Autumn has finally arrived, and as every Grand Rapidian knows that can only mean one thing—Artprize.

Now in its ninth year, Artprize officially kicked off on September 20 and ends today.  Two and a half weeks of commercialized, democratized, and (if the artist is lucky) monetized art invading downtown Grand Rapids, bringing hordes of the great unwashed to our fair city.  For those of you un(lucky) to have missed this occasion, fear not because I am here to break it down for you.

First things first, Artprize has become nothing if not completely predictable.  After nine years, it is hard not to stagnate, but it has just become so rote.  Before even stepping foot downtown I basically knew what art I would find where and what would be in the Top 20.  Venues like the Amway and Devos Place are home to banal, inoffensive pieces meant to cater to the lowest common denominator.  The UICA would host preachy, edgy works made by people from diverse backgrounds.  Although The B.O.B. no longer has that outdoor plaza for big works (like the insufferable “Steampig”) it would still be able to rope in a statement piece or two. First Park Congregational is for paintings of Michigan landscapes.  And good art is at the KCAD Fed Galleries.

Though the finalists have already been announced, they needn’t have bothered since it was obvious who would be in the running.  It is the usual mix of pieces designed to tug at your heartstrings, appeal to your patriotism, and preach to your edgy side. And then there are some pieces that are in simply because they had a great location.  You can see the whole list here.

Given the current state of affairs, it is hardly surprising that there was a surfeit of overtly political and activist works this year.  I think a healthy blending of art and activism is a good thing, and it is a great way to convey a message that may otherwise be lost in the din of the twenty-four-hour talking heads news cycle.  However, one thing I did notice is that a lot of the artists chose to focus on the message they were trying to convey rather than focusing on actually making their art…good.  Many of the more partisan works were little better than newspaper political cartoons in terms of talent and execution and were about as hamfisted in their message.

But one thing missing this year was Subtlety.  This goes beyond just the political/activist pieces.  Each work of art has a little plaque telling you what the piece is and a blurb giving some context to the piece.  Which is fine.  However, sometimes those blurbs are more like manifestos of what to feel when looking at the art, how to best appreciate the art, and why the art is important.  In some cases, the artists were right there on hand in order to tell you explicitly what their art means.  Or there were instructions on how to #sharethisonsocialmedia.

And if the all-telling blurb wasn’t enough, a lot of the art was just so heavy-handed and obvious that it practically assaulted the viewer.  No subtlety.  No nuance.  No opportunity for the viewer to stare and wonder, to be captivated, to wrestle with what they are feeling and what the art is evoking.  There is no place in Artprize for such things.  The viewer cannot be trusted to safely handle the art by him/herself.  Art must be beaten into the viewer.

Finally, one of the most irksome things about Artprize is the artists themselves.  Whether they are standing on street corners handing out flyers or lurking next to their artistic works, they are a ubiquitous sight.  Some merely crave approval and stand next to their works watching your every move, every facial tic for a sign that you like their work.  Others are like Temple Merchants, desperately shoving business cards into your hands, telling you to “look me up on social media,” hocking their wares in hopes of monetary reward, looking for that big payout.  Still others stand by, on hand to explain their creative process and how you should interpret their work.  In any case, they all detract from their own work by refocusing the viewers’ attention away from the work itself and onto the creator.

Paul Menn
Paul ('10) lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Emma ('10), and cat, HandsomeMarcoCat. He loves board games, Babylon 5, and honey-curry chicken. Everything else is negotiable.

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