Art Criticism in Oklahoma

Students in last spring’s “Art Since 1960” course spent the semester exploring the role of art critics in modern and contemporary society. Their final assignment was to analyze the role that art criticism plays in Oklahoma today. Where are the art critics? Who is their audience? What are they saying? Although these essays aren’t directly connected to the OSU Museum of Art or its collection, I believe that healthy art criticism is a vital part of an ecosystem in which museums can thrive.

The student essays shared here have been edited for length. Students’ content and overall arguments have not been altered. This week’s essay is by Madi Green.

This is not a state one associates with a hopping art culture. While there is an abundance of art-literate citizens, thanks to several universities with healthy art programs, the average Joe in Oklahoma is going to have had little exposure to the modern art world. They will probably have heard of Jackson Pollock, and could most likely identify a Picasso, but most people would struggle to name more than five artists working today. We are reliant on our local media to give us a window into the Oklahoma art scene. Luckily, several of the major mainstream news outlets in Oklahoma offer venues for discussion about art. These publications, along with those entirely devoted to art, are geared toward informing, entertaining, and including the “any reader.” At the same time, art criticism in Oklahoma fails to hold much weight in regards to critiques of work.

Henri Matisse's 1919 oil painting "L’Algérienne (Algerian Woman)" will be featured in the exhibition “Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," opening in 2016 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Image provided by Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Henri Matisse’s 1919 oil painting “L’Algérienne (Algerian Woman)” will be featured in the exhibition “Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris,” opening in 2016 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Image provided by Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Were you to start looking for an opening into the Oklahoma art world, many would begin with its major publications. But while the opinion sections of The Oklahoman and OK Magazine carry many movie reviews, it is more difficult to find a critique of a gallery opening, and even more so to find an article discussing an issue in the art world. Such articles tend to be online, and they promote the art world and exhibitions in Oklahoma rather than being critical essays on the content of those exhibitions. These articles are all very similar. They contain enough technical language and description of the message of the exhibitions that the informed reader feels teased about the prospects of the works, and the uninformed viewer is spoon fed bite-sized nuggets of lingo that make them feel like they are part of the conversation of the art world, without feeling intimidated.

In OK Magazine’s article, “Once in a Lifetime,” author Paul Fairchild uses a series of flattering quotes from the curator and exciting language to give the viewers a sense that they know what the show is about. He suggests that Jackson Pollock’s rarely-seen work will give visitors a new perspective on his career, and sprinkles in a few lines that make it feel like we are having a discussion about the artist: “Looking at a Pollock painting is a dynamic, participatory experience. He gives back to you the experience of looking. Just give in to what your eye wants to do.” But Fairchild doesn’t actually have a discussion about why Pollock’s work is so revolutionary, or why visitors will get a “sense of the most experimental and radical point in Pollock’s career.” What makes it so radical and experimental? The writers are so focused on appealing to everyone that they leave out too much information for the uniformed reader to understand the “why” behind the points they’re making, and too little specified discussion for the informed reader to get their teeth into.

Understandably, this is a promotion for an exhibition and therefore only needs to excite the public and feel accessible to anyone who views it. As an article online, though, it is not fettered to the word count restrictions of a column, but rather is a more open platform for the kinds of informed discussion that an uninformed public needs.

An Oklahoman article falls equally short and highlights the issue I’m describing. It is announcing that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art will be the sole North American museum to showcase a huge exhibition on loan from the Centre Pompidou. Brandy McDonnell, author of the article, presses that this is a mind-blowing honor, a huge endeavor for the museum, and a break into the larger art world for Oklahoma—all the while ignoring why this is such a huge deal. She does go into a little detail on the impact Matisse had on the art world, and stress the story this exhibition will tell through the history of modern art, beyond the capabilities of the Museum’s permanent collection. She mentions that many famous works will be shown and then name-drops Picasso and Matisse, but she does not describe the impact that Matisse had, or why his work is “a bridge between the 19th and the 20th centuries” (McDonnell, 2015). We might guess that this important exhibition from Paris is probably going to include influential artists, so isn’t it important that the reader know why?

The language in both these reviews is intentionally vague, written with the purpose of drawing in crowds to see the works they are reviewing/promoting and trying not to alienate. But readers are going to feel more invested in the work, more interested in the subject, and be more likely to become a devoted reader/exhibition visitor if they know about what they are going to see, and why it’s so cool and important. The message of the exhibition will still be surprising and impressive if you give the reader some context on which to base their visit. The best way to create a thriving art world filled with the conversations artists, galleries, and museums are striving to have is to actually educate the people you want to include in this world.

There are some individuals attempting to provide the level of critical thinking we are attempting to convey. Tulsa World Scene Writer James D. Watts Jr. contributes to the Tulsa World blog, writing incredibly detailed reviews for plays, ballets, and musical performances. He is very interested in giving the reader the motivation to go see what he has seen by describing its best features. In his review “ARTS: Review of Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Masters of Dance,’” he dissects each aspect—the music, the movement, the dancers—into a snippet of what makes each one amazing and how it lends to the entire performance. You don’t feel like the ballet has been spoiled or can no longer surprise you, you don’t feel talked down to, and you have a better understanding of why this performance is supposed to be amazing, why you should go see it, and what you should look for while you are watching it. If only this level of information could be applied to reviews of exhibitions and discussions on the art world/art movements as a whole in Oklahoma.

These articles fulfil their purpose to entertain and inform (at least to the extent you know what will be displayed when), and they relate to anyone who would pick up the publications. However, they lack real critical bite. They make little statement on the works themselves and essentially act as hype man for the exhibitions they are promoting. The art world is still burgeoning in Oklahoma. We need critics and criticism that are going to inform and educate the readers so that they are active participants in a discussion on the level of the cities whose art culture we are inspired by.  Our acquisition of the Matisse exhibition is proof that Oklahoma possesses the facilities to have a large and inspired art culture. We’ve produced many well-known artists and influencers. We have a healthy collectors market. We have the capacity to become a big fish in the art world, but to do so we need the people participating to be educated and able to hold their own discussions. The first step to that is promoting it and providing it in the media.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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