The New Art Examiner @ Northern Illinois University by Diane Thodos

Re-Examining The New Art Examiner Symposium at Northern Illinois University on January 28, 2012 with Panelists Derek Guthrie, Josh Kind, Buzz Spector, Richard Siegesmund, Janet Koplos, Paul Krainak, Alice Thorson, Lynne Warren, Michael Bulka, Jennie Klein, and Susan Snodgrass.

The New Art Examiner was born out of censorship. ~ Derek Guthrie

As long as you don’t have a vetting process it’s hard to have credible critics. ~ Michael Bulka

You get what you pay for. You need an editorial framework so that you have some kind of entity that has a mission. ~ Alice Thorson

This much anticipated seminar at Northern Illinois University went far in amending the absence of provocative and historically informed voices about the New Art Examiner (NAE) that were not present at the School of the Art Institute’s art criticism panel on November 22, 2011. I begin with a rich exchange between Derek Guthrie, co-founder of the NAE, and several panelists on the critical subject of patronage in the arts.

Derek Guthrie: The elephant in the room is very simple. What are the strings attached to patronage? I don’t care whether it’s an industrialist, The National Endowment for the Arts under Democrats or Republicans, collectors, or academia. They are all systems of patronage and they are called reward systems. We have spoken about the NAE and its different evolutions and it is quite clear (and it delights me very much) that was started a long time ago under different editors. Somehow certain aspects of a certain kind of thinking repeated itself from generation to generation- with variations. The Examiner came from community. The Examiner was forced to live in community. This seminar, by serendipity and accident, has been a revival of community. I’m not going to make a definition of what community is or isn’t, but I’m old and I know what cultural fashion is. All generations start inside the fashion of their time….the issue of originality is absorbing the fashion and then getting out from under it, because if not then you die with the fashion of the time….New York stole the idea of the avant-garde from Paris. I happen to know what Paris was like. I’m lucky. The point is that the Americanization of the avant-guard is the cultural context which the avant-garde was shoehorned into. It is quite clear at this moment in time, for whatever reason you like, that it [the avant-garde] has waned and its dynamic is gone. So when I look back at art, I look back to between WWI and WWII- [Europe was] devastated, bombed to hell. Millions of people were on the street and angry. Guess what? It produced all the art and we still value it. So all I want to say is this…I think we have lost language. I think we don’t know how to address issues any more. I think it’s a cultural problem…I think this is our moment in time. I also think it might be a great moment…that the nature of modern art came out of a time when it was like this…we are exactly coping with the same kind of weird space and weird individualism that we happen to be living under. It [the NAE] could happen again. It’s very simple. You need 8 pages, you need an editor, you need a few writers, you need a few articles, and you publish – beginning and end of story. What’s more it would be easy because we got a brand name that everybody likes.

Jennie Klein: The NAE had the ability to recognize the cultural conditions and was somehow able to move above them, and that’s why the magazine was important and continues to be so.

Derek Guthrie: We never fell into the crap of being rewarded because nobody gave us a reward. James Elkins who is the chairman of a very important department of the SAIC published a very important book called “Whatever Happened to Art Criticism”, and this is a very good book and I like it…we all know what he reported on. That’s not the issue. It’s a cultural issue…the NAE, with little or no support and with great hostility [against it] came out of Chicago and James Elkins sits on the throne of Chicago culture. Why could he not recognize the phenomenon that we are all around here to say? – because we made art criticism and he did not acknowledge it.

Richard Siegesmund: What we have [today] is criticism that works within the academy. There is dialogue about establishing community. Those are two different things. Those are both called criticism. We get them switched back and forth all the time. Part of my own vibration in terms of art education …is that we don’t talk about the kind of art theory that James Elkins in talking about. We try to engage dialogue with students in order to create community in a kind of democratic space. The Examiner was clearly about that – the John Deweyan community aspect. That’s why the National Endowment for the Arts excluded [the NAE from funding] – it was ‘reporting’, it wasn’t ‘theorizing.”

Jennie Klein: [Compared with the UK] the academic system here in the US is flawed. It’s also very tied to tenure, which makes Elkins a big deal. He’s published a lot with respectable publishing houses whereas many of the Examiner writers were not big deals in the same sense that Elkins is.

Richard Siegesmund: There is the problem of editorship…with analysis. There is a problem of who is getting written about and why. We are in an age when the motives of institutions are questionable. I am enough of an insider of the art world that I saw some heavy duty sausage being made – with a lot of critical cover put over it so you don’t see the sausage making…its’ happened in the international biennale marketplaces.

