Rant: ARTPRIZE

While I believe ArtPrize is a great event, it is far from perfect.

My complaint: the crowds. First, a ridiculous amount of visitors crowd into the city. This increases the traffic exponentially. Grand Rapids is relatively traffic-free. It’s not that waits don’t occur, they simply pale in comparison to regular rush-hour/construction/weather-related/seasonal jams elsewhere. If you have ever sat on I-696, I-96, or US-23 in metro-Detroit on a Friday afternoon in the summer when everyone has decided to leave work an hour early to beat the traffic; you know what I mean. If you have ever been on I-75, I-4, I-95 when the sudden influx of snowbirds have migrated south in their silver or gold Lincolns and Cadillacs and Buicks, complete with beaded seat covers and lack of turn-signals and proportionally deficient maximum speed-limits; you know what I mean. If you have ever been tailgated, cut-off, or passed with a baleful look and colorful language by a rear-wheel drive sportscar in a complete whiteout and zero-visibility, only to creep by the very same vehicle mere miles but unfortunate and irritating hours later as it is towed across the now-closed outer two lanes from the median ditch; you know what I mean. If you have permanently affixed an unkindly gesturing hand out your driver window as the well-coiffed in their import vehicles have ignored the “Left Lane Closed in 2 Miles… 1 Mile… 1000 Feet… 500 Feet” to favor a self-indulging zipper merge; well, you know what I mean. So, when I claim that Grand Rapids is relatively traffic-free, it’s a real, apparent blessing.

Therefore, with the mass influx of visitors during ArtPrize, the city undergoes a traffic transformation that can be extraordinarily frustrating on a typical commute. Simply finding parking can be an enormous challenge as “Lot Full” signs litter an otherwise easily-navigable city.

And the traffic frustrations are not limited to vehicular crowding. The foot traffic is outrageous. Waits in lines become regular. At the grocery store, pharmacy, post office, park, funeral home, wherever. It seems that whenever you have an errand to attend to, hundreds of other folks have decided to do so at the exact same time. The bus system is overloaded even with specially-provided extra routes. Restaurants are on a consistent wait. And with the time spent in check-out lines, you should be able to bone-up on every celebrity scandal and miraculous-appearance-of-Jesus-in-toast from the past ten years.

All of which are minor complaints respective to the claustrophobia imparted by the ArtPrize proper visitors. The venues can be so stifling, it’s absolutely anxiety-producing. Even the outdoor installations can be so surrounded that the horde is impassable. I mentioned the experience of feeling physically separated from my stroller, an altogether not unusual experience in an environment of such extreme population density.

But, I could really get past the presence of all the new people, if they weren’t “those” people. Ugh. Art can bring out all sorts of people, families, spectators. It is known, however, for attracting a certain set. Those folks with their air of superiority. Free-trade-coffee-carrying, hand-dyed-scarf-wearing, bobbed-gray-hair-rocking, haughty-gazed, supercilious “art folks.” The judges and jurors with their perplexing critical favorites. The tourists with their imperious make-believe grasp of bewildering artist statements. And, especially, the artists themselves; with their unrealistic and arrogant view of the significance of their work and the correspondingly-expected promise of the respect it should garner.

For example: yesterday, Duck and I explored several more venues including our traditional riverside route. Outside of the Gerald Ford Museum was a musical art installation. It was essentially a large-ring xylophone or glockenspiel, if you will. The observer was invited to take a hammer-mallet-thing and hit the metallic bars as they ran around the ring. In doing so, you would produce the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Of course, as Ducky witnessed several people perform the melodious route, she clamored for a turn. We got in line. We waited. She picked up a hammer-mallet-thing and approached the installation- instrument. And, the artist came over, took her hammer-mallet-thingy away, and advised me that it was not a device for toddlers. Inevitably, Duckers started throwing a fit. The artist told me he was making a sign to that effect, but it simply wasn’t meant for the younger-than-ten-crowd. Usually, I can respect the requests people make of me as the parent of a toddler. You want to enjoy your dinner at a restaurant? We try to keep her quiet and entertained. You want to watch that movie? We won’t bring her to the theater until we can reasonably expect her to behave. You want to hear the gospel? Churches have actually have a kid-friendly room, just for us. But, there is a point at which I am no longer expected to make your life conveniently free of my hip-high nuisance. You, sir, are an asshole. You created a large-scale, outdoor installation in a park. That installation is essentially a giant, interactive, musical instrument. That instrument plays a childhood-favorite, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Yes, I can totally see how it was not meant for toddlers. (I’m looking at you, Tom Kaufmann, dumbass creator of the Music Go-Round).

This is only one instance of a pervading pretentiousness that shadows the ArtPrize experience. While I tore my screaming child away, I’d wager that I received only a couple of sympathetic glances. The rest of the spectators assumed condescending shrugs of disapproval. Of my child’s behavior. Of my inability to control her in such an preeminent and ostentatious environment. The ArtPrize habitat breeds highfalutinry. Almost every piece includes “DO NOT TOUCH” signage, if not blatant barriers. Even the 3-D installations. Made of unique materials. Outside. So, what you’re saying is: the elements can wreak havoc on it and birds can crap on it, but my two-year old can’t touch it? Well, that’s dumb. Just dumb.

Art is a sensory experience. Oftentimes, the experience could be enhanced if you would just let us “see” your piece, in every sense. I understand that you fear damage, but let’s assume that the crowd you hope to attract is respectful and avoids making any mistakes. I’m not suggesting you subject your beautiful canvas to the whims of the masses. I’m simply suggesting that your large, outdoor, indestructible, metal dragon should be enjoyed, photographed and, well, fondled if your audience chooses to do so.

Your audience. Because that’s what is too often forgotten by the artsy-fartsy. ArtPrize is for everyone. It is designed as a social experience that includes the entire public. The appeal of the event is inherent in the idea that popular opinion matters and that art isn’t just served to us by the critical elite, to be digested as directed. ArtPrize is a great event… But the highfalutinry has got to go.

Lest I give you the impression that the event is nonetheless anything but enjoyable overall, a few more favorites from yesterday:

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Birch Grove by Judy A. Steiner can be seen at the Courtyard Marriott

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The Wind by Gil Bruvel at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

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Further proof that ArtPrize is fun… For everyone.

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