You should read Matthew Power’s GQ article, “So You Think You Can Paint,” a critical first-hand look at ArtPrize, Grand Rapids and Rick DeVos. Power is critical of the art competition and its founder, even while he admires certain aspects of ArtPrize. I enjoyed Power’s writing, but I think he missed the boat terribly on the meaning of ArtPrize and the character of Michiganders, including DeVos himself.
Power comes to the table with two basic assumptions that color the piece. The first is that Michigan — or at least greater Grand Rapids — is populated by unsophisticated art neophytes who lack the ability or willingness to appreciate high art. The second is that Rick DeVos, because of his wealth, was born evil, remains evil and imbues ArtPrize with sinister aspirations.
Power talks to a few local ArtPrize critics who confirm his suspicion that DeVos comes from money and therefore naturally has ulterior motives. I’ll just reject this as irrational and paranoid. Name someone who’s had a greater positive impact on Michigan in the past ten years. I can wait... What’s odd, though, is that Power puts so much value on these insider critics, those brave enough to speak critically about ArtPrize. I guess Michigan is filled with brave souls, because ArtPrize critics are a dime a dozen. I am one myself. Hell, that’s half the fun, critiquing the art and bitching about the process. This is not new, nor are these informers somehow heroes.
But here’s where Power loses me: "There was something contagious about the excitement of the crowds, entire families of ordinary Michiganders asked perhaps for the first time in their lives to appraise a work of art." The first time in our lives? Look, I understand Michigan lacks the panache of New York City, but west Michigan has plenty of great art institutions, museums and schools: Grand Rapids Art Museum, Muskegon Museum of Art, Kendall College of Art & Design, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and the pre-ArtPrize Festival of the Arts to name just a few. I would also argue that the lowest common denominator in west Michigan has an equal appreciation for the arts as their counterpart in New York. We’re not new to this; we’re just new to you.
Perhaps Power didn’t spend enough time in Grand Rapids to fully appreciate the unique cultural identity of the region. He loses me again when he paints one ArtPrize visitor as unsophisticated for her criticism of a pop can sculpture: “‘Oh boy,’ she said. ‘Looks like someone had to drink a lot of pop to make that!’” Power reads her comments as dull and uneducated. I read her reaction as a natural west Michigander reaction to a possible confrontation. This woman might critique art in private with her friends but in public she’d prefer to play down her distaste for the piece with a joke. What if she’s talking to the artist, or family of the artist? Best to be polite, avoid a fight. This awe-shucks, common-folk speak isn’t ignorance; it’s a nuance of our personality — it’s called manners.
Power’s framing mechanism of who is this dark, mysterious Rick DeVos forced the article to become a conspiracy piece and painted ArtPrize as a poorly run criminal front. Unfortunately for Power, there is no conspiracy at all. The Michigan art scene just beat New York to the punch this time, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. The only way to choke it down, apparently, is served with a giant helping of sour grapes.