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Thursday 03.08.07

« Portland Is...Fun! | Main | Sneak peek at the new Museum of Contemporary Craft »

Ethical Bruhaha in Seattle

Seattle's new Olympic Sculpture Park at dusk

It's been an interesting week up in Seattle with critic Matthew Kangas coming under a full scale ethics probe on the Stranger's Blog (the SLOG) for requesting artwork from artists he reviewed. I find this practice very distasteful. I even dislike the constant use of art auctions and other situations where artists give up work for fundraisers. It's predatory and Im not just speaking for myself here, a lot of dealers and artists in Portland have absolutely had it. Good cause or not it's promoting a culture of pressuring and leaching off of artists (in a developing art economy like Portland it undermines markets unfairly).

Now, The Stranger's Jen Graves has the full story on Kangas and names names ... It's the paper's lead story this week and it's a fascinating read, some thought it was wrong to blog first but I think it flushed the story out. The initial blog entry is interesting too but it is tedious to sort the usesless stuff from the useful stuff (I read it all anyways ). As a historian it's a great time capsule chronicling real concerns, comment trolls and rank paranoia.

Let's give this event some civic context. Many Seattle artists have contacted me during the week wondering what this all says about Seattle as an art city? Most seem to feel a kind of loathing about it but I think its a good thing.

Why? The city is re investing in the visual arts with huge projects.

Most importantly, SAM is about to open a huge new wing by Portland based starchitect Brad Cloepfil and the scene up there has been recovering a great deal recently from the dot com days when artists were displaced by massive scale yuppification (San Fran had the same problem and many artists fled to Portland).

Seattle also lost Linda Farris (a huge blow) but now there are more galleries in Pioneer Square with great shows at the Frye and Henry as well as the Western Bridge and Wright Space. The new Olympic Sculpture Park is impressive if a tad fussy or uninspired at the moment. The Richard Serras in a recessed space make them look like pots for plants but Roxy Paine's tree looks great at night and Tony Smith rocks the place with his black metal sculpture.

New art dealers like Lawrimore Project might be an answer to the loss of Linda Farris but Scott's got some big shoes to fill there. It's true they still wonder if they have a scene though (I consider Seattle the most sarcastic city in America and I love em for it).

I see the Kangas story in the context of that major art infrastructure re-jiggering. What it says to me is that the city is re-evaluating itself and questioning business as usual. This happened in Portland in 2003-2005 when we got a new wing too (still Portland is very different from Seattle because it is artist driven down here). The big complaint is that nothing changes in Seattle for the artists and that it's a series of static fiefdoms (whereas Portland is more like the wild west before barbed wire, with some definable ranchers, rustlers and sheriffs). To these eyes this Kangas incident is one obvious change that directly benefits artists up there. Serious scenes are somewhat self-policing (especially in smaller big cities like Seattle and Portland) and I think Seattle's starting to take itself a little more seriously while checking the cultural plumbing.


I wont get into a full blown discussion of ethics (it deserves its own post) but there are different types of critics... PORT critics are a more involved, insider types "of" the scene and our reviews carry the weight of being informed specialists generated by the scene (like the Partisan Review or Minotaur). All critics have to consider ethical concerns and we do a great deal of it here at PORT.

For example, the Ellen George show last year didn't receive a review because I was writing an essay for the catalog. Katherine also had to opt out because she was involved in the publication as well. We were the only two critics available. The rule is, if critical distance cannot be developed (often through academic rigor) a PORT writer will take a pass, even if they may be the best qualified writer in town to discuss the work (hence a catalog essay). The secret is to be transparent and up front which is PORT's ethical standard.

Kangas, who is a throwback to another time, didn't do that. He failed to note that he owned work in an exhibition he curated. I consider that a serious no no too. Critics and curators are cultural gatekeepers or connoisseur and its different than being a journalist which reports. A critic lives a life of detailed comparative analysis not just reporting. Besides, reporting has a serious crisis of confidence amongst the public these days... especially in the arts.

Yes, I think it's ok for some types of critics and curators to collect work but newspaper critics can't (unless they have very very strict rules). They stand outside (sometimes in ignorance like monks in a monastery describing sex, sometimes with useful detachment), whereas PORT stands inside and it's why our reviews are often so involved by comparison (which can appear like court life, provide a window an accessible window).

Still, PORT writers do a lot of ethical minefield tap dancing and rigorous rhetorical reflection. For a more general publication this doesn't work as it spills over into the perception of other coverage which have grave consequences vs. the less grave consequences of Art (which gets its power from being somewhat detached for practical issues as a means to explore). PORT only covers visual art, our commitment is only to visual art coverage which requires details a more generalist publication couldn't hope to tackle. It is interesting how the way a publisher relates to the readership defines a publication. I trust PORT's readers to question us, rather than transmitting information from a position of assumed but sometimes untested authority.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on March 08, 2007 at 12:34 | Comments (0)


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