Arthur Whitman

Arthur Whitman

In ordinary times, Ithaca’s downtown-centered gallery scene remains fairly vital. Inevitably, there are high and low tides: both socially and in the art itself. Keeping things going is the main priority. Putting on exhibitions is hard work and galleries and “art houses” demand a monthly-or-so changeover. Drawing on a mainly local pool of artists—intensely varied in style and medium as well as ambition and accomplishment—there’s a constant tension between innovation and inertia, creativity and commerce, good art and not-so. 

Those of us approaching visual art out of deep personal necessity are often disappointed. Local artists of real discernment make art but fail to show here for years while mediocre or stagnating ones re-cycle. Strong, diverse work is out there but often hard to find. Even discerning eyes underestimate what the community has to offer.

Clearly, these are no ordinary times. Independent galleries announced indefinite closures last month. (So too did Cornell’s Johnson Museum and Ithaca College’s Handwerker Gallery.) Artists appear to be hunkering down in their homes and studios, uncertain as to what might appear on the other side of the tunnel. 

Still, art is a tenacious human habit, dating back tens of thousands of years or more and appearing around the globe in myriad forms—witness to our ever-evolving but always relatable minds. In more recent times, artists and movements have not only survived but seemingly thrived upon rapid disruption and change. 

I have been reviewing local exhibitions for the Ithaca Times regularly for most of the past fourteen years. I come to criticism from a studio art background: having grown up in Ithaca and studied, mostly painting and drawing, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in Boston. Returning to the area in 2005, I had the idea that I might wed my talents as a writer to my visual knowledge. I would work in the sphere of journalism but in league with artists, acting as a translator, trying to advance their general cause, if not always their narrow aims. 

It has always been the art itself that interested me the most as a writer. I don’t prescribe to style, genre, medium or “subject matter”—nor do I celebrate pluralism for pluralism’s sake. Rather, I’ve sought work that engages deeply with tradition; work that knows where it’s coming from and where it’s going. 

There is little serious public discussion of visual art in Ithaca and it is difficult to tell what most people think of my writing or what sort of broader impact—if any—it has had. The audience I know personally is the artists themselves and their taggers-on and collaborators. Mostly, they just tell me that they like what I have to say.

Still, there appear to be at least two common misunderstandings. The first, which I also see from my big city friends, is a tendency to underestimate the quality or significance of local art. I’ve tried to address that above, but I think my back pages here offer the best evidence for its strength and its capacity to sustain me as a “serious” writer. The second issue concerns a lack of appreciation for reviewing—or better, criticism—as a genre of writing with its own history and aims.   

Though hardly incontrovertible, the philosopher of art Noël Carroll offers a common-sensical but rigorously elaborated definition of criticism as the reasoned evaluation of works of art. In his 2009 book “On Criticism,” he anatomizes the various elements of the mode: from description and contextualization to interpretation and evaluation. These inflect and support each other but find their ultimate aim in assessments of value. Crucially, Carroll emphasizes “evaluation in light of artistic categories” over “political or ideological” ones—not to deny art’s public significance but to uphold its inherent consideration. 

This is a tradition in which I do most of my writing, and I maintain that it’s an important one. What I do may not be for everyone, not even for artists or those engaged with the visual arts. Still, I’ve rarely felt that I was wasting my time or that of the sort of reader that I’ve tried to cultivate. 

Here’s hoping that Ithaca’s independent art scene is able to recover its vigor. It would be a poorer community without it.

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