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Spin City

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The final issue of Art Muscle magazine was published in the summer of 1997. As publisher/editor, I made the decision to devote our farewell to the “art of criticism.” Four well-known writers were given space to correct the common misunderstanding of the word “criticism,” i.e. that it does not mean to hammer an artist relentlessly. Nathan Guequierre, who currently writes for the Shepherd Express and is pursuing a career in Urban Design, contributed “Selections from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.” James Auer, who was and still is a much respected art reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offered his views in “Critical Reflections 1,” Dean Jensen, a longtime local gallery owner and former art reviewer, groused in “Critical Reflections 11,” and Jeffrey Perso, who, in 1997 had edited four alternative newspapers, checked in with “The Death of Criticism.” Additionally, various local art personalities were interviewed. Some of the luminaries have moved on to other cities, other jobs in the arts, but their comments live on. The cover featured glorious black and white photographs (on the front and back!) by John Shimon and Julie Lindemann, who remain devoted to their profession. It also included a plea for someone to take the challenge and invent a new Art Muscle. No one did, and the void of a publication devoted exclusively to what’s happening in the arts in our state (well, sometimes we included outsiders) remains unfilled. In re-visiting the AM, I unearthed a few thoughts from contributors. You decide if they’re worth thinking about: “I learned long ago not to rely on a review to sell shows. I think the biggest article we’d had on the gallery was when an Africano sculpture was stolen. There’s never been a major art-world drama (remember Mapplethorpe?) here since I arrived. In Milwaukee, criticism is journalism. It describes.” — Michael H. Lord, 1997 Note from 2004: Since then, Lord’s gallery has been involved in a major art-world drama, i.e. the sinking of Dennis Oppenheim’s Blue Shirt project. “Masquerading as fact, much criticism is simply dressed up opinion. I am an African-American, and I note that many mainstream critics invalidate ‘Black Art’ by ignoring it. Good critics make sense of the work by bringing the artists and the public together.” — Evelyn Patricia Terry, 1997 Note from 2004: Terry’s installation work can be seen at Mitchell International Airport. “As a curator and critic, I’m interested in the potential of ‘media art,’ the new technologies accompanying computers (the internet in particular) and video. There is a universal problem rooted in the older generation’s fear about media art, i.e. they feel they may lose their positions because they are unable to learn the new, consequently the whole field lacks intellectual discourse.” — Peter Doroshenko, 1997 Note: Doroshenko was executive director of UW-Milwaukee’s inova when he wrote this. Since then he’s moved to Brussels and inova is in a state of flux. Curator Marylu Knode, who gave inova her all, recently fled to a similar position at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. “While I am somewhat loathe to admit it, I think art criticism and art journalism have the power to make the experience of art ‘real.'” — Russell Bowman, 1997 Note: Bowman, then executive director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, left for Chicago to pursue a career in art consulting. “Nietzsche’s statement, ‘if it doesn’t kill, it will make you stronger’ applies to criticism and poison.” — Erics Johnson, 1997 “Generosity, is perhaps, an essential element of criticism. As long as it isn’t overdone. Never force an art work, or an artist, to bear a burden that can’t be borne. The critic has a duty to Art, the artist, and the audience, three balls of unequal mass to be juggled…Pope believes that one shouldn’t be fooled by gimcrackery, by fanciness, by apparent outward perfection, but should dig through the ripe flesh to find the kernel, the stone, the seed that makes an artwork what it is. — Nathan Guequierre, 1997 Note: Guequierre continues to seek that which makes an artwork what it is. “Look at the Bestseller lists. The Billboard charts. The weekly receipts from Hollywood. Look at the Nielsen ratings. In America, the bottom line has replaced aesthetic judgement, and the cash register is the most convincing critic of all. — Jeffrey Perso, 1997 Note: In March The New Yorker magazine nailed The Passion of Christ and Mel Gibson to the cross. Locally, Jim Stingl of MJS provided a few nails of his own. Perhaps there’s hope after all. “I am a chronic optimist. I look forward to discovering a vivid new talent, exciting work. I say this despite the fact that it is far harder to write a positive review than a negative one. Many readers mistakenly believe it’s the other way around. All too often, alas, I am disappointed. — James Auer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic, 1997 Note: Who out there knows that Auer is also a sleight-of-hand artist and a fine photographer? “Writing art criticism is like praying. You have doubts all the time about whether anyone is really listening.” — Dean Jensen, 1997 Venerable Jensen penned prolific for the Milwaukee Sentinel during the 70s and much of the 80s. Since then he’s been holding the fort at Dean Jensen Gallery in downtown Milwaukee. If you would like to contribute ideas to Spin City, please e-mail Judith Ann Moriarty at or call the Riverwest Currents office at 414/265-7278.
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