Taking Positions

Last October, I wrote an article entitled Art and the 99%, reflecting my initial thoughts on the art world in relation to Occupy Wall Street.  It was published in January in Art in America.  Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Derek Guthrie, who along with his wife was the founder of the New Art Examiner, the only nationally distributed art publication to ever come out of Chicago. 

Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen met in 1968 when Guthrie came to Chicago from London to take a position as an art instructor at the night school division of Northwestern University.  Allen came from an old Chicago family and was the grand niece of the famous Chicago philosopher, sociologist, author, and social worker Jane Addams.  Both Guthrie and Allen were painters and writers.  In 1974, they began publishing the New Art Examiner as an 8-page tabloid about the art scene in Chicago.  In the mid-eighties, Guthrie and Allen left the Examiner and moved to Washington, D.C. and in its last ten years, the magazine struggled to keep afloat.  Finally, it folded in 2002 due to fiscal mismanagement.  In 2011, Terri Griffin, Kathryn Born, and Janet Koplos compiled The Essential New Art Examiner, an edited set of essays drawn from the Examiner’s near-30 year history.

 In thinking about this idea of how artistic communities are formed, and what we even mean when we use the word “community,” I asked Guthrie to speak about the role of the New Art Examiner in shaping an artistic community.  Our conversations and correspondence have been voluminous, meandering, absorbing, and ongoing.  What follows is a reduced and edited version of our first conversation, recorded in April of this year. 

ES: In my first blog post, I made the argument that artists, even if they work as individuals, still rely on networks of mutual aidI asked whether or not this has become more difficult in a digital age where every idea seems to have an immediate obsolescenceReading the Essential New Art Examiner, I was struck by its ability to define a legible terrain for Chicago art and American art, and its willingness to take staunch positions in a way that is difficult to imagine today

DG: All we can do is capture something to the best of our abilityIf I go to Cape Town and then I come to New York and tell you about it, I would look for the words to convey my experience of what is going on there even if I am not familiar with all the artistsIn a major museum show with thousands of people attending, I have a double priority, which is to describe the show, but also take into account the community response, to understand how it fits within that geographical and cultural contextThat said, I don’t think anyone ever writes the last word, so writing something creates the space for repudiation, for dialogueI’ve been in artistic communities my whole lifeI actually lived in Paris in the same place as Ginsberg and William BurroughsI was very young and they were olderNow I am old man, although I am young in spiritAlso, I am a Brit-although I’ve lived here half my life-and I think that Europeans work in a very different way than Americans

ES: How so?

DG: My wife and I were 50’s kidsWhen we came of age, there was no such thing as adolescenceYou were a child and then you were a young man or a young womanAfter WWII and the GI Bill,  you had more people in society with excess money and young people began buying all this stuff.  Capitalism responded and gave them what they wantedSo 60’s kids thought they were changing the world, but they were really only changing the taste, by buying thingsThey made a mistakeThat form of idealism, which took root in American culture in the 60’s, was not grounded in reality

The Avant-Garde was Americanized over this same period after it moved to New York, but in a way it started on the wrong footThe artists in New York were saying, “What are we going to do about Picasso or Surrealism?”  Out of that came Abstract ExpressionismThen you had writers like Greenberg, Rosenberg, Barbara Rose and the Partisan Review gave them the freedom to talk about culture inside a modern context at the time when no other American publication was interestedGreenberg was a curious mixture of four sensibilities, Marx, Hegel, Kant, and Jewish mysticism, and he combined those together in his writing about Abstract ExpressionismRockefeller then realized that Abstract Expressionism was key to this search for an American cultural identityHe picked it up; the CIA set up exhibitions in Europe and exported American painting because it was rigorous and dynamic and so you got a Marxist analysis put onto and Avant-Garde that then became a major weapon in the Cold WarAnd when the market opened up, the market liked it too, because, in popular culture, if the process of appropriation is clever enough, anything can be appropriated to mean anything that you want it to meanIt wasn’t Greenberg’s faultHe championed certain artists because he had passion for them, but as it was received, it was transformed into popular cultureBecause of the GI Bill, you had all these of guys who were going to places like Eastern Tennessee UniversityTheir parents had Currier and Ives prints on the wall, but all of the sudden they wanted Danish furniture and something modern, like PicassoSo the culture changed, and it happened alongside the rise of consumerism.

