Acton Institute Powerblog

The Corruptions of Power: Gossip of the Highest Sort

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In his magnificent reflection on the nature of art, Real Presences, polymath George Steiner invites us to make a thought experiment: What if we lived in a city where all talk about art, mere talk about art, was prohibited? In other words, what would follow if we did away with artistic criticism qua criticism, an activity derivative by nature and one Steiner calls “high gossip”? In this posited city, what Steiner calls the Answerable City, the only permitted response to a work of art would be another work of art. Thus participation in the “art scene” could never launch itself from the risk-free loft of criticism, but it must be real participation, a participation that demands that the viewer invest something of his own imaginative capacities. In this city, the word “interpretation” denotes not something exegetical, but something performative; an activity not of professional academics or theater critics, but of actors and directors — as in an actor “interprets a role.” Here, art means incarnation, not judgment.

But such a city is only a thought experiment, and since judgment requires the participant to invest less of himself, it will always be easier to be a critic than to be an artist. And therefore the artist will always be tempted first to pass judgment rather than to respond with his own creativity.

After a decade of trying to walk the slippery ridge between “he who does” and “he who discusses” art, I have tried to avoid criticism these last couple of years to focus only on doing. But I feel the need to again jump into the critical ring, thanks to a recent article in GQ Magazine (it was sent to me by a friend), an article on my own town, Grand Rapids, and its increasingly famous festival, ArtPrize.

As PowerBlog readers probably already know, ArtPrize is a competition that awards $200,000 to an artist chosen by the votes of regular festival-goers. What’s more, the festival has brought a delta-wash’s worth of artists to West Michigan, artists whose skills run the talent gamut. But it has also brought out (and created) an army of critics, both in the positive sense of that term — people are talking about art — and in the negative sense of that term — vendors of their own self-importance.

It is this large cast of characters that drew the curiosity of GQ writer Matthew Power. But it is hard to tell if Mr. Power is writing as an artist or as a critic. Is he formulating a Steinerian response to the Answerable City, or is he a critic working under the guise of a reporter? (I say “working under the guise of a reporter” because what he is certainly not doing is journalism. The least discerning reader will be slapped in the face with the obvious prejudice that announces itself, not even subtextually, by the fifth word. Mr. Power is efficient, let’s give him that.)

But as a writer, charity demands I give Mr. Power the benefit of the doubt, at least to begin with, and therefore I thought I’d perform my own thought experiment: Perhaps it’s possible that Mr. Power is a shadow artist, and his article can be read as a story, as a fable, an artistic response to ArtPrize. Let’s look then at the yarn he’s spun.

If you were to approach the article from this narrative perspective, here is what you would find:

Once upon a time, a family of conspiratorial disposition — who had made their fortune by duping the ignorant —nakedly sought to wield their wealth as raw political power. (Such a characterization is substantiated by a single proof text it must have taken Power, researching with due diligence, as many as twelve seconds to find on Google.) To this regime was born a prince, and, desiring to establish his own place in the world, the prince decided to host a royal competition for the backwater, churchy subjects of his realm. The competition was, however, quite naive, and even condescending, for it purported to dignify his subjects’ meager artistic judgment by letting them believe their opinions really matter in determining artistic worth; that is, the whole exercise was an attempt to bring “free-market ideas” to the realm of aesthetics. But luckily, the noble cognoscenti of the realm could not be fooled. They knew that the hoi polloi are hopelessly incapable of recognizing anything of real value. Thus the conservative, cultural machinations of the DeVos family were laid bare for the raw power grabs they were. The story ends with the poor prince himself caught between his desire to bring art to the people and the obviously untenable ideology of his family.

My. What a tale. Tragic, really. It has everything: villains (the DeVos family) painted in rather Borgia-like hues; a sympathetic, Stella Artois-sipping prince (Rick DeVos) trapped between his naive idealism and the ambitions of his culture-war family; a cast of thousands of lovable simpletons (religious Midwesterners), who can’t believe that, garsh, no one has ever let them think about art before; noble heroes (the insightful artists) and wise sages (the jaded Michael Pfleghaar) whose humble genius stands unrecognized by the unwashed masses (again, the religious Midwesterners); and it even has a creeping Rasputin (your own Acton Institute itself!) whose free-market spoutings are the subtle potion that keeps the whole drama greased and tumbling forward.

