Not Through Looking

“Gazing is nobler than just gawking.” The phrase is uttered in clear-eyed sincerity by mega art collector Stefan Edlis in the new documentary The Price of Everything, as he looks upon Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball (Courbet Sleep).

I guess he had to say something.

The gazing-ball works are problematic, though. Not just because they’re kinda boring knock-offs of famous works (Giotto and Titian make appearances), or because they coast terribly closely to Wendy White’s AutoKennel and Curva works via a trip to Big Lots (lots of balls on sale in the garden department), but mostly because they’re smashing Jacques Lacan on his bemirrored nose … even if the artist speaks in terms of time instead of personal identity.

But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. As fascinating as uber-wealthy art collectors are to gaze upon in their curated vitrines, the real fascination is, as always, with art and artists. In that same documentary, art critic/celeb-cum-Jim-Carrey-apologist Jerry Saltz looks into the camera, practically begging folks not to be artists unless one absolutely must be. Because, he says, there’s no money in it. And he’s right. There isn’t any money in making art. But there is a life to be had in art.

And, yes, it’s a deeply rewarding, if frustrating and occasionally tear-inducing life. Here in Northeast Florida, that road can feel especially fraught, from an art scene that seems to reward rehashed rather than new ideas, to collectors who seemingly see no value in locally made works (unlike locally sourced lunch ingredients), to organizations, institutions and individuals who feel totally entitled to step outside the boundaries of norms and best practices. It gets exhausting.

Yet artists here on the First Coast must continue to create, and we (I include myself in these ranks as this is my goodbye editorial from my seat as Folio Weekly’s A&E Editor) must also continue to look for ways to critically engage with thinkers and doers, while also doing our historical homework. What does that mean? It means there are no substitutes for research, reflection and context. As artists and makers of things, our job is to define, reflect and subvert culture; to speak truth to power and to one another.

Also, as there is no real gallery system here, we need to think about what most benefits our own path. I say ‘path’ instead of ‘career’ because so many of us are still finding our way(s).

I think that instead of throwing quasi-formal art shows here, we should look at this city/place as an incubator of sorts. Make it here, show it elsewhere. This isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t share locally if you have the supporters or opportunities. However, know that there are other ways to contribute while also caring for oneself.

One of the things I have heard again and again is that, across genres, we need more criticism in our art scene. That is to say, insightful and informed responses to artworks.

There are also many young artists who are still students here. Regular, friendly group critiques would help make everyone’s work and language skills better, while peer-curated, non-commercial events/happenings/interventions could serve as catalysts. And finally, if you don’t have one, get working on a statement. It’s not just for media, it’s for yourself: a valuable introspective process that is as much about editing as it is about cataloguing.

When I came on board here at FW, my main objective was to write about art in a truthful, compassionate and informed manner. If I saw it, I wanted to say it. Back in the summer of 2017, my focus was on context and theory. I wanted to historically situate what was happening in the art scene here. I wanted that to be my gift to this place I love.

Since then, though I still believe in the power of criticism, I have become interested in the manner that art institutions operate, with their ideas of sunshine, best practice and promissory notes. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the Trumpian ethos that seems to have seized so many folks, or perhaps it’s because I believe artists, upon whose backs so much is heaped and built, deserve better. Thus, even as I step away from my desk at 45 W. Bay St., I keep in mind what I’ve discovered, and I know I am not through looking.