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“The Gazette of Touchy Subjects”: Re-Examining the New Art Examiner Symposium

Robin Dluzen

Derek Guthrie, Joshua Kind and Buzz Spector at the NIU Symposium for the New Art Examiner

On January 28, 2012, Northern Illinois University played host to a joint event honoring the recently published anthology of Chicago’s last successful arts criticism print publication, The Essential New Art Examiner, by hosting an exhibition and a day-long symposium bringing together various founders, editors and contributors from throughout the New Art Examiner’s 29 year run.

Though the symposium was seemingly organized into panels, each with a loose topic, the sessions blended together as the participants waxed nostalgic about the Chicago of the 1970s, and decades old arguments resurfaced as a testament to the publication’s troublesome past.

Editors of The Essential New Art Examiner, Chicago Art Magazine’s Founder and Publisher, Kathryn Born, and Author, Critic and Educator, Terri Griffith each kicked off the symposium with some welcome context concerning the anthology and its creation. Citing an affinity for the critical and rebellious vision of the New Art Examiner’s co-founder, Derek Guthrie, Born explained that the lasting influence of the New Art Examiner stems in part from its ability “to say unpopular things” in the face of otherwise homogenous points of view within the Chicago art community.

Born also addressed a topic that is as polarizing and contested in arts criticism today as it was in the New Art Examiner’s heyday: the need for arts news-related writing in order to provide the politics and context vital to the meaning of art and arts criticism.

Terri Griffith’s speech proved to be an introduction for the manner in which the rest of the symposium unfolded. Her poignant story of speaking with the widow of a former New Art Examiner contributor who kept meticulous files of his drafts and copies of the publication that his widow could not bring herself to dispose of illustrated how very personally the magazine still affects those who were involved.

New Art Examiner Co-Founder, Derek Guthrie with The Essential New Art Examiner editors, Kathryn Born, Terri Griffith and Janet Koplos signing books

“All the times I’ve ever been physically assaulted for words that I wrote were from what I wrote in the New Art Examiner,” explained Buzz Spector, moderator of the first panel with Guthrie and Joshua Kind. This portion of the day consisted mainly of the well-known stories of the New Art Examiner’s creation: Guthrie and Co-Founder Jane Addams Allen’s dismissal from the Chicago Tribune, and their article killed unceremoniously by Art News.  Other statements regarding the publication that Spector referred to as “The Gazette of Touchy Subjects” echoed the idealistic, rebellious roots of the time period, including a quote from the inaugural issue: “We believe art is serious…Art is an instrument of war.”

But as this panel continued, it again took a turn for the personal as Guthrie’s beef with the last editor of the New Art Examiner, the late Kathryn Hixson, resurfaced amongst a discussion of the roles of the editor and the publisher in relation to the magazine’s origins as a more democratic animal. The magazine became “institutionalized inside academia” under Hixson’s editorship as a reflection of the growing prominence of Chicago’s teaching artists, a phenomenon that still exists today.

After lunch, the symposium got to start fresh (or at least fresher) with a panel of The Essential New Art Examiner’s third editor, Janet Koplos, and New Art Examiner contributors Paul Krainak, Alice Thorson and Lynne Warren, moderated by Richard Siegesmund.  Koplos began with a discussion of craft and the ways in which the New Art Examiner was able to reiterate its affinity for the “underdog,” devoting articles and issues to ceramics and glass, when other national magazines wouldn’t dare. “Skill is the stigma in craft,” she explained, also citing that though the Imagists were defined by their “skill,” they would never be called, or would ever call themselves “craft.” An admiration of skillful handling of material is often, to this day, confined only to the traditional “fine arts” of painting and drawing, where it would be dismissed as irrelevant “craft” if seen in ceramics, textiles or glass.

Other defining traits of the New Art Examiner were lauded, such as its inclusion of humor within arts writing, separating it from the dense, difficult criticism seen in other publications, Artforum in particular. Siegesmund also pointed out that the New Art Examiner broke new ground in the early days allowing for a large number of artists to contribute to the publication, a move that made it possible for artists to “take control over the critical discourse surrounding the art,” as Thorson explained the “cultural historian” feeling that the publication embodied as it documented the murals and galleries on the scene.

Guthrie, Born, Griffith and Koplos sign copies of The Essential New Art Examiner

Though the afternoon started out strong, the conversation quickly returned to the wistful longings for the days of blossoming arts funded by the NEA grants that we’ll never see the likes of again. As this panel blended into the next, with contributors Michael Bulka, Jennie Klein, Susan Snodgrass, and Alice Thorson moderated by Siegesmund, the hostility between the publication and the Museum of Contemporary Art was revisited, though the conversation truly ran aground as the question of the disappearance/role/crisis of art criticism was raised, and the condemnation of internet writing began.

Although Koplos was quick to address the fact that “critics just like to criticize each other,” most others began to complain about the criticism taking place on the internet, with Bulka claiming that “any monkey with internet access can [write something] and put it up there.” Despite the fact that a number of panelists, audience members, former contributors of the New Art Examiner, as well as the editors of The Essential New Art Examiner, are currently contributing to or creating online arts publications, many of the more vociferous members of the panel began to illustrate their generational gaps with dated notions of what the internet is and is capable of.

The main complaint, to my horror, was the assumption by many of the panel, including Snodgrass (faculty of SAIC’s New Arts Journalism Program), that the internet is still a place of incomprehensible, unedited content, blaming the absence of the “Editor” for the allegedly “poor writing” about contemporary art on the internet. When a student from the audience asked this final panel, “What is it then that we should do?” he received no answer except silence.

As I, a person who makes her living as an editor of online arts writing, sat in the audience throughout the day, it became very clear to me that the loudest complainers may just be those that feel left behind as all varieties of publishing rapidly evolve into the digital realm. Ignored was the fact that the very content that the panel seemed to be crying out for –digital arts publishing done with the same editorial process that print media employs— already exists on the internet through various internet media outlets that have proven themselves to be authoritative, provocative voices in the arts community.  I realized that my digital publishing colleagues and I are three to four generations younger than the critics and writers who contributed to the New Art Examiner; we no longer make the art we did in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and that there is also absolutely no reason we should be expected to replicate the criticism from those days either.