Whither the Critic

Tim DuRoche pens a response to DK Row’s commentary in the Oregonian this morning.
Did you read this morning’s Oregonian and the disingenuous commentary by David Row, “Whither the Time-Based Art Festival?” Behind the not entirely insincere wish that it reach more people, Row betrays a sense that it’s really not his cup of tea anyway, and I have to say I was deeply disappointed by his lack of vision, failure to provide a better context, and his overall dismissive tone.
Kind of begs a question or two–like, what is the responsibility of the critic in providing context and supporting the efficacy of new work/new vision? If he’s not in step with divergent trends in the visual and performing arts and engages I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like-but-sigh-I’m-just-a-fan/critic, then what’s a body to do? Slamming TBA because it attracts fewer people than ” one sold out Trail Blazers game…[and] far from the 75,000 people who course through the Art in the Pearl festival over Labor Day weekend,” does more harm than it does good. . .this is a poor argument all the way around. It borders on ad hominem anti-intellectualism and has a whiff of cracker-barrel populism to it.
Elsewhere Row says, “a festival produced by and directed solely at a small community of artists only intensifies the public perception that art and performance are inscrutable expressions full of $10 allusions and impenetrable ideas.” A festival like this takes ideas, possibility, a uniquely frontier-minded, Portland, pioneer aesthetic and creates a city-wide geography of opportunity for asking some questions about who we, what we believe and how we come together to experience place and story. Row seems to think Portlanders aren’t up to difficult ideas or new forms of art (or is merely masking that he doesn’t get it)–but nothing could be further from the truth.
The tradition of boundary-stretching art in Portland goes back at least as far as Anna Belle Crocker‘s exhibiting of Duchamp’s shockingly new Nude Descending a Staircase at the Portland Art Museum in 1914. It’s about allowing for questions and inviting the conversation about how art and experience abut life and expectation and blur whatever tiny line might separate the two at this point.
Row writes, “But as the festival revs up for its seventh run, it’s worthwhile, even necessary, to also examine this question: What does it add up to for the public?. . .let’s think about what they represent in the civic realm. This is a festival that’s about giving artists and performers the widest latitude no matter what, even if that excludes a wider audience.”
One of the TBA Festival’s great mutable properties is the public collage effect live art embraces-think of last year’s City Dance in the Halprin fountains, Eiko and Koma at Jamison Square, David Eckard’s Float on the Willamette River, John King’s guitar-apalooza, dozens of PDX guitarists or Rinde Eckert with a 100 local singers in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Events like these underscore the improvisational nature of living in a city. they also go along way to cure us of our reverence for “silence in the face of art.” These kind of events are powerful. They allow us to create together and recycle, renew social capital. Most of all, their town-squareness removes the double-coding that many kinds of art love-the surface appeal of populism wrapped up in winking snark, art/design so often created for the effete edges and creases, despite the illusion of embracing social practice and community-and allows some common humanity to emerge.
Events of this scale and public-ness are essential to Portland ‘s identity (and part of what makes this such a magical realist city at times)-the drawing of otherwise out-of-reach aesthetics away from the margins amplifies our experience of the center in some singular way-out ways. Think of it as art transmuted into civically valuable disposition (shared values like openness, cooperation and community, tolerance, and respect).
This year that social dimension comes in the form of a question from Back to Back Theater, who explore prejudices associated with the notion of “other:” how is respect withheld from outsiders? The ensemble (six actors with developmental or learning disabilities) ably construct a remarkable narrative that “unfolds amid pedestrian traffic against the shifting backdrop of a city. While their very process is one that Row would seem to dismiss for”rigorously disobey[ing] traditional narrative structure and notions of beauty,” the result is an audience immersed in an intensely compassionate, deeply human experience that manages to navigate art/life and invite a new level of awareness and empathy for our fellow citizens.
Elsewhere, David writes, “as one important local art dealer who travels frequently around the country to see art and performance nailed it: ‘If I don’t go to the festival, then why would the average person go?’ Answer: Because the average person is still interested in something new and maintains a sense of joy and discovery. You are not the anointer here. This is about a democratization, art as a community property. We all get to decide what is good, bad, ugly and beautiful.. .and that’s half the fun every year–it’s about the conversation that ensues from the ka-pow of new work that metaphorically causes, in the words of Henry Adams, our “historical neck [to be] broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.”
I can tell you that after seven years of going to this festival as an artist, critic, fan, and cultural citizen, I’m continually impressed with the appetite and curiosity of audiences (who go far beyond the boutique “community of artists” that David Row asserts). What we want are a diversity of offerings in this city. Simply we want to see mid-size and small festivals (like this or a micro-festival like Hand2Mouth’s Risk/Reward that by all measures of artistic excellence, audience and aesthetic diversity fit the bill of a success) flourish.
Public good does not need to be synonymous with populism or common-denominators. Does it make people happy? Does it convene conversation? Does it create an opportunity for Portland to talk to the rest of the country and the world about what it means to engage in an expressive life? If we continue to measure success by the numbers alone and don’t being to look at the intrinsic values that art traffics in, we do nothing to further the mission of Portland as a creative city. And our critics have some complicity in that conversation.
–Tim DuRoche

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11 Responses to Whither the Critic

  1. Lisa Radon says:

    Thank you for writing this Tim. So well said.
    Meet you at 6 with pockets full of joy + discovery.

