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

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