to Seattle) are not art's problem. To demand that art fulfill such a role is to limit the scope of what it can do. Art is good for us only because it's art, because it exists outside the realm of advertising and politics, and it is only good for us (whatever that means) when it presents an object with which our relationship is not already bossily mediated. In the best possible scenario, we create our own relationships--intellectual, emotional--with art, so that the most elevated claim it's possible to make for art is that it makes us more thoughtful, perhaps more complex, people.
The good news--finally, the good news--is that despite this handicap, there's a lot of real forward movement around here. Artist Trust continues to plough a lonely furrow by giving artists project grants and fellowships (and the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs has recently given a generous handful of artist grants as well, a development that's long overdue). The renovated Toshiro-Kaplan Building provides artists live/work space (a rarity), bringing a cluster of working artists back to Pioneer Square, saving that neighborhood from being so removed from the world of art as to be irrelevant. Rhonda Howard and her organization Thread for Art supports artist-driven exhibitions and produces lovely catalogs, so that artists have documentation of their work as well as exposure. The collectors Bill and Ruth True have opened Western Bridge, a good-looking space in which they'll be showing works from their collection as well as commissioned works, which brings to Seattle works that we might never otherwise see. The renegade stencil gang Beware the Walls invigorates public space with the kind of surreal street moments that reframe everyday experience. The ceramics program at the University of Washington (which is only tangentially concerned with ceramics and has amazing teachers Doug Jeck, Jamie Walker, and Akio Takimori) produces interesting young artists. There's a cluster of newish galleries on Capitol Hill (including 1506 Projects and Crawl Space) that have a lively artwalk and some appealing (if not yet fully realized) shows. There's Platform Gallery opening in the fall, run by four artists who have a taste for the difficult, and who don't kowtow to usual gallery practices. Billy Howard and Jim Harris also aren't afraid of difficult work; the shows in their galleries seem to revel in it. Greg Kucera, in his gallery, has taken on some interesting younger artists, and brings news from the rest of the country. Greg Lundgren is still around, plotting his next move (the openings of his shows at Vital 5 Productions rate among the high points in the social life of art in the last few years). And it would be disingenuous, if not modest, if I failed to mention that The Stranger's Genius Awards allow the paper's editors to take a break from relentlessly criticizing everything and shower affection and money on artists they like.
There have been casualties. We lost Walter Wright to Atlanta (after his two good exhibition spaces, Project 416 and Fuzzy Engine, fell to the manifest destiny of development). Artists Jennifer West and Nicola Vruwink moved to Los Angeles. Curator Meg Shiffler is in New York for graduate school, and will probably stay there. Many of the artists behind RedHeaded StepChild, an artist-run zine I had the privilege of working on (they made an exception for me, since I was good at grammar) for the two years of its existence, have dispersed for other cities. Every one of these departures (and all those I can't remember at this moment, sitting here in a cluster of people tapping away at their iBooks at Victrola) made me sad, and soon I'll be leaving, too. Well, perhaps that won't make anyone very sad. But at least--and it seems I've got the valedictory impulse after all--I got the last word.
Emily Hall was The Stranger's visual art editor from 2000-2004. She now lives in New York City.