THE WHITMAN SAMPLER: Art as Arthur Kei Whitman Sees It
Editor's Note: We were able to cajole local art critic Arthur Kei Whitman to share some of his often erudite thoughts on what art is all about, and especially here in Tiny Town. Mr. Whitman is a regular freelance art critic for The Ithaca Times, a local daily. He's been reviewing exhibits for close to ten years, an almost weekly task that he takes very seriously. It's not a way to get rich but he keeps at it. Here Mr. Whitman explains why, as he has some times threatened, he hasn't given up his passion. Along the way he drops some names that the arts lover would be wise to take note of.
It it weren't for the level and range of talent in the Ithaca area, it is highly doubtful I'd be here writing this. Seeing accomplished artists evolve and discovering new ones is a pleasure; conveying something of that richness to a broader readership is important work.
There are no absolute rules in art. I am, in principle, eager to be delighted by whatever crosses my path. Still, one doesn't spend over a decade involved (in various ways) in the "art world" without acquiring some practical biases. Contemporary art – by which I mean the art that’s being made now – is a very broad field and it helps to set up camp somewhere, if only provisionally.
When I was in school, over a decade ago, I took a summer course in the Sociology of Art. It was a fun class: everybody in the room was an art students and the teacher was smart and personable. I learned a fair amount but it was an easygoing class – we had the option of a paper or writing an in-class essay as a final. I chose the latter and I wrote an informal piece on Ithaca’s art scene.
That was before I became an art critic. I hope to do a re-write of that piece – with comparable haste but with hopefully a more nuanced understanding. Of course, I can’t summon here the detachment of an academic sociologist but I think it might be helpful to survey the scene with a bit more distance than an exhibition review typically affords.
There is a range of artistic styles and approaches in Ithaca and one could specify any number of artistic subcultures. (Tiny town or not, it’s a pretty cosmopolitan place, culturally speaking.) But one major divide is between “town and gown." By “town” I roughly mean people who exhibit in downtown galleries – including a scattering of slightly more remote locations – as well as those who follow these showings. By “gown,” I mostly mean Cornell and particularly the culture there of art that is self-consciously advanced or hip.
This past summer, I was embroiled in a controversy of sorts over two reviews that I wrote for The Ithaca Times. (I hope to discuss both pieces and their aftermath in greater detail in future postings.) One of these was a response to “Locally Sourced,” an exhibition of eleven Ithaca area artists at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum. Assembled by the museum’s contemporary curator Andrea Inselmann, the show was both eclectic and large. It resists easy summary.
My review (http://www.ithaca.com/entertainment/locally-sourced-at-johnson/article_bc44698c-250c-11e5-acf6-af73ee959162.html) sparked a lively interchange in the online comments section and – particularly with one respondent who is a former Cornell MFA and, I believe, friends with several of the artists in the show. (Fairly or not, I take his viewpoint to be broadly representative of the MFA culture.) Unfortunately, the comments appear to have been deleted but I will try to reconstruct the gist of the debate because I think it is indicative of the town-gown gap.
Among other things, the respondent accused me of having crude biases against photography and video art, neither of which are supportable accusations. He also expressed a sort of bafflement or dismay that I would make art criticism into an assessment of value or disvalue. But this is what art criticism traditionally is –r and it arguably remains the norm outside of the academic bubble.
I hesitate to place a label on my tastes or the way I think about what art is: it is a broad spectrum. I have written sympathetically about everything from classic printmaking to video art. Still – and although my interests have taken many twists and turns – I do identify with classic modernist art and with painting in particular. This puts me at odds with the apparent mainstream of art in academia, which tends to favor conceptual art and (what used to be known as) postmodernism. I won’t try to define these here but a tendency is to adopt a detached or skeptical approach to traditional artistic values.
My biases and stances are hard-won. I briefly attended a private high school in Connecticut and studied under an excellent art teacher, David Brewster, who introduced me to both oil painting and Post-Impressionist painting. I later studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – a school that has, for better or for worse, an anarchic curriculum that allows students to pursue what they will. I encountered a range of positions and styles and I tried a lot of different things. Contrary to some of my critics may think, I have been around.
I am inclined towards what might be considered a conservative aesthetics. I believe in an art of stylistic originality, formal innovation, expressiveness and sensuality – what the British philosopher of art Paul Crowther has called “the intrinsic significance of the image.”
Skepticism about such values is widespread in academia as it is elsewhere in contemporary art. I believe that this doubt would be harder to maintain if these people were familiar with some of the same artwork that I have studied.
As someone deeply knowledgeable about what’s going on in Ithaca, I find that a substantial mainstream of “downtown” artists confirm me in my direction. Of course, I filter out what I don’t consider serious work but there is undeniably a core of artists that have helped me strengthen my commitment to these values.
(In fact, this makes me thankful for having worked in Ithaca so long, despite what might look like a self-imposed marginalization. Having an outsider’s perspective on the so-called art world may be precisely what is called for.)
It is striking that only a handful of people associated with Cornell’s art department are involved with what is going on down the hill – by exhibiting or even appearing for openings. This is in noticeable contrast with Ithaca College. Several instructors at IC show downtown, with many associated with the Ink Shop Printmaking Center (Ithaca’s cooperative printmaking studio and gallery). Recently, the school’s art department established the “Creative Space Gallery” as a permanent outpost for student art located on the Commons. I have difficulty recalling any downtown exhibit that focused on the work of Cornell students or faculty.
I come from a family of Cornellians and I understand that academic snobbery is sometimes justified. As far as I can see though it doesn’t stand up here. I’ve seen exhibits of both faculty and student work and Cornell. Some of it is quite good; other exhibits are “interesting” or show promise. But any sense of superiority or justification for lack interest seems unjustified – indicative of a needlessly insular culture. I am willing to bet that the best independent artists are as good if not better than the best faculty.
Not surprisingly, several of the most interesting and talented artists active on the local scene are or have been associated with Cornell. But they are rarely Art Department faculty or MFA students/graduates – or at least so it seems. In other words, the real creativity appears to be primarily on the margins.
Craig Mains (http://craigmains.com/), an inventive and witty printmaker and often-interesting photographer, works in the library. Abstractionist Barbara Mink (www.barbaramink.com) teaches in the Johnson Graduate School of Management. Syau-Cheng Lai (www.syaucheng.com/) works on paper and creates intricate and layered abstractions filled with allusions to language, music, and myth. Impressively multi-talented, her work at Cornell includes a doctorate in Biopsychology, various musical performances and accompaniments (she is a classically trained pianist) and teaching Chinese.
These individuals – and many others affiliated with Cornell or not – are serious artists and deserve the consideration of anybody in the Ithaca area seriously interested in art.
The editors at tinytowntimes.com thank Arthur for sharing his ideas with us. While we cannot always afford an honorarium for writers, that is the long-term intention of this amorphous blog. In the future we hope to have guest writers of every stripe post their thoughts on whatever their subject of interest may be with an emphasis on art, culture, health, humor and science. That will bring our little patch of green into better focus for loyal visitors as well as new readers.
IMAGE: Our erstwhile critic observation works at Exhibit A, a gallery in Corning NY. Photo credit to Ann Welles, gallery owner.