Well, perhaps I am overdoing it a bit, but not by much. Power is a good writer, technically, there is no doubt of that, and I found myself admiring his craft, if not his tiresome propensity for smirking sideswipes. He certainly is a master of form, but as the critics in his story say of the ArtPrize winners, his technical prowess uncovers no content of substance. It is a poor story because it treats its readers with scorn. His narrative power is obviously not meant primarily to entertain or enlighten us — it meant to propagate a particular (and I think ultimately untenable) criticism of ArtPrize and its origins.

So there is, I am afraid, no way that his article can be read as artistic response, even though it is, very simply and transparently, a fable, a fable born from highly selective reporting. It is clear that Mr. Power, like a reality television editor, uses only those snippets of reality that help him craft his drama, and thus he is acting as neither an artist or as reporter. He is acting as a sneering critic, and not of the lovable Statler and Waldorf variety. He is a critic of a most dishonest sort, and his article is little more than “high gossip.” St. Steiner, pray for us.

David Michael Phelps


  • gerrianne

    When you use someone’s name in your writing you should check your spelling of that name. Pflegharr is not correct. It makes you look like you don’t know how to write a serious piece. Readers do not take a writer seriously if he/she does not spend the time to use people’s correct name. You just look stupid.

    • gerrianne: The spelling of the name has been corrected. Thank you for calling the error to our attention.

      I edited the post and should have double-checked the spelling. Do I look “stupid” now, too?

      Your uncharitable comment, which fails to address the substance of the piece, reminds me of Niall Ferguson’s recent article on The Daily Beast about liberal bloggers (I have no idea what your politics are but it applies here). Ferguson sums up the tactic this way: “First, duck the argument. Second, nitpick. Third, vilify.”

  • I read Matthew Powers insightful article on Rick Devos and his ArtPrize and I can attest that I didn’t feel treated with “scorn” as you suggested. In fact I felt quite happy. Happy that such a clever writer could write an article that captures so much about what ArtPrize is and informs a national audience to the people and the money behind it.

    I also feel your clever take on art philosophy makes a huge mistake in that you seem to be confusing opinion or taste with knowledge. Everyone has the right to their own opinion about what they like or even think is good art. But if we are allowing those opinions to determine artistic worth or award the largest art prize in the world then we ought to qualify just what kind of opinion we are talking about. Opinion on a topic or subject is different than knowledge about a subject.

    You are correct on one point. The Devos family did make their fortune

    “duping the ignorant” as you say. They made billions off the false promise that people could make an income by selling things to their friends and they continued the duping by using those profits to promote their political and religious ideologies. They wanted their opinions to become your opinions. They wanted their opinions about art to become your opinions and are using ArtPrize and the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center to push that agenda.

    I’m happy Mr. Powers has used his knowledge and talent to propagate a particular criticism of ArtPrize and the family behind it. You just don’t like his opinion.

    • Ian Gackowski

      Please direct the readers to where, exactly, the “knowledge” of art can be found? Maybe Mr. Pflegharr or Power can enlighten us by providing a rubric by which to grade the entries for next year. As anyone who has participated in or frequented ArtPrize from the beginning knows, the audiences ability to view and interact with the pieces is what separates this event from the antiquated, stuffy, and all too often high-brow nature of what art has been made out to be, especially within the public sphere. If anyone sees the regional response to the art at ArtPrize as simple and uneducated, they are free to go elsewhere to a show/event/venue that serves a different purpose.

      What Mr. Power has put forth is a narrative of ArtPrize that sounds more rooted in bitter conspiracy than any real evidence. Can anyone point to the Devos family’s clear and blatant manipulation of the contest to fit their diabolically conservative stakes? It is not a matter of Mr. Power’s opinion that some find displeasing, it is the blatant imaginary tale that he weaves throughout his piece regarding a city and event that he clearly doesn’t understand.

      And, as a final note, any true Grand Rapidian who exists in the GR social scene or has ever been in the same room as Rick Devos would know that Rick drinking a Stella and being more reserved is just that. Rick being Rick. Maybe Mr. Power would have picked up on his personality had he any interest in reporting on something other than his preconceived ideas about the Devos family and the event itself.

      In the end, I suppose it is all wasted on the country folk that reside in that evangelical city upon a hill. Those of us who, apparently, are genetically incapable of appropriately valuing true creativity and artistic endeavors.

