Look Back— a Glance Around— and a Look Forward
By RAYMOND J. STEINER
January /February 2008
MAINTAINING A VIEWPOINT — sometimes known as, “sticking to one’s guns” — does not resonate nowadays. Our world is too concerned with finding the middle way, allowing for differences, holding back judgment — we prefer an “I’m OK, You’re OK” kind of attitude wherein we refrain from any serious feather ruffling. Political correctness rules and, more often than not, “no child left behind” only means overlooking faults and failures. But then, why not? This is, after all, the good ol’ U S of A, and a level playing field an inalienable right we all must enjoy.
All the more curious, then, that I find we are fast moving on to a quarter of a century of publishing ART TIMES. Who would have guessed that we would reach such a milestone? This coming summer we will be beginning our 25th year of putting out what is essentially little different from our inaugural issue in August of 1984. At the outset, when Cornelia Seckel and I co-founded ART TIMES, we resolved that our editorial stance would take the “long view”, that we would, as much as possible, ignore the latest fads and trends, and view art from its long, evolutionary progress through time. We tried, to the best of our ability and resources, to offer our readers what we considered to be the “best of what was out there”, to pick and choose those exhibitions, events, and performances that had something to offer, something to “say” beyond simple innovation. Toward this end, we chose writers who could offer telling insights into their various disciplines, fiction writers who could tell a story well, poets who gave evidence of both thoughtful content and word use.
We had no way of knowing if we’d survive — especially in a market that rises and falls, perhaps more than any other, purely on the basis of opinion. Back when we began, in the mid ‘80s, the artworld was a seething hodgepodge of “isms”. Each armed with its vocal advocates, each new group eager to consign to a quick burial anything that smacked of “tradition” — or in disagreement with its own “new” viewpoint”. And, with each new movement, it seemed that a new arts publication would be introduced, each more glitzy, more hip, more innovative, than the last. Many were well-backed by vested interests, their glossy pages celebrity-filled, eye-catching. We were, of course, daunted — or at least I was…how could we compete in such a market? Cornelia, however, whose vision created ART TIMES, never wavered in her resolve, never entertained the thought of failure. Unlike the glossies that were popping up all over, we had no backing, and, operating on a literal “shoe-string”, we created ART TIMES out of nothing but our vision and our resolve…almost, in fact, no encouragement, with the exception of a few people who thought we had a “good idea”, but little real confidence that we’d succeed. Much to our amazement we sold enough advertising to support that first issue. Also much to our amazement, as the years passed, we witnessed other publications — for all their financial backing, hoopla, and hype — slowly dying silent deaths as their particular “ism” would fade or be overshadowed by the latest “cutting-edge” movement. We slogged on without seeking financial aid …even without a copying machine, printer, or computer in the beginning, hiring the neighbors’ kids to help us unload the truck each month as we turned our dining room into a mailing room. We never missed a deadline and always had our issues out before the first of the month. It was work…but it was rewarding work. Eminently rewarding.
When we look back over those past twenty-four years, we strongly believe that we’ve survived the ups-and-downs of fickle taste by remaining true to our original plan of keeping our eye on the “long view”. As I’ve said above, the art business rises and falls on the basis of opinion…so why not hone your vision, your opinion, on that long view? To the best of my knowledge, as Editor, I’ve done my best to keep ART TIMES on that track — as straight and as narrow as many have thought it to be. Indeed, I’ve had my share of written and spoken objections to my editorial stance. I addressed the subject on more than one occasion in these pages, even devoting a “Peeks & Piques!” (November 2003) to it when I shared my experience — and response — to being called “opinionated” by a disgruntled reader who had been visiting my home. I asked then, and repeat now, what else is the business of a critic if not to offer opinions or an editor to exercise control of content? This is much like accusing an accountant of being “calculating”, a scientist of being “inquisitive”, or a trial lawyer of being “argumentative”. Well, yes, I am opinionated…and have been since we created ART TIMES. Furthermore, as I concluded in that Peeks & Piques!” I state my opinions publicly — and put my name at the end of each opinionated piece I write. I really don’t see any other way to put out an arts publication — and I’d like to think that it is precisely my opinionated viewpoint that has enabled us to reach this quarter-century mark. Our circulation has steadily grown and, although metropolitan New York is our greatest area of distribution, ART TIMES had found subscribers across America and readers in such countries as Germany, France, Italy, England, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, China, Russia and Africa — so how narrow could our content be?
