Yesterday, my partner and I made the long drive across Michigan’s flat farmland to Grand Rapids, a glittering city made of straight lines and mirrors. It’s one of the only cities in Michigan that has skyscrapers tall enough to semi-permanently bathe the downtown in twilight.
Every year, this particularly buttoned-up city puts on a festival/competition called Art Prize. Over the course of a few weeks in the fall, hundreds (maybe thousands) of artists enter this public competition to display their work all over the downtown area.
Grand Rapids adorns these pieces of its artists’ souls like jewelry. Crowds flood the streets.
It’s unique in the sense that it appears to make high art accessible to the public. Most laypeople are infuriated by pretentious high-art-speak and baffled that an infamous picture of a can of soup will sell for millions of dollars.
For the record, I am one of you. I am also baffled.
A bunch of black paint splattered across a canvas will live in the halls of our museums for hundreds of years, considered a treasure of our civilization. Let’s not forget Duchamp’s infamous ‘Fountain’ piece; the toilet that re-defined high art and sold in 2002 for $1.8 million.
It feels like the person making the decisions about what art is valuable and what’s not is some shadowy figure in a leather-lined lounge somewhere, swirling a whisky glass and chuckling amongst his good ol’ boy’s club. He tilts his head, his glasses shining penny-white like an anime villain. “Let’s make the Poors fight over a banana this time. Duct-Tape it to a wall.”
* Hearty chuckles and sips all around*
Art Prize gets rid of the door to that shadowy decision-maker lounge and invites the public in. The good ol’ boy’s club is still there making decisions, but they only get to dole out half of the prize. Three professional art critics get to choose which artist wins $250,000. The other grand prize—the other $250,000—is determined by public vote.
At last! Regular people not only get a glimpse into the world of high art, they get a voting switch! Your grocer can pick her favorite art piece! Your dentist! Your dad! The city listens to these voices of Grand Rapids and awards the prize to the people’s choice.
So when the public has control, what art ends up winning? What pieces resonate the most with regular people?
The pieces that win the popular vote year after year are works that:
1. Look obviously time-consuming and technically challenging to make,
2. Depict war or war-adjacent imagery, and/or
3. Have white Christian imagery, especially Jesus.
The pieces that win the critic’s vote are usually pieces that make some sort of global geopolitical statement.
I’m not gonna lie, these observations made me feel a little sad and angry. I know I’m bringing my own stuff to it; my old scars about not being understood, and feeling like my art isn’t good enough to sell or even show to the public. Anger at the way the popular vote winners can spoon-feed a surface-level emotional statement to the audience such as WAR = BAD, and the masses cry “AGREE” with their votes.
I’m irritated because my art would never win. I’m not trying to make any specific political rage-charged statement with my work. I’m trying to do something on an emotional level that I don’t really understand, and I lack the ability to explain it to my audience in a consumable way. Until I figure out how to do that, I'm not gonna win any popularity contests.
I’m frustrated, but I’m taking notes.
These artists that win… they’ve found a way to create artwork that resonates with the people.
They know on some level that memes win contests.
If they meme-ify their work—that is, make the message digestible and relatable within 2 seconds—they will win. The more emotion they can pull in within a shorter time frame, the better.
Eliciting a feeling of awe also seems important in determining a public vote winner. Maybe that’s why the winners are all pieces that look extremely technically challenging to pull off, such as a gallery-wall-sized photorealistic pencil drawing. Once you step close to the piece and realize it’s made of scratches of graphite, there’s a lightning-fast unfurling sensation in your mind. This is all pencil?/How long did this take?/How long would this take me?/Years and years and years…/Geez, this person is really talented…
There you go. Awe.
The second common theme with public vote winners is the depiction of war. I don’t understand why. My best guess is that everyone knows about war, but only veterans know about war. The art pieces that win the public vote are about war, not war. They depict the Instagram of war: good guys vs. bad guys. They show images reminiscent of history books written by the winners, proud soldiers with rifles, tales of heroism, victory, Call of Duty guys with guns, and respect for (exclusively) American military history. There is something about this imagery that hits a strong emotion with this particular population, so they vote for it.
The third common theme with public vote winners is white Christian imagery. I think the public votes for this because Western Michigan is almost entirely white and Christian, so it’s familiar. They’ve spent their entire lives seeing this type of imagery and associating it with goodness, piety, and redemption. They’ve sung to this imagery; they’ve prayed to it. They’ve seen it watching over them at the dinner table. Their social groups all associate this imagery with perfection and holiness.
If you come from a background like that, why wouldn’t you vote for it?
Knowing all this, if I wanted to win the popular vote, I’d make a wall-to-wall pencil rendering of a battlefield—not a real battlefield, but the battlefield scene you see in American history books. Above the battlefield, I’d draw the Christian depiction of heaven with Jesus opening his arms. Below the battle scene I’d draw the Christian depiction of hell populated with the “enemy” soldiers—
Oh man, I can’t do it. Even thinking about drawing human beings suffering makes my skin crawl.
Well, if you’re an artist and interested in winning $250,000, feel free to take this idea and run with it. You’d win.