OK, so some of us on the MT staff confess to harboring a certain bias against Grand Rapids, our conservative neighbors to the west. While the beers are good, we only have so much room in our hearts for Jesus. [Though Jesus just might be the reason for the delicious beer. —Ed.] That's part of the reason we've always had reservations about embracing its annual ArtPrize spectacle, the so-called "American Idol of art" that was launched in 2009 by Amway heir Rick DeVos.
That, and the words "American Idol" usually cause us to turn around and walk briskly in the opposite direction.
For the uninitiated: for 19 days, downtown Grand Rapids transforms into an art gallery on steroids. We admit the event deserves kudos for drawing a crowd that isn't your typically insular art scene — whereas Detroit art events might just draw the Detroit art crowd, it seems like everybody and their mother goes to ArtPrize. You have no choice, really — the event fills nearly every conceivable venue as well as public spaces with a total of 1,536 works of art made by hopefuls vying for a slice of $560,000 in prize money. And the event gives power to the people, enabling them to vote for their favorite works of art by texting.
We were conflicted. So, we did what we always do when we find ourselves confused by art — we consulted Jerry Vile, who has had no problem lampooning the art world in the past. If ArtPrize was a joke, nobody would understand it better than Jerry Vile. We couldn't wait to hear him tear ArtPrize, and Grand Rapids, a new one.
"I love ArtPrize," Vile tells us by phone, completely catching us off guard. Well shit, now we kind of feel like jerks.
"There's all sorts of people who poo-poo ArtPrize — [They] most probably haven't been," he says. "You'll see a lot of shitty art at ArtPrize. The only thing you can complain about is having to walk behind a bunch of shuffle-butts at a museum that are looking at art like it's only displayed on day a year. There's a lot of things that are bad about ArtPrize, but that's what makes it so great."
Vile says that thanks to the event, Grand Rapids is turning into an art city. "We may look at Grand Rapids, you know, as, 'Oh, we're Detroit, blah blah blah, we're so much better' — like how Chicago looks at us, or New York," he says. "But guess what? Ripley's (Believe It Or Not!) sends people through there and buys stuff for their museums. And you know, to me a Ripley's is as fun as being in MOCA, or MOMA. I'd rather look at some Ripley's piece than a shitty Picasso. Not all Picassos are fucking masterpieces."
Because of the voting aspect of ArtPrize, many of the artists seem to go for grand spectacle as opposed to subtle. "It used to be a lot of, like, portraits of Jesus made out of jellybeans that are photorealistic from one hundred feet away," Vile jokes, and neatly summarizes many of the works of art as displaying "so much talent, so much patience, and so little taste." But that's why he says it's great.
"I think they had a Jimmy Carter portrait made out of dryer lint when I was there," he says. "If it was a big abstract thing, it might not do anything for me. But a big gap-toothed former president? I can go, 'Yeah!' And it's dryer lint, no less!" Vile says that makes the art in ArtPrize "true lowbrow art — screw Juxtapoz!"
When you get down to it, Vile says, the biggest multi-million dollar works of art aren't necessarily that much more clever than the stuff an unknown artist is making. "Art's about status," he says. "And I think what I like about ArtPrize is it shakes up that status."
And maybe Vile has a certain bias of his own — he's in ArtPrize this year. Other Detroit area artists include Ash Nowak, Chuck Gillies, Michelle Plucinsky, Saffel Gardner, and Graem Whyte, among many others.
Vile wouldn't reveal what his plans were, but he did tease it. "Hopefully I won't be kicked out of ArtPrize after I set up," he says. "I don't have a chance in hell of winning the prizes, but I have a good chance of being kicked out. I don't think the people walking around are going to think what I've done is art."
Hey, who are we to say what is and isn't art?
ArtPrize takes place at various venues in Grand Rapids from Sept. 24 to Oct. 12. See artprize.org for more information. — mt