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Reaction to the Report: Artist and critic Lucia Simek

My reaction to the Creative Time report is almost synonymous to what I feel when my New Yorker in-laws come to town and trivialize everything they see –  “Wow,  isn’t this Deep Ellum trying to be Brooklyn,” or “Let’s go to the Stockyards and see some real Texas” or “Isn’t this Northpark fancy” – which is to say, I get pretty defensive. “Shut up, man,” I want to say, “and open your eyes. This place rocks. Let me show you how.” But everything inevitably comes up short in the eyes of someone from New York, or some legitimized place. And certainly, we that are involved in shaping culture in this town know, very well, the odds we are up against. Those odds just so happen to be the very things Creative Time pinpointed (as outsiders with doors to the inside) in its report.

My dukes are up.

 I think that many of us wanted to see some very cool public art event take place as a result of Creative Time’s study. I was thinking an art flash mob down Flora Street. (Frances Bagley’s blind Zebra on the back of a truck parading through a silent, Biggest-Arts-District-in-the-World, anyone?) But that didn’t happen. Instead, the bland report kicked us in the pants with its duh-ness. Mr. Miagi, is that you dressed up as a bunch of art folks from up North?

Wax on, wax off…

We know this stuff. When do we learn how to fight?

But, just as with my in laws, I’ll pull up my reigns a bit here, for the sake of diplomacy and because, at the heart of it, I think we benefit in an odd way from the milquetoast gleanings of Creative Time. That benefit is, namely, the realization that we need to say the things that need to be said, without fear. Whatever specifics were missing from the report – about museums, schools, galleries – should already be being said in print somewhere. Let me be more clear and put part of the responsibility on the media, of which I am a part. The press is the unbeholden, should it so choose.

Who keeps media in this town from pulling out the guts of the problem? In part, it’s the audience itself. When critics are actually critical in Dallas, they are often maligned by contingents that understand critics to serve as some kind of cheerleaders, always championing the smallest creative, to say nothing of artistic, effort. What attacking critics does, I think, is take away the fuel for the fire. If the city itself can’t bear to hear what’s wrong with itself, and what it makes or doesn’t make, than a critic begins to wonder what they are fighting for anyway if this town is actually as provincial as others would name it. At the core, any art is not better than no art; and any art school is not better than no art school; and no, we should not champion institutional programming benignity for the sake of attendance numbers. These are issues that need addressing. Where should they be addressed? The same forum that faceted ideas have always been discussed diplomatically – in the media, through all the modes that affords us.

Certainly, that won’t solve everything. So many other gears need to click into place, as so many thoughtful people have articulated here on FrontRow in this discussion. But, at the very least, if we begin to understand our media outlets as places for conversation, not just promotion — as free forums for hashing this stuff out, and making evident our concerns and insights without reservation — than we’ll begin to call our arts to the standards that not just Dallas deserves, but that art itself does.

5 comments on “Reaction to the Report: Artist and critic Lucia Simek

  1. Read this yesterday but wanted some time to think about what you have written.Yes, art criticism should not function as positive PR for institutions and other art-related businesses. It is the art—and its attendant ideas, sensate associations, and historical references—that should be the focus of written reviews. It’s the only way to insure that the integrity of artistic enterprise is not compromised for short-sighted, singular goals.

    I had a brief conversation recently with someone who had once written for one of the really big art magazines, he discussed how many friends he gained overnight—and how they quickly evaporated once he no longer worked there. So not only is the art critic going to be swarmed and cajoled, it gives a false impression of what the scene is really like (e.g. from an artist’s perspective, it’s tough and competitive and rarely friendly out there). Critics/writers who socialize with those who have exclusive events and private gatherings run the risk of being unable to write impartially about the most important subject: the art. Good criticism—which is to say, measured honest evaluation—can result in increased attention and attendance. It is a known cause and effect. Critics must work at their independence because it is this known causal relationship that most people across the spectrum are seeking. Hence, the desire for a “positive” review.

    The establishment of FrontRow, thanks to the foresight of Wick Allison, fills a much needed void. I think the fine writers assembled here play a vital role. It also seems that as a collective, you’re free to chart the course about what kind of criticism you’re going to provide. If institutions and galleries want positive PR, they could host charity events or related happenings that do not really involve evaluation of art or art programming. But, like the experience of the artist, to put something out there in the context of art means everything is subject to scrutiny and evaluation. If there is no thoughtful evaluation or interpretation going on, it wouldn’t be art. That’s how a transference of meaning occurs between the artist and the art; art and the viewer; viewers and the culture at large.

  2. Well said, Lucia. The other simple issue is that we just need much more stuff in general – more of everything – and as you say, not any old stuff, but good stuff.

    The critic’s voice is important for simply ‘being there’. It’s not an option to not be there, although somehow Dallas previously allowed it to be so. It is as much an integral part of the creative process as anything else, as anyone who has read FR Leavis will know. Art and criticism are not just bedfellows, they are the beast that makes two backs – the hairy, lairy, heaving, grunting, sweating, squirting, creaking, bed-collapsing, cigarette smoking, Belgian chocolate eating, lets go to Wholefoods now and then on to the Winspear….beast with two backs”. It is the cultural ‘procreative’ process. I shag therefore I am, etc. I eat Belgian chocolates afterwards, therefore I am – you name it.. Can someone please write a decent novel in Dallas/about Dallas by the way. That might be bloody entertaining.

