Of Fear and Favor by Richard Siegesmund

Torn Truth

In October 1973, the New Art Examiner published its first issue with the lead editorial Without Fear or Favor. Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen, in the roles of Editors, promised criticism that demonstrated a “concern for the whole, not just an aspect, and a respect for the truth.” In this, the NAE was ahead of its time in recognizing that art could not be reified by removing it into aesthetic palaces—museums, universities, commercial art galleries, or boutique private collections—but that it was a living, embodied function of society. The shift in academia to distinguish the study of visual cultural from the study of contemporary art attempts to address this fluid landscape.

John Dewey made a similar claim when we ended his treatise on aesthetics, Art as Experience, by stating “as long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.” The shift to post-modernism has accelerated our ability to recognize that we live in complex cultural organisms (culture as petri dish). For example, the recent sale of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud for $142.4 million cannot be entirely explained on the formal qualities of the work, nor through Lacanian theory of the mind, or Foucaultian theory of the body (although each may add a layer of understanding). Why the “British” artist bequeathed portions of his estate to the Hugh Lane Museum in Dublin might be an interesting place to begin a journey of context: fear and favor.

However, why an Irish artist feels the needs to transfigure himself into becoming a British artist—the tales of masks of mirrors for which Bacon became famous—is not why I write. That is a story to explore in another context.

Here, I wish to return to fear and favor.

As you know, the phrase comes from Adolph S. Ochs, the founder of the modern embodiment of the New York Times. Ochs took over the Times in the late 19th century, when the concept of journalism as the gathering and analysis of data was virtually unknown in print media. Nineteenth century journalism was unapologetically biased. Publishers like William Randolph Hearst bragged of the ability to slant the news in such a way that the American public would demand a useless and frivolous war with Spain. Hearst delivered on that boast. Hearst’s manipulation of news and public media led to reconfigurations of power. His machinations reshaped geo-political fault lines and created a precedent for the United States to throw itself into reckless global adventurism that has reverberated to the present day with American involvement in the Middle East. Therefore, when Ochs laid out his principles of journalism, to speak without fear or favor, he was attempting to open political discussion in the hopes of diluting the insidious power that an influential few held over our political and economic institutions.

Similarly, the NAE attempted to open a discussion around the visual arts. But what is to be feared?

The dictionary tells us that fear, as in the fear of God, is “reverential awe” or veneration. The history of museums in the United States shows that they were founded by small groups of self-appointed civic leaders who sought to better the heathen masses. I mentioned to you previously, the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal, that chronicles the 100 year struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Those charged with maintaining sites of veneration have a responsibility for preservation. However, pilgrims come to sites of veneration, and pilgrims (whether on the road to Canterbury, Mecca, Angkor Wat, or wherever) spend money. Thus, there is more than veneration at stake, there is maximizing money flow. Fear can blind us to following the money.

Fear is also “aroused by impending danger, evil, pain” with the antonym being “intrepidity.” The self-appointed guardians of culture do more than protect objects for future generations. They have become guardians because they are persons of influence within the community. They lead industries that employ people. Oftentimes, interest in civic affairs is linked to providing a civic environment that is attractive to employees and thus personal business interests. Therefore, the promotion of the arts is not about the life of the mind, it is public relations for civic interests. Good public relations leads to stronger business profits. Thus, ideas that are perceived as not being in the best interest of immediate public relations can be seen as dangerous. That which is dangerous, should be quarantined, sequestered, and allowed to desiccate. There is no need to eradicate; isolation is sufficient. Foucault provides a brilliant medieval example in his chapter Docile Bodies from Discipline and Punish. The playbook hasn’t changed much.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he swept into office with a promise to eliminate Federal support of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts. Coming from a Hollywood background, in Reagan’s view if the arts could not find the audiences to pay their own way, they were frivolous. However, much to the Reagan staffers’ surprise, it turned out that many of the powerful civic leaders who served on the symphony, opera, and museum boards were also significant contributors to Reagan’s political efforts. These donors did not want to see support for their pet projects eliminated. What was extraneous was the support for artists, art critics, and visual arts organizations. These areas of funding were quarantined, sequestered, and allowed to desiccate within the Endowment. Today, the NEA continues to support the interests of the powerful.

The New Art Examiner never held power, what then could it favor? I believe the answer to this is somewhat indirect. The list of individuals who wrote for the NAE is renowned. Writing for the NAE did not make one famous; however, it did force an individual to inscribe thought into word. NAE never allowed very much jargon to act as a subterfuge to thinking. It required its writers to say something: say it plain, with truth, and without favor. This was excellent discipline—a discipline sometimes lacking in other areas of academia. This training bequeathed power to a new generation of critics/and scholar artists. It seems to me that these individuals readily acknowledge their debt to the NAE in this regard.

Furthermore, the NAE always considered that art was a serious product of culture. It was worth saying something about. Most of all, art criticism was not a handmaiden to a public relations machine. This was perhaps NAE’s most unforgiveable sin, the withholding of favor for those things that might be commercially profitable or culturally expedient. We know the response: quarantine, sequester, and desiccate.

Nothing has really changed much in this regard, except that perhaps the commercial forces at play have stepped out from behind the veil of veneration and are much more willing to be seen for what they are. And not to sound too crabby, let me say that the trading of objects is a fundamental human activity that has merit. I like to do it. The problem only becomes when the trading of objects is confused with establishing objects that manifest cultural significance on which we might envision a way that we are more than who we are today, to attempt to grasp, as Maxine Greene says, “what is not yet.” Trading can be fun and profitable, but it doesn’t help much in reaching Greene’s aesthetic vision.

The study of visual culture in its raw authenticity slips away from schools of art and museums and is sometimes more meaningful engaged by other disciplines like critical ethnography. The work of Dwight Congquergood (who died far too young in 2004) at Northwestern University provides an example. The new work that is happening today in the fringes of Europe—and not in the traditional “art centers”—shows a better sense of this. Arguably, Glasgow is a better place to learn what it means to become an artist than London.

The fringes can be fertile areas of production, for these are areas where often it is much clearer to be whole. Maybe that’s an illusion, as power can efficiently establish our boundaries to keep us quarantined.

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About

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.