Dawson’s Creak: Reflections on “Real Art D.C.”
In case you missed it, last week The Washington Post announced Steven Silburg as the winner of its Real Art D.C. contest. It's an honor to be the top dog in any race, but this prize is a little dubious—and not just because of the title, which evokes two reality shows that create more court jesters than kings, The Real World and Real Housewives. Seventeen thousand Washington Post readers voted in the contest, but 75 percent of the votes were split between Silberg and runner-up Stephanie Booth. Silberg barely stayed on the island with a 200-vote margin.
While this competition was no doubt spurred by art patron Mera Rubell's December observation of D.C.'s "artists in isolation," the Post's Jessica Dawson—as the (presumed) lone judge and jury before the final round—blurred some boundaries: Should a critic also be a judge? Sure, art criticism and contest judge are subjective exercises (bound by bits of objectivity). However, being an arts writer for a major newspaper requires, at the very least, to withdraw from criticism if there is a conflict of interest. Does judging affect her objectivity for future criticism, or did past bits of criticism and show-hopping cloud her judgment regarding who was selected as a finalist? Since the goal of the contest was to "discover the Washington region's newest talents," I can't say she was effective at bringing new talent to the table… and in some cases she should have known better.
Of the 10 finalists, six were already familiar—if not yet fully exposed—talent. Lisa McCarty, Kristina Bilonik, and Silburg have exhibited at the larger regional nonprofits over the past few years, and a couple of them have been written up in Post pieces by Michael O'Sullivan. Joel D'Orazio's been around a lot longer. Adam Dwight has had quite a bit of buzz throughout the year, and Travis Childers was a Sondheim semifinalist in 2009.
That Keinyo White is an illustrator might create a bias against his craft from a fine-art perspective, but his selection as a finalist will broaden his audience and blur those fine art-commercial art boundaries. Recent graduates Jenny Yang and Chloe Watson (despite whatever exposure they may have had from Corcoran and MICA) and public school art teacher Stephanie Booth are also welcome newcomers to the WaPo readership.
But the contest had other problems. If you wanted to judge for yourself and traipse through the 4000-plus image entries submitted to the site, it would have taken at least 90 minutes on a DSL connection. Fast math says that each image would then get less than a one-second glance, though 50 percent of the time that was too long for any of a number of reasons: the slide was a duplicate, the work wasn't really qualified to be in the competition, or the artist was overqualified. Even submitter "Prince George" recognized his work didn't belong, stating, "there is some good art on this site. This is not one of those sets..."
To clarify, roughly half of all work entered had one suitable place: Artomatic. Perhaps it is elitist to declare that the conversation of contemporary art has no space for micro-lens floral photos and poorly rendered graphite celebrity fan art, but it is the truth. The only spaces for such work are waiting rooms and refrigerators (respectively). As for the artists who were more-than-qualified: It's sort of embarrassing that six people from Lenny Campello's top 100 (Laurel Lukaszewski, Carol Brown Goldberg, Matt Sesow, Dana Ellyn, Tim Tate, and Renee Butler), not to mention the book's author, all submitted work. And simply because they were not among Campello's hundred doesn't excuse submissions by Christopher Sims, Ryan Hill, Katherine Mann, and Trevor Young.
Of the rest that remain… well, there was a lot of academic stuff that I wouldn't be surprised to find in galleries named Apex or Pinnacle (not that that's a bad thing). But that's not to say those academic submissions weren't at least mildly interesting, especially when bookended by Obama art. Of the remaining art that was arguably decent, about 50 artists caught my eye. In the spirit of the competition, I'll give a list of 10. This is not to discredit the finalists. In fact, I don't even know if I would classify these as finalists, since I won't ruminate heavily over them. Consider this my "in addition to." Here are there usernames (some of them neglected to fill out a profile). I'll spare them less-than-constructive suggestions and snarky/snide quips to summarize their efforts:
On the whole, the Real Art D.C. experiment contained some fun. One major criticisms of the D.C. art scene is that the Post needs to be the paper of record when it comes to the art in and around the nation's capital. Support of the local art scene by a national paper with the fifth largest readership in the country helps solidify the region as an art destination. To see the energies of Dawson and the Post invested into the region with this contest—not to mention some of chief critic Blake Gopnik's recent forays into D.C. galleries—has been welcome and refreshing. But the experiment had plenty of flaws, too—and they don't entirely belong to the Post. Some rest on the shoulders of art faculty at the two dozen or so area colleges and universities for not encouraging their talent to submit to a contest partially designed for them.
Still, if exercises like Real Art D.C. are executed enough times, and end up energizing new talent, and the Post continues to pay attention to that new talent, then maybe the museums and galleries of Washington, D.C., can stop revisiting the Washington Color School every three yearsand dusting off Gene Davis' corpse every time their gift shops need to make a buck.