September 26, 2012

Artprize and art and our fine city

Artprize rages on in Grand Rapids.

For you non-Grandrapidians who read this, it's a huge annual art contest in which a rich family in our city hands out a cool quarter-mill to whoever the public thinks brought the best piece, and $100,000 to whoever the Art Critics choose.

For us locals who vote on who should get the big chunk of change, it's probably more about getting downtown when it's full of people than it is about taking in art. We're all swelling with local pride of late, and maybe it lends some legitimacy to our city to see the sidewalks crawling like a "real" city.

So we all flock downtown to gawk at the good and the bad. Really, I think almost all of us do. I made my second trip downtown last night. I've covered... let's see... Devos Place, Amway, JW, Ah-Nab-Awen Park, and the GRAM. I've seen about half of the public vote's top 25, and three of the critics' top 25.

You'll note that there must be some disparity between the critical top 25 and the popular top 25. I'm hoping that over the next few nights I'll get a chance to see the ones that are getting more critical buzz.

John Waters, an arty director whose arty movies I haven't seen, said in a recent local interview that the art world is controlled by two small groups of people who wear all black and live in London and New York. So I guess that puts Grand Rapids a little... out of the way, and I assume Artprize's reputation among the art community isn't terribly distinguished.

GQ would agree. In their article, they affirmed some things local artists have said since the first year, that Artprize attracts a lot of kitsch and, when left in public hands, the most accessible thing tends to win out. Each of the winners from the first three years has had plenty of detractors - not for technical skill, but for content. The first year, it was a painting/sculpture of waves. Then a huge pencil drawing recreation of a military regiment. Then an image of a crucifix (pandering, they assume, cuz Grand Rapids is so Christiany.)

The article, by a writer from New York, seemed to imply that we're a bunch of Midwesterners who don't get "it," trying to break into the Art world, choosing crap over more art-community-ordained stuff.

Naturally, we flipped out. We always do. When people write articles like that one, they usually end up on the local news, and people get offended, and the mayor writes letters to defend our fine city. I think there are a lot of people here excited about the trajectory of Grand Rapids, hoping that we'll "arrive" in our lifetime, that the world will take us seriously or something. Just as our hearts flutter when outsiders notice us as a hidden gem, we bristle when they don't acknowledge us as a cultural epicenter.

I think Grand Rapids will have arrived when we can all shrug off criticism and strut quietly while the haters hate (or the noticers notice, or whatever). Grand Rapids doesn't need indy cred or validation from big city people and big city writers and national media.

Personally, I like it just the way it is.

Artprize is a ton of fun and we have reason to be excited, to see our downtown crawling with people, to run into our suburban neighbors in the UICA or on Monroe or Ottawa. Artprize doesn't make our reputation. It isn't something that makes us a cool city, but rather, a symptom of a cool city.

All that being said, there is some legitimately good art down there - and I should know, with my amateur photography skills and my communications degree from my Midwestern school.

I find myself increasingly relying on my gut reactions to make decisions and evaluate things, especially in regards to art. I'm attracted to art that is shocking or surprising - like these vases, which upon closer inspection actually correlate with historical data of cities - or so masterfully done that I would drive out of my way to come back and see it - like these graphite drawings of the Chicago Seven.

I stood there and talked to two artists my first night out there as the venues were closing. One had brought a pretty pedestrian piece, in my opinion, and the other had created the masterpiece graphite drawings I mentioned above. I am one of tens of thousands of people who probably wouldn't dedicate the time and thought to art if not for Artprize. For me to be standing there, hearing some guy from Rockford tell me about his sculpture, or marveling at the detail on those Chicago buildings while the creator looked on - that's a pretty unique thing.

September 17, 2012


Here's a scenario:

Bob and Mike meet.

They soon discover a mutual interest in following Christ.

They decide that they should partner up and do this together.

So they meet regularly, bringing their wives and their kids all together to talk about Jesus.

They read their Bible. They praise God, often in song or poetry.

Over time, their gatherings grow and a few other friends and families begin to attend as well.

They don't write up a statement of faith or anything, but they never get into any weird, unorthodox stuff.

They begin a few traditions, a few standards (think: meeting every other Saturday afternoon, favoring discussion over a sermon, using recliners instead of pews, singing a capella because no one's a musician, no age division, laser lights, arm-wrestling, an occasional post-church stein-hoist). They've got a culture of sorts.

Maybe some of their customs and traditions and methods are unique, or even a little strange. So much so that it might not feel like church to a church-going outsider.

So what is this gathering? Is it a church? Is it the church?

What does it mean if we call Bob and Mike's as-yet-unnamed gatherings "church?"

We're past the point of assuming a church is a building, right? Lots of churches start and meet in people's basements. We'll call their gatherings a church.

So if it's just a couple of dudes and some friends gathering weekly to follow Christ, unusual traditions and all... does this thing, suddenly a "church," immediately get lumped in with the rest of the church (or churches) as a sacred institution? Are they part of the Holy Priesthood, entrusted with the Great Commission, held accountable for all of its blessed finances and how they spend every penny? Holders of the talents while The King is away?

Is every church subject to scrutiny as a sacred institution, or can a church simply be a community of people seeking Christ with their own customs, much like any other earthly, human community - chamber of commerce, moose lodge, Boy Scouts, sewing circle, carving club - except focused on following Christ? Are there sacred churches and non-sacred ones? Where do you draw that line, and what separates them? Rigidly structured organization?

I ask these questions because I have often, in the past, been a bit of a church cynic. "Can't believe they spent money on that." "Why aren't they doing (insert thing I suddenly started thinking was deathly important while in college)?" "What's a "liturgy?" "Why is there no liturgy?" "They should really talk more about (insert thing they didn't talk about the week I was there.)"

I am beginning to think that maybe it's no big deal for a church to have some customs that I don't really identify with, or to lack some that I really do, or to use their money in ways that I wouldn't immediately think to, and simply trust that they probably know what they're doing and don't need me to get all teenage-angsty about it.

I suppose I pose those questions in defense of weird churches.

In the end, there are far more important things to consider about a church than how much money they put into their multimedia, or what the worship team is wearing. For example, what its members are doing the other six days of the week.