      • Ian, No one is talking about you or anyone being “genetically incapable” of enjoying or even being knowledgeable about art. But art is like anything other subject in life, you need to put some effort into understanding it. Knowledge about art is found in books, at lectures, on youtube, at your local museum or art gallery, and in your schools. You just don’t wake up one day knowing the difference between Jackson Pollack and Raphael. If you really want to know why Pop Art was a reaction to Ab Ex or even what Ab Ex stands for you need to LEARN about Art. Last time I looked anyone could view and interact with art at the GRAM or UICA or your local friendly art gallery. No one has to wait for ArtPrize to come around or Rick Devos to tell you it’s ok to look at art.

        Conspiracy? It’s not about anything being a conspiracy but rather about a very powerful family using their money to make the rules about something involving art. Did you know that Dick and Betsy Devos not only are funding the prize money for ArtPrize but gave a $22 million dollar gift to the Kennedy Center to establish the Devos Institute of Art’s Management. What does a Institute of Art’s Management do exactly? It trains art administrators, museum directors, and art’s organization how to run their institutions and organizations. I doubt that they will be including any training that involves radical left wing leaning ideas and as an artist that concerns me. Is that a conspiracy? No. But it is using your money to make things go the way you want them to.

        • Ian Gackowski

          I fully understand that being ill-informed about art is just like being uneducated in anything else: ignorant. However, ArtPrize is exactly what it has set out to be. An event that invites the community to invest in art whether they are well-versed in the subject matter or not. ArtPrize is just as much about how art fits into the community as it is about the art itself, and the typical viewer won’t be able to give a scholarly and researched critique of (probably) the pieces that they like the most. However, the event inevitably starts conversation about art, even within circles that would’ve never had the experience otherwise.

          I think this leads into the bigger point that Mr. Power is missing and that we have to ask ourselves (especially those of us who live in the community that this event takes place in). Is ArtPrize worth it? Is the griping about how uneducated the public is regarding art outweigh the fact that we have been given a unique opportunity to experiment with art and public opinion? Do we look at the Devos family’s $22 million dollar gift as just that, a gift to the arts? A private investment in a dying public institute? If we are going off of Powers article, or your comment, it sounds as though we would be better off without the gift and without the event, and that is what is so unfortunate.

          The event doesn’t have to exist at all. The money (an absurd amount that was given by a family, not an organization or business, but a family) didn’t have to be given. With regards to the Kennedy Center- If you actually think that the $22 million dollar gift was given purely to introduce conservative restrictions in the world of art, then your conspiracy theory rivals that of a true tea party member.

          In the grand scheme of things, the Devos family (Rick), has created nothing more than a space/venue for art and has steered clear of manipulating anything that goes on within it. We are privileged to experience it, and anyone who says otherwise has lost the forrest for the trees.

          • I would disagree. ArtPrize doesn’t ask you to invest in art. It doesn’t ask anything of you other than to come downtown, register as a voter and pretend you know enough about art to award the largest art prize in the world. Artprize pretends to be about conversation because it sounds serious, but there would never have been a second ArtPrize had people not flocked to Grand Rapids and the only way to get them to do that was to set up a system of voting that made people feel important.

            What ArtPrize, and the Devos Family does do is hope that you come to downtown Grand Rapids and invest in a hotel room, a burger, a beer, some parking and shop while your here. ArtPrize is great for the downtown business but it’s not so great great for artists. Here is why. ArtPrize is a economic development event for the city (good for them) that makes money off the backs of artists that have to pay to be part of a scrum for a prize. ArtPrize isn’t artist friendly. It doesn’t care if you are a great artist or crappy one. It just wants your $50 application fee and your body and your work for the length of the event as a free draw for hundreds of thousands of people.

            I fully understand that you and Mr. Phelps don’t like Matthew Powers article on ArtPrize but as a professional in the field I do like the article very much because it paints an honest portrait of the event and the people behind it. It paints a good portrait of how the event is looked at by the art world at large.

            The bite of the article for some local West Michigan people is Power’s questioning of the ArtPrize system. A system that wants to insist that people don’t have to know about art to be able to understand great art and be able to award great art with a great big cash award. Well if that was true then last year we would never have had a 13ft mosaic of Jesus looking like a surfer dude on a cross as the grand prize winner.