ES: What do you mean by popular culture?

DG: When I use the word popular culture, I mean something very particular I was born in 1936, in England, and we still had the leftover of the Academy, the academic art cultureThe Academy was popular culture, which was wiped out by ModernismThe Academy didn’t know what to do with Monet, or Gauguin, or Cezanne; what they knew were sentimental picturesAnd I think we are in a situation right now where late modernism, or contemporary art, has become an Academy, which renders it useless as an Avant-Garde because it has become middlebrow culture, what I call mid-cult

ES: Isn’t that a form of elitism?

DG: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with elitism, by which I mean a rare sensibilityI think Cezanne was an eliteAnd just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they are corruptI don’t think it is a matter of money, but generosity, creativity, and intelligenceChoosing something over something else is an elite act, but it is in our natureWe can’t help preferring one thing to another, but the desire to understand that choice makes all the difference.

ES: I was re-reading Aristotle where he lays out the difference between democracy and polityFor him, democracy was a lesser form of governance where you treat everyone the same, whereas with polity everyone organically rises to whatever status or position fulfills themThey are both ideals, of course, but I think when you are talking about elitism, it is something akin to polityMaking everybody the same can lead to mechanization, which is something particular to American culture and its formulation of democracyPerhaps that is what we need to clarify when we use the words elite or elitism, that we are pinpointing a distinction about what is essential for human fulfillment, not talking about oppressing anyoneBut are you saying there is some kind of obfuscation or dishonesty going on in the way people select which art they like or champion today?

DG: Yes, today it is about the packaging of celebrity cultureIt is finding a common denominator, like politicians searching for a palatable issue that will round up the most peopleIt is a reduction of everything based on a kind of numerical average.   We want to please the most people rather than champion our own ideas

ES: Okay, but how does that relate to community?

DG: I don’t think you can ever have the last word or locate an authentic communityWhenever you get three or four people together working on a project, and they create the situation for themselves, and they make the arrangements for that interaction, that is communityA monastery is a community; Artforum is a community; the New Art Examiner was a communityIt’s a community because there are people involvedYou share information and resourcesYou gossipYou exchange opinionThat is what everybody does all the time and if you are not hierarchical about it, it can be very exciting.

ES: But there must be some way to distinguish the community around the New Art Examiner versus the one around Artforum; each has its own tenorYou printed any opinion that could be beautifully or intelligently argued and said something of meritI think that is an important distinction to make, don’t you?  I think that gets the root of why the New Art Examiner was important and also why it ruffled feathersIt seems like you encouraged a certain fearlessness on the part of critics and artists alike and that opened the door for a real aesthetic dialogue

DG: Yes, we were not catering to the consensus of the market or academia; that was our signatureWe guaranteed equal space for people to respondIt made for a conversationAnd we did not protect art criticsWe put them in the place of being as vulnerable as the artistWe published Hilton Kramer and Donald KuspitWe had Howardena Pindell letting loose against the MetropolitanWe took on Jesse Helms and we also challenged the liberals in the National Endowment for the Arts for assuming a reactionary political positionWe questioned academia’s orthodoxiesWe crossed a lot of boundaries without making a big deal about itWe were a small, no budget magazine that according to Kuspit was the journal of record on Chicago artThe difference between the New Art Examiner and most liberal publications is that we weren’t PC and we were not scared of a fight; we did not appeal to a happy consensus of a certain audienceToday, people are facing economic pressures in a way they were not before; they are afraid to have opinions

ES: Looks like you’ve provided the justification to bring back the New Art Examiner.

DG: I am not looking for the congressional medal of honor, but when we find the space where we can feel confident enough to have these kinds of conversations in public, that is a rare thing, the makings of a real public intellectual life

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