It certainly hasn’t gotten any easier — especially in a culture that seems hell-bent on daily undermining itself, daily to serve up the most trivial of arts and entertainment, daily to tout to the world our — well — lack of culture. According to our “history” books, Western Civilization supposedly went through an “Age of Enlightenment” wherein common sense and reason ousted “Dark Age” mentality. Has such a thing actually happened? Hard to tell when we look around today. “History”, of course, has also shown that doom and gloom nay-sayers have always had their day — in the “best of times and in the worst of times”. Predictions of the “end is near” and alarms that the “barbarians are at the gate” have been heard in most ages, in most cultures.
Still, how can we justify what we are daily bombarded with in television shows, movie films, “best seller” lists, in galleries and museums, on stage or at arenas, as “putting our best feet forward”? How do we explain our mania for the latest scoop on such “American Icons” as over-paid, doped athletes, purpose-challenged movie “stars”, the “sexiest man alive”, or a super-rich, skinny, flat-chested blond with cauliflower ears and nothing between? Whether we care or not, it does seem to matter what image we send out to the world at large.
At the 35th Annual International Exhibition of the Pastel Society of America recently held at the National Art Club, I met a couple from Ireland on their first trip to the U.S. He was a writer, she an animated conversationalist who had obviously done her own fair share of opening books, both dropping in at the Club almost by accident. During our brief conversation, the husband took great pains to tell me that he was “absolutely amazed” at the quality of the art he was seeing on the walls. “I didn’t know”, he said, “that such art was even being shown in the States!”
What a statement!
How had this couple — literate, world travelers — come to such a conclusion about American taste in art? We seem to have little idea how we are viewed “out there” — how we have come to be known in some cultures as “the great Satan.” I’ve remarked before on how Oscar Wilde once claimed “America went from barbarism to primitivism without ever having passed through civilization”. Are only Irishmen so misinformed? I think not.
On my first visit to the Walraf-Richartz Art Museum in Cologne, Germany some years ago, I was a bit taken back to find that the “American Section” only had the works of such modernists as Warhol, and the like — but no Homers, no Hoppers, no Churches, no Whitredges — no anybodies who might actually be called “artists”. What does the average man-on-the-street in Germany think of us as “cultural” leaders? We’ve not seen much different in other museums we’ve visited in Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, Spain, or China. Oh, I know that the op-pop-slop-hip-hop deserves space — but must they be our prime representatives abroad? Must foreigners who watch American television have such a slanted view of us? And, by the way, why must prime news hours allow a time slot for sports but not for the arts? Granted ball players make millions of dollars — certainly newsworthy — but ought we not also sing the praises of our artists?
And, while I’m “singing praises”, I’d like to say that — although it may sound like I’m saying Cornelia and I did this all single-handedly — we also owe thanks to not only our essayists who’ve been with us almost from the beginning, but to all those short story-writers, poets, artists who’ve vented their opinions in our ‘Speak Out’ Section, to our advertisers — some also who’ve been with us since the beginning — and to our readers and letter-writers who’ve kept us on that “straight and narrow” path. If it’s been constricting to some — well, there are other publications out there that probably address your tastes and, in any event, our “regulars” have appreciated what they feel is our consistent adherence to quality and integrity.
We intend to continue in our “opinionated” ways — to keep “fighting the good fight” — to look out for and bring to you what seems like things you ought not miss. Thanks to all who have kept us strong through the years and who will help us get to that quarter-century mark.