Sharing Ideas: An Email Exchange Between Derek Guthrie and Richard Siegesmund

HiRes

Dear Richard,
I am very grateful to Buzz Spector, to secure a panel for the College Art Association Annual Meeting to be held in Chicago February 2014 on the topic of the New Art Examiner, called “Wide Eyed Reading”. I am very grateful for your contribution which I understand will be the lead paper. You alone with great perception have understood that the critical base of Jane Addams Allen critical practice, originated from John Dewey’s thinking. I would like to suggest with some emphasis that Jane Addams Allen drew upon her families legacy which came from her namesake and great Aunt Jane Addams, whose work, was deeply involved with John Dewey. Hull House was a place of cultural activities, seen as essential for individual development, and therefore as socially activist. Jane Addams Allen revered the clean and simple prose of Jane Addams, who in recent years is gaining recognition as philosopher and literary force—previously overshadowed by her political image.

The New Art Examiner did not engage in social activism, other than encourage individual response as you have noticed.

Is it your intention, to write a book on the New Art Examiner?. If so I would be more than delighted to offer my memories, which are extensive and detailed. I hope that arrangements can be made for me to record them other wise much important information will be lost.

I now reprint a statement made by Buzz, “… 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 New Art Examiner 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.”

Jane was comfortable with power, and my British inheritance affords a difference than American inheritance. I think the combination was deadly in a social sense that Chicago as a culture is very confused about power—a problem of the Second City mentality—as Nelson Algren well demonstrated in his great poem ‘City on the Make”. Jane and I were unofficially blacklisted. As I am now. Even Buzz considers me inappropriate to participate on the panel.

I would be grateful for your thoughts on this, and also I would like to access the other abstracts as my only way of participating in the dialogue is in this forum or on Facebook.

In conclusion, again thank you for your scholarly insight, I look forward to developing this conversation with you. I fear the panel will take on the mandate of an Academic Parole Board. In that it will only focus on what is politically correct and avoid the reality of the struggle of the New Art Examiner. I recommend “Musings” written by Annie Markovich available on Neoteric Art for a direct and uncomplicated insight from experience.

Derek Guthrie

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Derek,
One of Hegel’s contributions to the dialogue around art is to conceptualize art as artifacts embedded within cultural practice. Art objects did not represent timeless, transcendental values. However, Hegel could not escape from his own context of cultural production. He did not see how he belonged to a social/economic/political elite. Or perhaps he did, and in recognizing the impossibility of his ability to ever move out of the mind set of that elite, declared that society had reached the end of art.

An elite preserved culture. Various gatekeepers allowed who could participate. Even if institutions were liberal and gracious in allowing members of the lower classes to advance within the sphere of culture, this magnanimity was proof that the exceptional member of the masses could be elevated to status. The life of Henry Ossawa Tanner is an example.

Jane Addams attempted the Houdini act of escaping one’s own social/political context. She did not look down on the people excluded from privilege as lacking resources, education, money, or proper manners. She did not frame them in deficit theory, that which they lacked. Instead she saw them as possessing resources. Hull House was a place where people met as equals, to exchange what each did well, and not to judge the other by what they did not possess.

Gatekeepers are always busy with who’s in and who’s out: who is allowed to judge, and who will be dismissed as a philistine. Jane Addams attempted to side-step the gatekeepers. Gatekeepers don’t like that. They are busy keeping score.

I am not familiar with Jane Addams’ writing, but I know what Jane Addams did. I know of her collaboration with John Dewey. And I am somewhat familiar with the writings of John Dewey–particularly when he got around late in life, at around the age of 70, to write about aesthetics. He did this at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. His book on aesthetics, “Art as Experience,” was dedicated to Albert C. Barnes. Gatekeepers never liked Barnes; and Dr. Barnes, in turn, was never very fond of gatekeepers. How the story of Dr. Barnes and the gatekeepers ends is told well in the movie “The Art of the Steal.” If you don’t know already, I’m not going to give away who wins.

But that is a footnote to the larger issue of Dewey, American Pragmatism, and Dewey’s attempt to articulate an American Pragmatic criticism for the analysis of art and contemporary culture– for Dewey did not view art as static and transcendental. He saw it as something that struck to the very core of how we shape the communities in which we live. Art was a place of dialogue, and Dewey, in the fourteenth chapter of Art as Experience, concludes by saying that if we stifle, mute, and gag the conversation around the creation of contemporary art, than we place the foundations of American democracy at risk. He is that blunt about it. For the sake of political health, the dialogue around art must be taken out of the hands of the cultural gatekeepers.

Dewey also held some strong views about the contribution that public education made to American democracy, but his claims for public schools in support of the project of dialogue and community, were never as strong as his assertions around the role of art.

