“Art is for Anyone. It Just isn’t for Everyone.” by Danny Olda

When virtually every image encountered is escorted by a ‘like’ button – when each parcel of information parsed demands an immediate impression and invites instant judgement, it bears repeating a principle: art is not a democracy. To be fair, more than mouse-click-populism brought me to revisit Richard Serra’s famous statement.

by Danny Olda

When virtually every image encountered is escorted by a ‘like’ button – when each parcel of information parsed demands an immediate impression and invites instant judgement, it bears repeating a principle: art is not a democracy.

To be fair, more than mouse-click-populism brought me to revisit Richard Serra’s famous statement. (I last read the quote here, on SVA, but more about that later) My ire was resurrected by a recent GQ article on the apotheosis of artistic populism itself, Artprize.

Artprize is an enormous art fair and contest held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are two aspects of the contest, though, that make Artprize particularly unique: the obscenely huge top prize of $200,000; and the method of choosing the winner by public vote. It’s also these two distinguishing characteristics that illicit said ire.

I suspect the huge purse to be won is the reason the contest clings to any sort of relevance. Countless artists, including a number of the trendy and critically acclaimed, can hardly resist what would amount for many to six or seven years of income (or for Mitt Romney, a long weekend). This, in turn, impels many critics to be reluctant in dismissing the contest entirely. (As an aside, I’ll take this opportunity to serve ye notice, Artprize: You are hereby dismissed! By me, that is, for what little it’s worth).

Before going any further I should say that there isn’t anything wrong with popular opinion or even popular voting. The method used at Artprize, though, only compounds an already under-curated mess.

Despite how it may be portrayed, the popular vote doesn’t necessarily determine the best art. The most that can be said with certainty is that a public vote determines the art that garnered the most votes. Thus, artists are not encouraged to make the best art, but rather to make art that would attract the most votes. While good art and popular art are not mutually exclusive, the difference between the two is hardly trivial.

Artprize is only an example. The decline of a critical reading of art in favor of a populous one is a trend that is increasingly finding its expression on the internet. Consider, another example – Artist a Day.

Artist a Day is a website which presents a few examples of an artist’s work which is subsequently rated by the site’s visitors on a 1 to 5 scale. Granted, some very good artists, galleries, and curators are often involved with the site. Artist a Day employs considerable more curation than Artprize. However, the site encourages a similar type of interaction with the artwork from its visitors. By the nature of its design), visitors can only view the artwork via computer screen and most mete out judgement after only a few seconds of viewing. Naturally, this impels visitors to become reactionary critics – an oxymoron. In turn, the “top rated artists” are those which have an instant appeal or shock value (and little else).

The gap between populist and critical appeal can even be seen locally. As I mentioned earlier, I last read the aforementioned Richard Serra quote last week in an article featured in Sarasota Visual Art regarding a recent local public art controversy. The post highlighted some of the nation’s best public works of art and the popular rancor each encountered early on. A much more subtle example is the recent Best of the Bay awards given by Creative Loafing. Many of the categories existed as both “Critics’ Picks” and “Reader’ Picks” and predictably the difference between the two (at least in the arts) was marked.

This isn’t to say that popular opinion should somehow be ignored or even minimized. Consider artists such as Cindy Sherman or Marina Abramovic. In the case of these artists, popular opinion coincides with critical opinion. Indeed, each of us is entitled to a personal taste. However, the grand mean of collective personal taste should not be the dominant voice in the national art conversation.

The examples of Artprize and Artist a Day illustrate that mass opinion has a bent toward degrading into the lowest common denominator and a considerable segment of the art world is happy to cater to this. In contrast, great art doesn’t pander to any opinion, not even a critical one.

While art plays a beneficial role in culture, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. Like many of the most important things in life, the best art should be painful but rewarding. We should be routinely challenged, questioned, and provoked by art as should art by us, the viewer. It’s a cantankerous relationship, sure, but a very productive one.