Starting from the beginning of the discussion it was clear that the presence of Derek Guthrie and his perceptions on the heady spirit in which the NAE was born was the centerpiece of the seminar. The panelists consisted of former writers and editors brought many meaningful – sometime contentious – experiences and philosophies to the debate, plotting out how the discernable changes in the NAE’s content was based on who was editor at that time. Much discussion centered on how contention between the NAE and institutions of power in the art world – particularly the Chicago art world – developed and why.

Barbara Jaffee, Associate Professor of Art History at NIU, began with a brief summation of the importance the NAE assumed in the history of art criticism – a useful overview that was printed in a catalogue produced for the seminar – The New Art Examiner: Chicago’s “Independent Voice of the Visual Arts” 1973 – 2002. She opened by quoting the magazine’s original statement of purpose “by promising – and delivering – an often sharp-edged critique of…”

“The definition and transmission of culture in our society: the decision making process within museums and schools and agencies which determine the manner in which culture shall be transmitted; the value systems which presently influence the making of art as well as its study in exhibitions and books: and, in particular, the interaction of these factors with the visual art milieu…”

The catalogue outlined the NAE’s most potent years “Without Fear or Favor” 1973 – 79, followed by “Redefining Regionalism 1980 – 1992” and finally “Down and (eventually) Out 1993- 2002”, tracing its trajectory as a muckraking and art critical hub for a restless and energetic arts community to it’s final demise. Jaffe contrasted the NAE’s high quality editorship at its beginning from the editing in its declining years.

The intricate politics do not begin to account for the magazine’s true significance….where once the magazine had set its sights on making visible the hidden operations of institutional power, it was now equal parts poetry and politics…at it’s most principled such critical theorizing may seem like nihilism.

Following Jaffee Kathryn Born, founder of the online Chicago Art Magazine and co-editor of the newly published book The Essential New Art Examiner discussed her meeting with Derek Guthrie several years ago. “It was this fighting spirit that I found Derek and I had in common.” She saw the role of the rebel who rejects popular opinion as important. “Keep an eye out for disloyalty ….the person who seems unpopular has managed to tick off everybody and that just might be an excellent sign.” Co-editor Terri Griffith discussed the publication’s boisterous muckraking verve which died in its later years. “The NAE started out as a newspaper for artists and ended as an art criticism journal.”

On the first panel Derek Guthrie was joined on by Professor Josh Kind, a former contributing editor to the NAE, and artist Buzz Spector who is presently the art department dean at the St. Louis based Washington University. Guthrie described how the NAE came into being when he and his wife, NAE co-founder Jane Addams Allen, were dropped from writing for the Chicago Tribune and how a commissioned article was killed from being published in Art News. Regarding this cause and effect he mentioned “I heard through the grapevine that a letter writing campaign was organized by the MCA….thus the NAE was born out of censorship.” The essence of the magazine was the result of the chemistry between the two. For Jane that included the belief in the philosophy of her famous aunt Jane Addams. “Jane Addams made Hull House available to everyone, even Communists and Anarchists, for the simple reason that she believed what was quintessentially American was the constitution, and that was the right to free speech.” He described how the NAE came out of the 50’s and 60’s generation – a time filled with change, movements, and social dynamism.

We never hired a single person to write a review about an institution that they had an affiliation with. We didn’t care if someone wrote a good [positive] or bad [negative] review. I think the NAE gained a certain strength because it did that….We always assigned a review to what we knew to be the exact opposite of that person’s taste, and guess what? 9 times out of 10 that was the better review.

Spector mentioned that when he started working for the NAE he felt torn between careerist conformity and the desire to speak truth to power. The office at the NAE was

…the most striking culture of discourse and argument that I was ever privileged to participate in… the drug of choice was argument. As acerbic and sharp and incisive as some of the writing published for the magazine was, the arguments in the office were even better…it was an ethical training ground. We were constantly pushing back the notion we should be comfortable with what we wrote. It was about connecting of that personal experience…to a set of social, political and environmental circumstances. In this way the NAE was truly ahead of its time…. [it] was never corrupt, occasionally self-pitying but never corrupt. Corruption in this context means being comfortable with power.

Josh Kind spoke briefly on his regular writing of the column Thick Tongue published in the magazine’s beginning years. It was “an antidote to the engagement of unconscious pretense. Thick Tongue was always about shooting that down.“ He also mentioned his passion as a teacher and how important it was for his students to form a community to talk about their work after graduating. The NAE served a concrete purpose with its art audience. “The public needs the translation of art into another dimension – that language brings people closer to their feeling for art.”

Guthrie continued with his salvo on the decadence of current conditions in the mainstream.

To talk about art and not talk about the context of the larger world and the politics within which artists are creating is cheating the entire community….the publishers today cater to blue chip galleries and selling ads that do not want to alienate anyone. But for good publishing to survive it’s going to need sincere readership – people who enjoy content.