    There wasn’t enough clamour before, not enough racket – there was just Dee and Janet – it may as well have been mom and pop, or Lucia’s folks (love Dee and Janet who did a great job – just saying they were isolated purely by lack of numbers, barking and howling into the wilderness like huskies on the frozen tundra – you need a whole pack to pull the sled, or preferably a snow mobile – where’s Sarah Palin’s husband when you need him – I knew they’d be useful for something (just the snow mobile, I mean – they can send it on a trailer).

    And Laray’s point about the solipsism of toadying up to critics, or critics to artists etc, is vastly alleviated the more of everything there is out there. We need more intelligent voices, more input – not just in the debate, but in the actual doing of stuff, making things happen. The lack of resonance was a large part of the problem before and without wishing to get dewy-eyed, like I’m watching the Oscars, there is a sea-change taking place right now. Not saying it’s great yet, because it’s actually mostly crap, but the conditions are becoming more favourable by the minute. We need an Oliver Reed. I volunteer.

    Last night, Sir Nicholas Serrota gave the Nasher sculpture lecture in front of an invited audience of about 200. In case you don’t know, it would be fair to say Sir Nicholas is one of perhaps the five or six most powerful and influential people in the art world. Not because he’s super rich – which he’s not, but simply because he exerted his ideas with great passion and great focus over several decades and understood how to harness and direct the energy of others.

    He spoke about the history of museums from the 18th century onward and their place in city building. It was awe inspiring and its conclusion almost intimidating in the reach and force of culture in more developed older cities. What was incredibly gratifying was the professional diversity of the invited audience. It precisely captured the sort of interconnectivity that is required here but has until now been so apparently wanting. i.e. not to simply concetrate on wealth and privilege, but on meritocracy and plain common sense.

    The position that Dallas finds itself culturally when measured against the prowess of, for example, Tate Modern (as a single real and symbolic marker for cultural achievement) places Dallas mind-numbingly far behind other cities in so many respects. We’re not on the same page, not even the same book, we have a whole library to get through to catch up, by which time the world will actually have imploded and all humans will be made by Toyota.

    But nonetheless, the attempt at particle acceleration, the placing of Dallas into a Time Machine to hitch to the mother of all Six Flags rides, is very much dependent on a collective energy. More voices. It’s about being tantric in a group situation. It’s about not soliciting fake orgasms like the Creative Time report – it was annoying to have conclusions foist upon us at this moment. It was untimely and fairly uncreative. We had already defined the agenda with great precision. It’s about holding it open and avoiding making conclusions, making the actions the conclusions and not settling for the CliffsNotes; not sidetracking into endless ether-debate, but translating thoughts into action, and actions into thoughts.

    Creative Time’s report very much reminded me of Neville Chamberlain’s, “I have in my hand a piece of paper’ speech. A speech for a day if ever there was one.

    The initiative that preceded, and will succeed Creative Time, was exponentially more significant than the CT report even though at this stage it is invisible to many. CT was merely a subset of this first on-going initiative, which unlike CT, drew various individuals together in deliberately diverse groups of professional type – well over 100 initially – from all corners of Dallas’ cultural map. What was so sucessful was that all the participants were already mired in Dallas’ situation and had a combined expertise. They didn’t lack resolve, they simply didn’t yet have the social interconnectivity to get their feet out of the mud and make things happen. With this bridge crossed long before CT arrived, progress was startling impressive. Creative Time’s report is in effect a sort of misfire that’s left a few annoying gunpowder-blackened faces and a sort of redundant cartoon gun barrel that’s now split open like a banana skin and is destined to join Saddam Hussein’s pistol up at the new library. The CT report catapulted forward a premature conclusion while at the same time totally skimming over the critical points.

    As to Front Row – I’m 100% with Laray on this – top notch. No one seems to have yet congratulated Peter Simek on the quality and comprehensiveness of what he’s doing here. So I’ll start. I think it is excellent and invaluable. Someone award Peter a large cigar. And a brandy. Maybe hand him the bottle. And the Belgian chocolates.

  3. PS
    From Wikidedia on FR Leavis – the last few lines are about as well put as they could be:

    He introduced a “seriousness” into English studies, and some English and American university departments were shaped very much by Leavis’s example and ideas. Leavis appeared to possess a very clear idea of literary criticism and he was well known for his decisive and often provocative, and idiosyncratic, judgements. Leavis insisted that evaluation was the principal concern of criticism, and that it must ensure that English literature should be a living reality operating as an informing spirit in society, and that criticism should involve the shaping of contemporary sensibility (Bilan 61)

  4. Wow. Thanks Richard for caring so much and putting it out there. Do you know if Sir Nic’s lecture is available? I’d love to hear it. Congratulations to the Nasher for such relevant programming. They seem to really be on their game. And yes, thanks to Peter and Front Row for keeping us informed and in conversation

  5. Richard, thank you for your thoughtful comments, this part especially from Leavis: “… literature should be a living reality operating as an informing spirit in society, and that criticism should involve the shaping of contemporary sensibility.” Yes.

    And that evening at the Nasher was the perfect mash-up of all the tiers of the “scene,” done elegantly enough to call no attention what ever to any tier in particular. The Nasher is certainly the torch-bearer in this respect, setting a quiet and unpretentious example of artistic dialogue. Bravo!