Dewey’s Pragmatism owes a great deal to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer. Dewey was skeptical of gatekeepers and elites. He believed that with some core educational training, people could begin to think for themselves and start forming workable solutions to their lives. They did not need “experts”– particularly “artworld experts” — informing of them of what they should be doing. What people needed to know could be developed in open, democratic forums in which clear, concise, jargon-free speech was valued. I believe that the criticism of Jane Addams Allen, exemplifies this Deweyian tradition, both in her own writing and in how she contributed to editing the New Art Examiner

As you mentioned, Buzz Spector has organized a session for the upcoming annual meeting of the College Art Association to be held in Chicago. The title is “Wide Eyed Reading: The Legacy of the New Art Examiner”. It will be at the Hilton Hotel on south Michigan, in the International South room, 2nd Floor on Wednesday, February 12, 2:30-5:00 PM. My introductory paper to the panel is entitled “John Dewey, Pragmatic Criticism, and the New Art Examiner.” In my allotted time, I hope to expand on the issues that I have begun to sketch here

Indeed, this paper is a step toward a chapter in a book on the New Art Examiner that I hope to co-author with Janet Koplos. Such a book would allow me to more fully articulate this set of ideas. Janet has compiled hours or interviews with individuals who were close to the Examiner. I applied to the Terra Foundation for assistance in helping Janet transcribe these tapes so that she can move forward with analysis and synthesis of this data. Besides a book, we envisioned this research as leading to a significant public event here in Chicago around the issues of criticism in a democratic public sphere. However, Terra declined support, so we move forward at a slower pace. As to collecting more data with interviews, yourself included, one never finishes an interview. A good interviewer always asks to continue the conversation. I welcome the opportunity to again sit down with you talk, as we did for three hours this summer in Cornwall. I’ll bring a recorder with me the next time

As another footnote, I spoke with Jerry Hausman about your theory of the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and the United States Department of State. He smiled and said, “That’s absolutely true.” Perhaps that’s a story to tell?

There are histories and legacies of the Examiner. Histories create narratives around selected events of the past. Legacies are how individuals re-purpose events to their own ends. Buzz’s session is not a history; it is a legacy. In my case, I believe that history informs legacy. Perhaps this is why Buzz has asked me to be the first presenter. I have no idea if the other presenters are concerned with history. Legacies do not need to be tied to history. The postmodern Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty described such historically divorced legacies as “strong misreadings” that allow new metaphors to emerge that permit individuals to act in new ways. Rorty advocated strong misreadings. Such legacies may have utility in shaping a future, but they should not be confused with histories.

This is the abstract as presented to Buzz:

John Dewey, Pragmatic Criticism, and the New Art Examiner

The New Art Examiner’s distinctive, pugnacious writing—fostered by founding editors Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen—came out of a pragmatic belief that artists and lay people, who were willing to perceptually engage a work of art, could construct their own meaningful interpretations of cultural artifacts without relying on the intercession of academics or curators. Forty years before the Examiner’s creation, the American philosopher John Dewey laid out such a philosophy of aesthetics and criticism in “Art as Experience.” As Dewey advocated, the Examiner used the direct construction of meaning as a means of opening dialogue around the ramifications of cultural power and control.

Dewey’s aesthetic principles, which set forth a groundwork for approaching criticism, illuminate the critical style NAE editor Allen used in her own criticism for the Washington Times. The analysis of her work reveals her methodology that helped guide a significant new generation of art critics.

Let me just close by saying that orthodoxy takes hold when people no longer care about history and find thinking inconvenient to finishing their daily work. Academia demands that we stand and deliver. Each of us does so in what we consider to be the best of our abilities. It is a human process, and as such susceptible to all human foibles. Aldus Huxley observed that those who seek to eradicate evil travel the road to hell. The alternative is to simply stand for what you believe. That is hard to do, especially if it is at odds with gatekeepers.

We will undoubtedly talk more.

All the best,
Richard

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About

Derek Guthrie lived and worked in St Ives as a successful painter in the 60s before moving to Chicago and co-founding, in 1973, the New Art Examiner, an influential American art magazine which continued production until 2002. He moved back to Cornwall in 1996.

Dr. Richard Siegesmund—Professor and Head, Art+Design Education – School of Art, Northern Illinois University—is currently working to develop a better understanding of John Dewey’s aesthetics and theory of thinking in relation to contemporary arts-based educational research methodologies. With classroom teachers, he studies how these ideas create robust learning environments that foster multiple literacies. He also continues to be involved in Integrative Teaching International (ITI), and organization that provides emerging college-level art educators with the practice-based skills, knowledge, and experience needed for exemplary teaching.

He has been a Fulbright scholar in the Faculty of Education at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, Ireland. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Getty Education Institute for the Arts have also awarded him fellowships. The University of Georgia named him its first artist-in-residence to its campus in Monteverdi, Costa Rica. The School of Ecology mounted a one-person exhibition of the photo-collages that Dr. Siegesmund completed during the residency. The NAEA honored his research in art education with the Manuel Barkan Memorial Award for excellence, as wells as awarding him Southeastern Region Higher Education Art Educator of the Year Award. The GAEA recognized him for Distinguished Service within the Profession.