When discussion turned to the relevance of reviving the NAE today Guthrie replied, “Of course it is. Why not? It should happen. There’s no where for critics to go” and mentioned SAIC professor James Elkin’s book Whatever Happened to Art Criticism? which describes much about the source of this crisis.

A question was raised regarding the objection to the Essential New Art Examiner’s co – dedication to Kathryn Hixson, the editor who oversaw the period when specific changes in the quality of the magazine’s critical content occurred and who was active at its demise in 2002. Guthrie responded

I cannot sign off on censorship.…Kathryn was an academic. She wanted a full time position [at SAIC]. She had her passions…She was sincere and I have no problem with sincerity…the NAE got institutionalized inside of academia and academia will impose ways of doing things. The larger issue is what is the effect of academia on art? I would argue that if you take a population of artists there is a whole game that is not being talked about. Look at the history of Circle Campus. Look at the history of the Art Institute. Look at who does get and do not get teaching jobs…[it’s about] patronage, content, in other words a rewards system. Who is giving the rewards and what are the rewards for? Who do they and do they not give them to because they do not conform to the game that certain people are playing?

The moderator for the second panel, Richard Siegesmund, focused on the NAE’s years from 1980 – 92. He is Associate Professor of art education at NIU and was deeply influenced as a writer by Jane Addams Allen when he worked in the NAE’s Washington office. Panelist Janet Koplos, a long time writer for many art magazines including the NAE, described her primary focus on craft, and how this had been sidelined by the mainstream art world. “Craft is an underdog field.” She spoke about how Derek and Jane embraced craft as an important subject of art that deserved deeper focus and contrasted her writing against formalist and deconstructionist writing approaches. Siegesmund replied “at the time [Greenberg] wrote craft was not part of the orthodoxy…the NAE was open to challenging that error.” MCA Curator Lynne Warren mentioned, “It wasn’t as much a craft and fine art dichotomy as much as it was [about] materiality” to which Koplos responded “Skill is still an issue though…perhaps that’s the stigma.” Paul Krainak added that Chicago had been more associated with “the history of object making rather than the production of theory.” As a student of Josh Kind he recalled the necessity to

take responsibility for the contextualization of your generation’s work…the rise of alternative spaces [Artemisia, Name Gallery] and the NAE happened at about the same time. They nurtured each other – made each other vigorous and healthy. Chicago was considered a healthy place to begin a career – you could get your ideas out.

Siegesmund talked about the importance of government programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, before the money dried up under the Reagan Administration

[they] kicked the slits out from under the visual arts program and the NAE. But there was a moment of what I would call almost an experiment with European cultural thinking in this country….[government] was able to put up the bucks to support something like NAME Gallery. There was this moment of possibility created by government support of the arts which we had not seen since 1900 or so.

He also added that because of the fragility of funding to these alternative spaces “to actually give a critical analysis [of the art] was perceived as hurtful to the organization.”

A relevant quote from Barbara Jaffe’s catalogue – by Maureen Sherlock – explained how the culture wars of the 1980’s and subsequent funding loss led to the end of an era

The decision of the Reagan administration to both privatize support for the arts and the insistence that all institutions receiving public support follow standard business practices…[was] the death knell for more spontaneous responses to issues of the day [and] led to a vast system of both internal and external censorship.

Lynn Warren had written an article for the NAE on alternative spaces, but added that she was predominately “on the other side of the fence” working as a curator for the MCA. There was “perceived and maybe outright hostility between these two institutions from time to time.” She read an article from the NAE that described how both the MCA and Art Institute stores refused to carry the NAE because of its negative press. Warren mentioned that “throughout the 70’s the NAE wrote little or nothing about shows happening at the MCA.” Koplos responded that criticism in America is used as a form of PR and “Derek and Jane did not practice that…the expectations were that the dialogue would not be ‘respectful.’” Krainak added how in the past students took the responsibility for the discourse around their work but now you “get a curator to do it for you” and how the National Endowment for the Arts defunded the NAE because it deemed it’s writers were unqualified. They weren’t “theorizing in the way that was expected of the art world.”

An audience member asked if the visual arts in Chicago are being hampered because there is no publication that has replaced the NAE’s function. Warren mentioned there are lots of art blogs with greater access but more fragmentation “no one can get through everything out there.” Siegesmund replied

One thing the Internet does not have are editors. The Internet does not have librarians. The role of those very contentious [NAE] editorial board meetings …as much as they were wide open and their wasn’t censorship…is there were still standards of editorial guidance.

Alice Thorson, a former editor of the NAE and arts columnist for the Washington Times described how she was struck by Guthrie’s editorship. “What Derek did …was to really hold the art world’s feet to the fire in terms of letting everybody in.” This included embracing Feminism, lobbying on their behalf, writing about African American artists, and covering the crafts.

