Yokelism & the Dangers of Provincialism

The audience for art is small. The readership for art writing is even smaller. But at the risk of driving what few faithful readers Just Looking has to another art blog, I am devoting this final posting of 2009 to an interesting […]

By Edgar Allen Beem

Dec 22 2009

The 2008 Boston Art Awards

The audience for art is small. The readership for art writing is even smaller. But at the risk of driving what few faithful readers Just Looking has to another art blog, I am devoting this final posting of 2009 to an interesting dialogue that has been taking place between Boston Phoenix art critic Greg Cook and Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee on Cook’s indispensable website, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Greg Cook has been championing what he calls “Yokelism” (promoting and paying attention to local art) in a series of essays and by organizing the 2008 Boston Art Awards. In his November 18 Yokelism Manifesto 4, Cook complained that Globe critic Smee had written more reports about the Venice Biennale than he had about living Boston artists. “If New England aims to be a major art center, our institutions need to feature local artists – and that includes the local press,” Cook wrote.

To his credit, Sebastian Smee, lead critic for a major metropolitan daily, chose to engage Cook, upstart blogger and art critic for an alternative weekly, in a meaningful dialogue about what he called “the dangers of provincialism.

“I would say one symptom of provincialism in art (let’s assume for now it’s a negative condition),” replied Smee, “would be failing to realize that a kind of art you consider to be of great interest/special/unique is being done elsewhere, and better, and earlier. Another, related, symptom might be failing to acknowledge that something you are being congratulated for at home is in fact derivative of work done elsewhere. And yet another – reversing the terms – might be the assumption that the kind of work everyone is talking about in the big art centers is, ipso facto, better than the work being done where you are. Often it is not. (We call this ‘cultural cringe’ in Australia.)”

Cook and Smee are personal embodiments of the dilemma facing the art critic who attempts to balance the local and universal when it comes to art. Cook made his way to Boston via Salem and Gloucester. This year he won a $30,000 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. Smee arrived in Boston in 2008 from downunder where he was the national art critic for The Australian. (Quick, name a major Australian artist! Name any Australian artist!)

Part of Smee’s defense of his failure to write more about local artists is that his beat is New England art museums. Another writer covers the commercial art galleries where local artists are more likely to be exhibited.

“The upshot,” argues Cook, “is that Boston art reporting is heavily driven by what’s at the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts] and ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art], so if local museums don’t show locally-made art the local press doesn’t much feature it either.”

So let me, a freelance art critic from the boondocks, jump in right here. I am sympathetic to Greg Cook’s mission of promoting local artists. The announced intention of my own 1990 book Maine Art Now was to “challenge a few assumptions about what art in Maine is and can be.” That’s why there’s a Celeste Roberge sculpture on the cover rather than an Andrew Wyeth painting.

On the other hand, I appreciate Sebastian Smee’s concerns about provincialism. From my point of view up here in the provinces, however, I’d say that what we need are more exhibitions and more art writing that put what’s being done locally in an international context. I don’t need the Boston Globe reviewing the Venice Biennale any more than I need the Portland Press Herald reviewing it, but I would like to know that the art critic paying attention to what’s being created locally understands where it fits, if at all, in the international art dialogue. Look global, write local. You can’t make a local art scene more important than it is, but you can elevate its visibility.

The thing that amuses me about the Cook-Smee exchange is that it is taking place in Boston of all places. Boston may be a major city when it comes to sports, but it is a minor one when it comes to art. It’s been a long time since there was anything at the MFA of any great interest. Most artists and art lovers in Maine skip right over Boston on their way to New York.

Be that as it may, Greg Cook has renamed the Boston Art Awards this year to reflect their broader reach. So visit the NEJAR website to nominate and vote for the 2009 New England Art Awards.

Happy New Year!