Q&A with Derek Guthrie by Norbert Marszalek

questions and answers - Q&A

Norbert Marszalek: Since the demise of the New Art Examiner more than a decade ago, why do you think Chicago hasn’t been able to produce a monthly publication that’s dedicated to the visual arts?

Derek Guthrie: GREAT question … there is no easy answer. I think the quick answer is larger than Chicago—though Chicago has its own nature which is frozen. Overall the United States is losing its previous cultural curiosity and interest in discourse. Chicago is particularly venial as Nelson Algren pointed out in that great work “City on the Make“. Neoteric Art has just published Richard Siegersmund intelligent essay “Of Fear and Favor” … a point I think is important to make and difficult to say is that Richard who is a well established art scholar saw the rich heritage and intelligence of the New Art Examiner with its roots, in Jane Addams and John Dewey. This leaves the question: why could academia in Chicago not see this homegrown and rich heritage?

In the early days the NAE had quality though in a simple and cheap format. Jack Burnham, a nationally established author of important books, contributed major articles and was asked by museum personal: why do you associate with that rag? Chicago does not know how to handle power. I think the fear of power finds a release in fantasy about the art market. This is also an innate fantasy of American culture. Though I say this in no way means that I am anti market. One has to know how it is manipulated to be aware. The culture of grant giving has to be looked at. Given the changing culture it should be possible to produce an art magazine in Chicago—though it will take courage which is in short supply. City Hall rules Chicago. Diane Thodos and Annie Markovich have courage—they write without looking over their shoulders.

NM: Yes, I agree that as a whole the United States is losing its cultural curiosity but cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even some smaller markets still have dedicated visual art publications that speak to that region’s art scene. By no means is Chicago a small market … or our we?

DG: Chicago is a small minded town. The market is large enough. I would like to make a comment on this. Globalization has shrunk the world. It is not possible to exclude the outside world. Any community has to deal with its own but also what is vital elsewhere. The NAE started in Chicago and was concerned with local issues but if local issues are written about with flair and intelligence these issues are of interest to others. The Second City Syndrome is well embedded in Chicago which is jealous of New York. Northern Illinois University press when publishing the anthology The Essential New Art Examiner decided to include only articles that dealt with Chicago art. I did not know this, however Chicago is more than happy when outside writers write on Chicago art. The last regime of the NAE replaced the slogan “the Independent Voice of the Visual Arts” with the slogan “the Voice of Midwestern Art” … this was a factor that killed the publication. Who cares? Does Chicago care about Miami, LA, San Francisco? Creative ferment, intellectual activity, making art, making criticism kicking ideas around, this is a problem of life and not where you live.

Chicago can support a magazine but the vision has to be about art that is outside of Cook County. Maybe that art is not impressive. So Chicago with intelligence and will should be able to do this. In the early days we printed a great article by Jack Burnham on Beuys showing at the Guggenheim Museum … so an East coast writer living in Chicago writing on a German in a New York Museum. The fact is that Chicago published an important article, an article considered important in critical art history. Relevance and intelligence can not be confined by boundaries. This is a problem of our times as more people travel. We have to get over the idea that PR is criticism or relevant. Paul Klein is boring because being politically correct he has to say Chicago art is good. He is like an obsessive mother who always tells you how marvelous her children are … like those dreadful letters sent out at the end of the year. Paul gets money. Mothers, though annoying, can be forgiven.

The established magazines Art in America, Art Forum, Art News etc. have to rely on advertising revenue. They have lost relevance and power in recent years. The art world is changing. The so called not for profit route is as important as dealers. Their distribution of money is not reported on. So the artist is de-professionalized, the scandal of Art Academia, and rushes to the market for salivation. As Jerry Saltz told SAIC the fact that going to SAIC will give you about 6 or 9 months advantage after graduation.

NM: Yes, it’s important not to exclude the outside world but it’s also important to take care of your own as they say. I don’t think Chicago is very good at taking care of their own. Chicago seems to be a good incubator but then the inevitable happens: artists move away. It felt a little different in the 1980s … Chicago had the Imagists movement, a thriving gallery scene, some critical art writers who promoted Chicago artists and, of course, the New Art Examiner played an important role. As you have stated: the NAE put Chicago on the art map. There is nothing here for artists to grow into. What does Chicago need in place for mature artists to stay and strive?

