Artless Criticism

Thea Harvey-Brown, Johns Hopkins University:

Dan Fox, co-editor of frieze, Europe’s foremost magazine of contemporary art and culture, wrote that “in the arts, pretentiousness is the brand of witchcraft used by scheming cultural mandarins to keep the great unwashed at bay. It’s a way of saying that contemporary art is a ‘con’ and that subtitled films are ‘difficult’ – that they do not appeal to everyone and therefore must be aimed at the sorts of people who think they are better than everyone else.”

The less eloquent version of this is that some things aren’t for everyone, and this tacit exclusivity is gaining traction in the modern art world. But there is a new face of art in Baltimore, and it’s breaking some of the glass boxing in the old model: Alloverstreet.

Baltimore has a healthy mix of artists, not least because art is not especially lucrative, and Baltimore is an affordable city. Our city attracts a lot of artists/creative-types because they can pursue their goals without the crippling high cost of living, but they are still near the magnets of NYC and DC.

One of my favorite events that brings out this creativity for all to see is, appropriately, called Alloverstreet, which was started in 2013 by Process Collective. Alloverstreet is a gallery walk that hosts hundreds of visitors for free performances and exhibitions that span the many art spaces of East Oliver Street in the Station North Art and Entertainment District. The galleries involved include Penthouse, Area 405, Gallery CA, The Monumental Quilt Studio, Springsteen Gallery, Lil’ Gallery, and Bodega Gallery. The initial goal of Process Collective was to “democratize art;” they wanted to connect the cluster of artist communities within Station North and resist the kind of pretentiousness often found within art projects.

They have a sound rationale. It is no secret that art exhibitions tend to feature a ‘type’ of crowd. I am generalizing here, but most attendees are intellectuals, ‘non-conformists,’ predominantly liberal, and socially progressive.

The contemporary art scene, in particular, is often accompanied with complicated textual explanation, which is remarkably inept at translating plain thought into plain speech. Gallery owners and artists are a self-referential crowd, and within that they create their own hierarchies of values, which is understandable, but also slightly wasteful. The language of art—passion, pain, and a translation of these feelings—thus gets occluded by the burdens of this mannerism. But Alloverstreet is a refreshing contrast to this pseudo-intellectual snobbery, and its doors are open to anyone.

Robert Hughes, a prolific art critic who wrote for Time, had a lot to say about the epidemic of avant-garde authority in contemporary art. As a critic, he argued with uncensored authority, but without any intellectual overreach. He also offered an insightful defense of elitism—and defines that term quite carefully. His thoughts hew closely to the founding principles of Alloverstreet:

“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails.”

I like Alloverstreet because it challenges social elitism—it is unpretentious, active, casual, and inclusive—but promotes elitism in content, through the quality, intentionality, and creativity of the craft. A few examples from November’s exhibition, to bring home the point:

The accessibility is borne partly from the frank presentations, the open galleries, the neighborhood gestalt. But even with all this, we need to remember that accessibility has two parts: one is what is on offer; the other is who takes up that offer. And if what you offer only reaches a small band of society, well then it’s not really accessible.

While Alloverstreet features a great diversity of craft, this eclecticism is held within the language of common values, and for the most part, the same groups of people regularly attend the shows. If you really want accessibility, post some promotional posters above the urinals at the Ravens’ stadium—or at least on the bus. A broader promotional scope would challenge this uniformity.

The true artists may bristle at the notion of putting the whole art business into the vernacular of ordinary people, and perhaps their independence depends on a degree of exclusivity, but we learn the most when we step outside our spheres and get a little uncomfortable. The same principle applies to the unlikely gallery-goer: you may feel out of place, but the experience trumps—even relies on—some discomfort. It won’t cheapen the deep insights and expertise of the great artists: it will ennoble them. They will grin at the effort, and look more deeply at the work of the truly inspired.

The next Alloverstreet will be held on Friday, December 2nd, and I highly recommend the experience.

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