I realize saying “art is not a democracy” can come off as needlessly incendiary. The reticence to call anything at once undemocratic and good is understandable. At least here in the U.S., the anathema to democracy is generally any and all evil. However, Serra wasn’t saying that art is undemocratic. Perhaps, art critic Jerry Saltz articulated the thought more eloquently: “Art is for anyone. It just isn’t for everyone”.

Further, when it does operate democratically, it doesn’t resemble the dream of the founding father’s as much as America’s Got Talent. It becomes something of a game show – Art critiques become reductionist and reactionary; artists, in turn, coddle this way of looking at art with facile work that has little new to say.

Art is profoundly important and deserves at least a bit more class and consideration than American Idol. Art deserves to be looked at slowly, thought about carefully, disagreed with vehemently, argued about articulately, and loved passionately – much more than a 1 to 5 vote.


Danny Olda is a Tampa based artist and publisher of
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Olda Reviews: Tempus for the Spring and Us for Each Other

These days marked by austerity seem to be shifting into days marked by crowd sourcing, a trend to which Tampa Bay has warmed up quickly. Indeed, around here crowd sourced funds appear to nearly outpace great ideas needing a kick-start. In a way, it’s promising.

by Danny Olda

It’s sad in a way – like homeless people lending each other money; the current economic climate impelling the underfunded to fund each other. My wife reminds me that I’ve been an especially cranky critic lately. This would be why. However, these days marked by austerity seem to be shifting into days marked by crowd sourcing, a trend to which Tampa Bay has warmed up quickly. Indeed, around here crowd sourced funds appear to nearly outpace great ideas needing a kick-start. In a way, it’s promising. Tempus for the Spring illustrated this promise well enough to oblige me to begin to un-crank.

All images by Danny Olda

The event benefited The Spring of Tampa Bay – “Hillsborough County’s only certified Domestic Violence Prevention and Emergency Shelter Agency”. Tempus for the Spring fittingly raised funds toward the creation of an art therapy program for the agency. The CL Space, Creative Loafing’s beautiful historic Ybor offices, hosted the art party and auction.

Though several veteran and emerging artists of the Tampa art scene were featured in the auction, Theo Wujcik’s work was clearly the highlight of the collection. His large painting, Arts Grip, lifts familiar comic book imagery of anger, expertly rendering them as components of an over-sized collage. Perhaps it was the painting’s imposing size, drawing viewers in, which caused Arts Grip to seem to use narrative and comment on it simultaneously. I won’t mention the painting’s price. However, the painting’s starting bid was thousands of dollars lower than it would have been at a proper gallery. Even if a person wasn’t feeling philanthropic, the especially low pricing made a collector out of many.

This was especially the case with the work of the party’s emerging artists. Though the price range was low enough to allow us hourly earners to bring art home, the quality of the art was at a salary caliber. One such piece (that I regrettably did not bring home with me) was a sculpture by Ryann Slauson – a papier-mâché form of a deflated basketball. The sculpture struck me as both funny and sad. Though the piece itself looked like a neglected piece of sports equipment, Slauson undoubtedly had meticulously worked on the sculpture. For example, it seemed that every dimple of the ball had been painted on one at a time.

Danny Olda
Tempus for the Spring, all images taken by Danny Olda

It was the art of George Anderton, though, that personally drew my attention more than most. Anderton’s series of eight by tens carried a certain temporality in them. Several pieces seemed to have been stained by something that sat on top of the paper all night. Others are printed with specific times or dates that in a way suggest timestamps. They all appear to be accounting for time past and passing while avoiding a sappy nostalgia or graphic design-ish fads. I’m told we can expect a proper exhibit of Anderton’s work at Tempus Projects next season.

Danny Olda
Tempus for the Spring and Us for Each Other

I only had the space (and you may only have the attention span) to mention three of the 15 artists showcased at Tempus for the Spring. Something I can say regarding the auction and party as a whole, though, is it was win-win(-win) event. The party was filled with work from some of Tampa’s best artists. Realistic prices allowed most of us to play collector. One community service came to the aid of another. I’m a bit less cranky.


Danny Olda is our Tampa Correspondent and publisher of
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