DG: There has to be a re-think on what being an artist is. Certainly appealing to the Gold Coast and the rich collectors are not the answers. It will help to put groceries on the table though. Confidence and definition in and around the work. The situation is the same in Cornwall where I live. Once a thriving and important world art center, now gone. I fear that the art system like the political system is corrupt and can not respond to innovative or original art. So the answer will be when we start to talk about what is good art as opposed to what is not so good art.

It was sad when the Imagists were dominant. There were other very good artists who were destroyed as the supporters of the Imagists made sure they did not get a look in. As with the NAE, Chicago has a machine culture and nothing happens unless this is acknowledged and resisted. This will take energy and commitment as a revival of the NAE will need. The few mature artists that I know will not speak in a direct way about this. Academia is silenced as it is afraid of history. Chicago is a ruthless culture. There has to be a stand for independence. As the NAE was not politically committed to any style of art it was able to be a platform. The essay by Frank Pannier is polemical but intelligent and true. He was an outcast. The reemergence of the NAE would again put Chicago on the map, as it would show a mature art scene above the petty minded in fighting.

The panel on the New Art Examiner convened by Buzz Spector for CAA, Chicago February 2014 called Wide Eyed Reading is I think meant to look into this issue. I am considered “inappropriate” to participate. I wrote a letter to Buzz and posted it on my Facebook page—please consult. Chicago is a broken culture. Neoteric Art is good for Chicago. I think more active engagement has to happen. Artists have to speak up. For years I saw artists as long shore men as portrayed in the Movie “On the Waterfront.” Something has to happen other than waiting or trying to climb the greasy pole. Challenge the gatekeepers on art issues.

NM: It is unfortunate that you are labeled “inappropriate” for the Wide Eyed Reading panel. What are some keys points that you would address if you were a participant on the panel?

DG: This is a difficult question as the history of the NAE is a long 30 years … to start at the end which is also a beginning: is being labeled “inappropriate” a problem? The dictionary offers the following words as alternative meaning: unsuitable, unfitting, unseemly, unbecoming, unbefitting, improper, impolite; incongruous, out of place/keeping, inapposite, inapt, infelicitous, ill-suited; ill-judged, ill-advised; informal out of order/line. So I have a choice and am not inclined to choose either. This leaves the question should I accept this description or not? Another question is if the other panelists have the same opinion? I actually challenge them in this response to share an opinion. This is the same debate as the debate on the New Art Examiner. The New Art Examiner is and was “inappropriate” yet it probably achieved more or as much for the Chicago art scene as any other organization.

The unfortunate reality is that there is a power struggle in the United States. Europeans call it class warfare. This is a political issue of which I have concerns. I am more interested in art and artists above political considerations. Great art can be made when the politics are dark. There is a great book “Who Paid the Piper” … impressive and detailed research in how the State Department poured millions of dollars secretly to support the Abstract Expressionists. The market and museums were rigged. This was an important strategy in the Cold War. The result was that the United States culture of individualism became a beacon of freedom which was an illusion. Harold Rosenberg wrote an important essay “The Herd of Independent Minds” Is it “inappropriate” for me to mention this? This is not a value judgement on the artists. I made my decision on those artists many years ago when the issues were fresh and new.

I think artists have to become professional. The system denies that professionalism. The NAE was interested in information for artists and thinking people. I think artists need information on ideas, who takes the decisions, how the markets work, to be educated in the fuller sense of the word. Unfortunately I see artists as reduced in this society to a childish state looking for approval at any price. The dire result of inadequate education that fosters the idea of individualism. Some art is more appropriate than other art is not a new idea.

We all have our opinion. I would for example like to hear from you who are the dynamic artists in Chicago. We need discussion without fear or favor, then it will be possible to grow up and be civilized. Chicago is not grown up in its own Midwest way. The United States is losing it tolerance. Chicago never had it. In conclusion I like to say it was Donald Kuspit, a leading authority from New York, who said the New Art Examiner had made a valuable contribution to American criticism. Chicago thinks the NAE belongs in the past which is convenient to avoid the problem of the NAE and the culture of Chicago. In fact James Elkins from the SAIC posed a great question: “What Happened To Art Criticism?” The NAE was under his nose. Maybe Elkins is more “inappropriate” than I but he is safe. He is a major gatekeeper … I am outside the walls.