  2. Giuseppe says:

    Ever since I moved to Portland 9 years ago, I’ve had the distinct impression that Portland is full of frustrated disgruntled artists turned critics who bash anything from theater to croissants for being too big city or too amateur. Feedback should obviously be less personal diatribe and more informative.
    Besides, I never understood the point in a bashing. Especially with performances of this type. All it accomplishes, if anything, is to stifle.

  3. Thank you for writing this. DK Row can go fuck himself. This town really needs more writers like you, who are well-spoken, open minded and welcome new forms. PICA does a brilliant job of thrusting Portlanders into high gear with world class talent coming to our city and taking over for 10 days. This will be my 4th year, and frankly, TBA has become my favorite 10 days of the year (this from a person who thought he didn’t really like performance art before experiencing TBA). The art scene is small, but thriving in Portland, and there is surely something for everyone, but what we really need to do is try and support each other especially when we are in a position like DK Row is.

  4. janelle says:

    Have any of you ever read anything else by D.K. Row? If you had you would know that he has supported many performers and artists included in this years TBA. He is not against the form, but rather the festival itself. It seems to me he is only being critical of the incestuous scene that TBA creates; lot of young hip kids with “open minds”. Their minds are so open that they forget to be critical themselves.

  5. Fredrick Zal says:

    Thank you.
    Yes, challenge yourself to go to that which you do not know, that which scares you, that which might be outside of your norm. You have only to risk expanding your perspective, knowledge and vision to the arts and your personal affinities.

  6. Seth Nehil says:

    Here’s my comment from Oregon Live. It seems like this populist vs. elitist argument is everywhere in Portland right now. At least a step up from the stridently anti-intellectual tripe I used to hear 7 or 8 years ago.
    DK, couldn’t we say the same thing about the gallery scene? Every art has an “in crowd” of some kind, which is unfortunate, but then we can’t all be interested in everything. If I had to attend every Seth Rogan movie I would be in serious mental pain.
    But I would hope that your art dealer informant might be interested in T:BA because she appreciates that painters are inspired by dance, that performance artists are looking at films, that installation artists are studying experimental theater, etc. Enforcing these separations between the arts, between “high” and “low” cultural activity just seems counter-productive. A pointed critique of a single performance which examines issues of audience accessibility vs. challenge would have been more productive and more accurate. PICA can only make this range of activity available and do its best to curate engaging, interesting work.
    At a certain point, it just seems like pointless flailing to wish that more “common people” would attend difficult theater, or that a festival like t:BA should do more outreach. Heck, most of the T:BA ads I saw were on buses. I think that most people already have their minds made up about what they do and don’t like. You’re not going to convince me that Pineapple Express is an amazing movie.

  7. eva says:

    There is room for more than is supposed. OK, so some dealer doesn’t go to TBA. No surprise there, necessarily – and no biggie either. We aren’t all looking at the same thing and there’s lots to look at right now in Portland. Good!

  8. Rod says:

    Hmm. A few more random, and numbered, thoughts for DK:
    1) If “not reaching out” to “the average person” leaves the festival “vulnerable,” I don’t see how. It’s going strong for the 7th straight year. If it were to cease being what it is, in order to secure more money from more “average people,” it wouldn’t just be vulnerable, it would be gone — turned into something else. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.
    2) Haven’t we had enough of dumbing things down yet?
    3) To place “big” above “good” would be the fatal error of a capitalist society that can’t shake its addiction to more/faster/cheaper.
    4) Who wants to go to ANY event that attracts 25,000 people? Any time I find myself among that many people I usually start asking what mistake got me there. Blazer games are for Blazer fans. Art is for art fans.
    5) The “average person” already has enough TRITE TACKY CRAP to choose from. TBA is available to them if they want it and if they’re adventurous enough. If they don’t choose it, that’s their choice. But if we stop offering it we’re denying them the choice.

  9. Ben Asriel says:

    I just want to mention something that Kristan Kennedy brought up in yesterday’s chat: It’s a mistake to divide the world into sports people (populist) and art people (elitist). D.K. Row implies this distinction in his argument and it doesn’t hold water. As just one example, I myself rushed from thurday’s Timbers game to check out Gang Gang Dance, as did many of my friends.
    Of course, it’s important to have a breeding ground for any progressive community, but I expect TBA to bring the best art that it can and make it available to everyone in the same way that i expect the Blazers to bring the best Basketball and make it available to everyone.

  10. Ben Asriel says:

    I just want to mention something that Kristan Kennedy brought up in yesterday’s chat: It’s a mistake to divide the world into sports people (populist) and art people (elitist). D.K. Row implies this distinction in his argument and it doesn’t hold water. As just one example, I myself rushed from thurday’s Timbers game to check out Gang Gang Dance, as did many of my friends.
    Of course, it’s important to have a breeding ground for any progressive community, but I expect TBA to bring the best art that it can and make it available to everyone in the same way that i expect the Blazers to bring the best Basketball and make it available to everyone.

  11. Andy says:

    So when David does it it’s “populism” and bad, but when you do it it’s “democratization” and good. That’s perfectly consistent. Oh, also, please learn the meaning of “begging the question” if you’re going to attempt to use it in an essay. Thank you.

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