Us Against Us (and occasionally Them)

A large part of the art community is concerned with fighting the good fight to promote and advocate for continued support, funding and recognition of the importance of the arts in society. This is not a unified front however, and it seems to be just as common for people to take on a problem within the community than it is to fight from the inside facing outside. Some of us get pissed off when our work doesn't get accepted into a program, that a proposal doesn't get money, that some artists seem to show more than others, and that those artists' work sucks anyway (to make matters worse). We are not critical of our own work, but of the reception of our work and the structures that control it. One solution to all this is utter anarchy and art-blood in the streets...which is sort of appealing, but will end up in a real shit show, without distinction between good and bad art, with no decisions being made as to what is worthy of attention or not. The actions of critique and rejection are almost always to do with fulfilling an institutional mandate. These decisions do not have to do with the quality of the work (although it may) but more to do with the organization's goals of producing a specific project or idea, or fulfilling funding expectations.

Many artists take the submission-rejection/acceptance process personally and in turn reject these processes, questioning the circumstances that led to this system of communication between artists and facilitators. A recent show at gallerywest curated by Clayton Windatt, Social Rejection, explores this relationship by creating a communal space for artists to share their rejection letters with one another and stand up against “the stressful condition imposed on the artistic majority by the elite few” [1]. To curate a show of rejection letters is too self-referential and counter intuitive to be honest, although the art community loves irony, often to the point that it doesn't know if it's being ironic any more. There was a couple open calls for submissions (akimbo etc.) for rejection letters many weeks ago – and this exhibition must be the result of those calls. There is nothing more inclusive than an open call, although it never presumes that all submissions will be included, only that the curator has not yet made selections from personal studio visits behind closed doors. I can assume that anyone could have brought their rejection letters to Windatt's attention and that he would include every one of them in the show. If he didn't, he would have been supporting the very system this exhibition is vehemently taking a stand against.

The pressing question for me is “who are these cultural elite?” I'm on a board and have served on committees and I know many people who do as well. Are we the elite? If we are, then we are the same as the artists submitting, since I know that many of my friends serving on the dozens of selection committees in this city are artists themselves who submit proposals to galleries, festivals, series etc. This isn't a hostile situation unless we make it one. The alternatives to this submit-reject/accept structure, such as lottery programming or huge group shows hung in salon style, are never too appealing either. A large component of the art world's job is to create a taste-making structure, in order to present what is fit to present, not just stuff from any and every person who calls themselves artists. Your work's not important just because you made it; the festivals aren't important just because they exist either, but they have funding and partner support and venues and committees, so they are a bit more important, actually. If you want your work shown you have to go through these avenues, or else find a new avenue.

Artist self-victimization is getting tired. The arts world has ALWAYS been 'fighting the good fight;' we are in a constant state of keeping our head-above-water, and sometimes I think it's because we thrive on this mentality. If the community had tons of sponsorship and centres and residencies, then we would also become mainstream and therefore be controlled by companies and structures that are even less objective and equitable than the various arms' length councils we currently rely on. The arts don't get a lot of money because not a lot of people care, and not a lot of people care because we're not doing things that interest them, and we're not doing things that interest most people because we're not interested in pandering to the mainstream. We're struggling because it's part of the intrinsic condition of the arts community – or maybe it's not. This self-victimization also goes hand-in-hand with self-criticism as it is also an important element of a healthy arts community. In posting rejection letters, we are shown, en masse, the section of the art-iceberg that floats below the surface and we start to question the systems that we - artists, curators, programmers - must mold ourselves into. However, when artists, curators and programmers are also on the other end of the decision making process, we are demonized by the same groups with which we identify.

Privileging the rejection letter as a object worthy of display can dry a few tears and pat a few backs, but the work that those letters are rejecting still lies dormant. Is it more important for the artists' whining to be legitimized by a gallery instead of their work? Wouldn't they still just prefer to show their work – especially within a forum that has rejected rejection, as Windatt's curatorial premise claims?

There was a follow up open forum, Exhibition and Its Discontents, at the end of the 2011 Images Festival that addressed the issue of rejection and inclusion where artists and arts administrators got together to discuss these very issues. It was initiated by MANO (Media Arts Network of Ontario), so it was specific to film and video festival submissions, although it also related to exhibition proposals in general. Overall, it didn't get too heated to be unproductive, but it's obviously a potential sore spot for many people. The outcome was a mixture of opinions with some people demanding more courtesy while others expressed their consideration of the rejection process as a source of motivation. There was a perceived lack of trust between the two parties (submitters vs. evaluators), in that the submitters love the festival they submitted to only until they were rejected, at which point they subsequently disqualified the judgement of the juries. There is a shift in respect that's based on personal issues not on issues around the quality of the works in question. The work could very well have personal content, it could be an artist's baby, but the point is that if it's not accepted in one forum, it should be submitted to another forum and another one – if the work is strong and should be shown, the proper context for its acceptance is crucial to how the work will be received. When good work is presented in a good context the artist benefits in an audience that is targeted, captive, engaged and informed. The context that allows work to be shown has just as much meaning to impose on the works it facilitates as the content of the works themselves – to discredit the infrastructure is to say that it holds no meaning, when really, through your choice of submitting to those programs, you are reinforcing their important role in providing a context for your work.

An expression of antagonism towards this system is insulting for everyone involved. Criticism of how panels are formed, how decisions are made and how galleries operate is an important form of self-regulation, but it always should be kept in mind that we're all fighting the same fight, or perhaps that there is no real fight going on and we shouldn't try and start one. A free-for-all against the un-named cultural elite aligns itself with the current neo-conservative anti-intellectualism that is quickly creeping up both municipally, provincially and nationally to become an increasingly immanent threat that is much more pertinent than not getting your video into the Images festival last year.


[1] News Release for Social Rejection, http://www.1332queenwest.com/archiveWindatt.html