A question was raised about how critical dialogue and dialectic that engages an art audience has died and has been replaced by impenetrable theoretical discourse – was this the reason why the NAE lost its critical focus in its final years? Krainak recalls “how focused criticism was out of grad school in the late 70’s.” Art had much more clearly defined boundaries, whereas “what the art object is [today] has changed dramatically” which creates the problem of focus and generating a dialectic around it. Barbara Jaffe added that The NAE “flew in the face of theorizing” by focusing on the art object itself which theorizing did not do. “There is a tension there.“

The final panel began with writer Susan Snodgrass who described her early aspirations as a political reporter in Washington D.C. and switched to art writing for the NAE in the 80’s. “I was very happy to be working in what I saw as real true journalism.” Michael Bulka, who wrote regular columns for the NAE loved the “Raging arguments” his opinion created and missed “the passion that was generated on those pages – I would live for someone complaining about something I wrote. I would say stuff just so people would come after me.”

Siegesmund added “the Examiner let you address issues of community” rather than objects. Bulka replied “It’s not about objects anymore, its all about the delivery system – economics, sociology, politics – they will never be bringing in the weirdoes.” Jennie Klein, associate professor at Ohio University, wrote for the NAE in the 1993 – 2002 period when Structuralist theory was on the ascendancy. She expressed strong interests in Feminist and performance art and “the de-materialism of the art world” citing influence from writers like Doulas Crimp and Roland Barthes. Bulka raised his objections to this kind of writing. “I really hated the poststructuralist theory.” Siegesmund responded

Since Hegel and Marx we have been theorizing about art and we have an American exception to that – John Dewey and American Pragmatism – looking at art through experience and perceptions without theory. Dewey began in Chicago and was friends with Jane Addams. I see an element of Pragmatism in the way the Examiner started, and I think there is a case to be made that what happened in the 1990’s was the collision of American Pragmatism with European Continental Theory and we have still not sorted our way out of that collision yet.

A question was asked – how do we find an ideal forum for art criticism today? Michael Bulka replied “Part of the problem is editors are really important… [in the blogosphere] any monkey can have access. With the Examiner the writer needs to be vetted by an editor. As long as you don’t have that vetting process it’s hard to have credible critics.”

Jennie Klein mentioned “most of us were too young to have participated [at the NAE] in those halcyon days of the mid to late 70’s. We are going through a very strange period in American art history, very reactionary. I wonder if we will ever get back to such a great period for the arts.” Alice Thorson criticized the support for blogs as a substitute for art criticism “Do you get paid for that? You get what you pay for. You need an editorial framework so that you have some kind of entity that has a mission.”

Many of the audience questions did express that we need a new critical consciousness and the vitality of the NAE in our public sphere. During the last set of panelists it was rather chilling to hear one of the audience members ask what is the alternative to our current art writing options– descriptive journalism for commercial media or unvetted blogs. The panel gave no answer. This silence couldn’t help me from thinking the degree to which the ability to even imagine alternatives or resistance to the present systems has disappeared from the consciousness of the professionals in charge of the art world. Current BFA’s and MFA’s graduated from conceptual and theory oriented art programs like to wear the avant-garde badge – but isn’t this in fact disguising what is actually a rear-garde market servility, cynicism and apathy? As Guthrie mentioned, that avant-garde vitality has waned. The more that art writing media and institutions are incapable of supporting real critical consciousness the more that change will only be possible from the margins outside of power. Sound familiar? I will end with a quote from a recent January 2012 issue of Art in America article by Erin Sickler entitled Art and the 99%.

One error was abandoning our former resistance, our dedication to humane alternatives, and caving in completely to the market-only syndrome…once radical-institutions have seen their missions diluted by the corporate values of their funding institutions. Government cuts, which we have failed to stop, have allowed corporations and wealthy patrons to grow increasingly dominant in the culture sphere.

There will be a continuation of this seminar with a panel discussion aimed at opening up debate about problems in the contemporary art world, the revival of critical discourse and the NAE. It will be happening on April 15th 2012 from 1 – 5 pm at the Evanston Art Center 2603 Sheridan road (847) 475-5300. It is free and open to the public and panelists will include Derek Guthrie, Diane Thodos, Annie Markovich, Keith Brown EAC Director of Education, and SAIC professor Andrew Falkowski among many others to be confirmed in time. Hope to see you there!

Derek Guthrie

Derek Guthrie, Josh Kind and Buzz Spector

Richard Siegesmund

Lynne Warren

Paul Krainak

Buzz Spector

Michael Bulka

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Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a 2002 recipiant of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant. She had a 2009 retrospective at the National Hellenic Museum in 2009 and is represented by The Kouros Gallery in New York City where she exhibited in 2011. The Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago, the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, and the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City also represent her.