G-Sync: Most Controversial Beginnings Can Grow Into Cultural Gold

It might seem inappropriate to enter into discussion about lack of coverage for the arts, especially after weeks of unrest in the Middle East. We witness increased reminders of how far we have to go in race relations closer to home after the crowning of the 2014 Miss America went to Nina Davuluri (New York) who just happens to be of Indian descent, effectively turning Twitter into the go-to place for America at its racist worst. (The world might have witnessed something truly remarkable in the crowning, but the aftermath was downright sickening.)

Often, when faced with such complex matters in society, artists have traditionally stepped in to create works that respond to the times. We have seen this in the past when Picasso created Guernica, or during John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed-In.” These are works that were controversial and divisive in their time, but have now come to seem “classic” and “important.” But these days, many of our local artists who have tackled complex subject matter often challenge the public's ability to look at such works, much less consider welcoming them in their home.

In this area of art, we often do not find these works in galleries or exhibition spaces devoted to mass appeal, but rather on the fringe, where such ideals are shared, distilled by the public, and - in the case of ArtPrize in 2009 - voted down as “Most Controversial.”

As one of those Top 25 most controversial artists for my entry “The Kissing Booth” from the inaugural ArtPrize event (2009), I, like the other alumni of this often head-scratching list, proudly wear it as a badge of honor. I did not receive any prize money from the honor, but I did get a mention in Art News magazine and made the cover of the Grand Rapids Press the day before the voting began.

Since that time, this distinct “bad boy/girl of art” category has been removed from this wildly popular event, but not from our culture, where artists just on the edge of society still continue to live and work in our city year round. (ArtPrize still hosts controversial art, as they do not censor; you just have to hunt a bit to find it.)

Keeping in mind that an important role of art is responding to complex issues in society, we need to move beyond eyeing the big, bold, and sometimes downright garish that sometimes dominates the top voting in this festival. As more than 450,000 people descend on Grand Rapids armed with handheld phones to vote up their favorite entry, we need to be mindful that bigger is not always better – and I’m not talking only about the pieces, but about the media coverage that will be bestowed on this event.

Sure, we could talk about co-option of culture from ArtPrize to what just happened to The DAAC (The Right to the City), but what I am really trying to get at is that unless we have a healthy and thriving counter culture, we will not be able to sustain the groups and artists we need desperately to transform our region via arts’ powerful ability to take complex topics and reframe them for thoughtful discussion.  

I am reminded of a talk that Patti Smith gave where she reminded us artists that we might not be accepted. It has been the subject of her music as well as her writing, evoking themes as old as the poet William Blake.

“A writer or any artist can't expect to be embraced by the people. I've done records where it seems like no one listens to them. You write poetry books that maybe only 50 people read,” says Smith. “And you just keep doing your work because you have to because it is your calling but it's beautiful to be embraced by the people.”

With this thought in mind, that artists create and sometimes no one notices, I polled the audience at ArtServe of Michigan’s Creative Many summit at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). I asked, “How many of you think your local media does a great job of covering the arts of your community?”

Only one hand went up.

This point is not to beat up on my fellow media peers, but to suggest the power within their fingertips to shine a light on the awesome fringe happening here. We need to do better, according to that room filled with many of Michigan’s wonderful fringe artists and organizations.

My mind drifts back again to the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts’ recent press conference.

 “We’re best served when we have a lot of different arts organizations. It happens at the margins and at the center and that’s how you have vibrancy,” said KCAD’s President David Rosen, whose institution merged with and assumed responsibility for UICA’s debt, “We’ll help other arts organizations survive and thrive.”

These types of mergers are not new but often essential when obvious shortcomings are happening in our society.

UICA will survive, it appears, but what of those projects, artists or spaces that really do depend on finding an audience? UICA is blessed to have decades of cultural capital built up through the good will of artists and arts lovers who have invested heavily (monetarily and voluntarily), even if that investment came up short.

Times are hard for many organizations and individuals. I am glad we did not face a more grim option for UICA. But even in the merger, there is work to be done in connecting our community to our history that many of us, present company included, might take for granted.  

“I think it’s important to realize that it’s not that this is the goose that laid the golden egg and we’re all home free and we can enjoy UICA without giving to it,” says Kate Pew Wolters, who donated, along with just a few key philanthropists once again, the monies needed to stabilize another arts organization.

Addressing the challenges of what it means to support the arts, exiting UICA board President Kathryn Chaplow says we should not, as a community, take support for granted and hopes that the community support conversation will continue on.

Later, Chaplow says that what happened at The DAAC challenges us “to consider how can we mentor organizations so that they choose a path that is smart and grow in a positive direction.”

G-Sync Events is only funded to cover four events a week, and while I wish I had more space, my focus often devotes coverage to the beautifully small projects that make all of us proud to call Grand Rapids our home. The arts (all aspects)  have a vital role in place-making.

As people of the media but also as members of our city, we need to continue to provide physical room and column inches for those alternative spaces and projects that truly are changing us, not just the big, splashy headline events.

“The more people you can touch, the more wonderful it is,” says Smith. “You don't create your work saying, ‘I only want the cool people to read it.’ You want everyone to be transported hopefully and inspired by it."  

In our city, as ArtPrize grows and attracts more and more attention and people to our region, we, as the voice of those artists both in the festival and outside it, need to ensure these stories are told.

It is wrong to tell a start-up arts troupe that they are too small to be covered, because from a whispered thought often comes a movement. But we have to be willing to tell all of the stories, not just those that will ensure huge shares or comments.

When any of us get off the trail, we are tapping into that pioneering spirit that made Americans who we are as a people – and not just the ones who scream racist and unwelcoming bile against someone like Miss Nina Davuluri – a part of the diverse face of America.  

Artists are a big part of our world’s progression, even when it seems like we are rolling backward. The artists become the vehicle to process complexities and, as we have often seen, create a path out of our human condition when it seems damaged beyond repair. What was once avant-garde or fringe in our last century is now freely conversed about in the public square and at times even normalized. But its beginning was often very small and unnoticed.

The need to get off the well-traveled path from time to time and seek “the other” - whether the unrefined or emerging - can reveal so much of our humanity. And artists crave affirmation, reviews, and feedback, even if it is occasionally in the form of labels such as “groundbreaking,” “average,” or  even “most controversial.” It’s being ignored that kills us.

Speaking to the UICA merger and continuing his theme on the importance of preserving our arts community through cultivation, Rosen says, “Do we understand how unusual this is in America, what’s happening here today, the community rallying to create anew an arts organization that’s beloved in the community? Often we overlook the assets we have and don’t understand how outstanding they are.”

Let’s commit to not letting this happen to any of our local arts organizations (big or small) that are perfecting those ongoing critical first steps in the pursuit of the next and the new. UICA was once a simple storefront, just like The DAAC.  

Let’s never lose sight that from the small often come big movements in art, often with the addition of time. They grow because we have spent our time cultivating such space in our community. Let’s not forget to tell their stories.

These next few weeks especially, let’s not forget to peek around corners, seek out the new and different, be open to art in all its messy, beautiful, controversial, creative forms. Let’s not ignore the little creations that might have something big to say.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Here are four really great examples of events in Grand Rapids you can experience when you are taking a break from viewing art. G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Image Notes: This week's artwork is a short list compilation of artists who were voted into ArtPrize's Top 25 Most Controversial category in 2009. Many of these artists have gone to have exciting career opportunities as a result of their commitment to their work. Their vision is still strong today in our world. - Tommy
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