KCAC Forum Magazine Sept/Oct 1988
Part two of last weeks article “Two art Critics Assess Their Jobs.” Now we take Don Hoffmann’s opinion of art critics in Kansas City to compare to last week’s by Peter vonZiegesar.
TWO CRITICS ASSESS THEIR JOBS
Art Requires More Challenges Than KC Offers
by Donald Hoffmann
If a mature artist wants to live in Kansas City and knows exactly what he wants to do and knows himself, that’s fine. But if I were an artist, and were young, I don’t think I’d want to be here because there’s just not enough bouncing off the walls to get people started; and i think we shouldn’t be overly protective of Kansas City in those terms.
A fellow said to me yesterday, he liked living in a small town in Kansas, but he thought, in a way, it would not be a good place to grow up in. There’s nothing there that can tell you or give you the slightest clue as to what you might want to do with your life. That’s the sort of thing that bothers me about Kansas City – it’s a very complacent place. You can be an artist or not be an artist; it doesn’t make very much difference because people are just kind of poking along making ends meet. They go to art shows, and they make art; you don’t get the feeling that people are crucially intent on what they’re doing. They’re more interested in their quality of life, and they define quality of life in these parts as having a detached house, two or three cars, lots of grass, membership in a club, maybe, and eating well. Those aren’t the things that have anything to do with art.
Audience: What is the attitude of your superiors at The Star toward the arts? What kind of atmosphere exists? Do you get support in writing whatever articles you want or are they often cut?
Well I don’t want to talk out of school, but I feel lucky to have a job there at all. As far as I can tell, the only reason there is a staff member at the paper writing about art and architecture is that the Nelson Gallery exists here and the Kansas City Art Institute exists here. If those two institutions weren’t here, I can’t conceive of that newspaper having a staff person with a full salary and benefits to write about the shows in town. it’s the fact that those are major institutions to the city, historically. Art coverage just kind of grew gradually.
The problem with free-lance reviewers, and I’d be the first to welcome this, is that my editors feel they would rather have somebody who can write the way they want things written and who knows newspaper work, rather than having somebody from the community who might have a personal interest in the arts, I mean a real axe to grind. You can’t find very many people in this town to write about art – they’re either making art or working at one of the institutions, so there’s a built-in conflict of interest right off the bat. We did have a woman write our reviews about eight or nine years ago. There is a terrible amount of time taken up in editing somebody who isn’t experienced in newspaper writing, which has to be fast, has to be reasonably clear and accurate. I can see their point of view – they can’t have an editor spending two or three days getting in shape a little bitty story about a painting exhibition or something.
At the paper, we’re constantly barraged by people who think whatever they’re involved in is the most important thing in the world, whether it’s a boy scout jamboree, serial murderers, or saving animals who are mistreated. I probably get about 15 letters a day, none of which are worth reading.
I want to get back to this business about humiliation: I don’t feel humiliated when somebody gripes at me. What I do dislike about working in this town is that if I get two to three letters a year about art – I mean the subject of art or painting, or whatever – that are even intelligent, that’s almost a record. What I do hear is personal backfire. This town is so small minded that if you give anybody a bad review, the second-or-third-hand comments come back, “Well he’s got it in for her, or he doesn’t like him.” I don’t give a damn about the people involved. I’m not writing about the people; I’m writing about their art. If their art is bad, I’m not going to praise it to make them feel good or try to build their career; and this town has a lot of growing up to do as far as getting beyond that state of affairs where negative reviews in the newspaper are assumed to be planted by someone. That’s all the feedback I get in this town. It’s very disheartening.
I have a friend who was teaching history at Ames, Iowa, for a number of years, and the second-to-last time I ran into him I said, “How are you getting along?” He said, “I’m fine, but you know it’s hard to stay awake when everyone else is asleep.” He now has a job in Chicago, and he’s a new man; it’s like somebody who’s gotten out of a bad love affair – he’s completely different. He’s happy to commute five miles to work in Chicago because he’s getting the kind of stimulation he did not get in Ames. And I can remember reading an essay about C. Northcote Parkinson, who said, “I suppose I could have been a historian in my native town of York, England, but I wouldn’t have been a very good one because there are no other historians there.” You’re not going to be good if you’re not in competition with the best there is, and that’s what I was trying to say.
So if you had it to do over, you wouldn’t be here; you would not live in this town.
And you cannot in conscience recommend that anyone else come here.
No, no, I didn’t say that. There’s a number of top-notch free-lance illustrators, people such as Mark English, in this area, who can live anywhere in the world because their work is sent through the mail and they don’t have to have exhibitions. They don’t have to have a direct confrontation with critics and publishers or anything. That’s fine. Mark chooses to live here. You know, someone like Barsotti who’s doing cartoons for The New Yorker, he doesn’t have to live in New York to do those cartoons; but I would think if Barsotti were interested in really getting the best out of himself, getting with what’s going on now – not in the sense of being trendy, but expressing 1988, not some kind of landscape tradition that came from i don’t know where – then he would find it very hard to be inspired here. There may be poeple who are totally self-inspired, but I doubt it.
I’m not a salesman. There’s a whole structure of arts organizations like this one; there are dealers, people who write criticism – but it really isn’t criticism, it’s boosterism. New York journals are full of that kind of stuff. There’s a whole structure that’s set up there, and that stuff I find loathsome. i think the critic’s only obligation is to be honest and try to see things for what they are. Once he starts pushing art, he might as well be selling shoes, or dresses or something else. That’s not criticism, that’s, well, there’s a name for it, but it’s not even a polite name… so I don’t feel guilty about not boosting artists. If i inwardly feel excited about writing about some art, then I think that’s right. I don’t go around boosting something that’s mediocre, because there is no purpose in mediocre art. If it’s mediocre, you don’t need it.
Was Georgia O’Keefe mediocre?
I think she was possibly worse than mediocre.