NM: Well, let me ask you the same question that James Elkins has written about: What Happened To Art Criticism?

DG: I did an interview with Mokha Laget for THE magazine (full article). I share part of it with you which is a response that applies to your question:

Derek Guthrie: I think Eleanor Hartley is a superb example; she’s written stuff for Art in America and other publications. By the way, I’ve got a great quote here, let me find it… “In writing art criticism,” Eleanor says, “there are practical problems. The venues for art criticism today are limited and impose restrictions on what may be discussed. Art magazines that operate as trade journals and are dependent on gallery advertising for income tend to focus on reviews of artists or exhibitions that are in the public eye, while art coverage in most publications has a strong bias towards celebrity and entertainment. As a result, certain kinds of essays never get written, as there’s nowhere to publish them.”

Mokha Laget: Right, there are art critics and there are art writers. People often confuse the two.

Derek Guthrie: Let’s just say that an art critic is a thinking person, and whereas an art writer may just be writing copy, an art critic shares a response and an opinion. Intelligent discourse. Now that’s criticism.

Mokha Laget: Which brings up the media outlets. There’s an increasing stranglehold on content in the mainstream press—and it definitely has an anti-intellectual bias.

Derek Guthrie: Yes, and it’s been gaining ground for a long time. It’s part of postmodernism, which questions the whole idea of people making judgments. And it’s a total failure of academia. Kids think success is a matter of social networking. The old-fashioned intellectual is obsolete in this modern world—except for people who really care about ideas and thinking.

Mokha Laget: It’s reached crisis proportions. Anti-intellectualism is on the march to “manufacture consent,” as Noam Chomsky said. And the critic always depends on the editor who is dependent on the publisher… who depends on revenue.

Derek Guthrie: There is no critic unless there is an editor who has somewhere to put the stuff. A critic can only get in the pulpit where he’s asked to be. And obviously it will be a different kind of freedom depending on if it’s a niche audience or a larger magazine. So there’s no point in talking about criticism, you have to talk about the critical venue.

Mokha Laget: The relevant venues like October Journal are small. Then you have the big three: Artforum, Art News, and Art in America.

In conclusion the public sees the artist as a strange and eccentric person, not dealing with important issues. It will take courage to survive as an artist/intellectual in dealing with life issues and knowing that the activity may not get a public response. Most art departments do not understand criticism … they see it as a threat so they deprive the kids of important education.

NM: On one side of the art world we have successful artists, the 2%ers … artists that sell, get written about, work selling for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars … even millions. These artists don’t want to bite the hand that is feeding them. On the other side we have all the other artists … the average artist … 98% of them. What can average artists do within this art world to empower themselves?

DG: Artists should face the fact that the market does not support originality. Many significant artists faced this problem. We live in a celebrity culture which uses popular taste as propaganda. The dictionary defines Propaganda as noun, the prophetic novel is about a government that controls the masses by spreading propaganda: information, promotion, advertising, publicity, spin; disinformation, counter-information; historical agitprop; informal info, hype, plugging; puff piece; the big lie. Propaganda as before has penetrated into mass culture. The Academy was the 19th Institution of Propaganda challenged by artists who gained a place in history but remained ignored and poor. Propaganda as before has penetrated into mass culture. Museums are controlled by collectors and collectors play the market—quickly in and quickly out … insider information is available to them. Study of the system is the only answer. So as before artists may have to give up the idea of a slice of the market. However this does not mean that work produced is not valid or original. Neoteric Art is an important effort in this direction. The NAE was also. Endurance is the only answer and courage to walk outside the crowd. This is a political answer to a political question. As I mentioned before I think a good starting point for Chicago is Richard Siegesmund’s brilliant essay “Of Fear and Favor.”

NM: I have one more question for you … what can the museums do to help Chicago as an art scene?

DG: The Art Institute of Chicago should restore the Chicago and Vicinity Show. The MCA should also have a Chicago show as an annual event. Artists for professional courtesy have free admission to the Art Institute and MCA.

In conclusion, artists should think about good art rather than scrambling to manipulate the market … artists are not sharecroppers. As De Kooning said, “When you can see the bandwagon, it’s already gone.”

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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.