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When Art Critics Disagree

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J. W. Mahoney’s Open Letter to Blake Gopnik

A while back, the Washington Post’s chief art critic, Blake Gopnik, wrote a brutal dismissal of an artist-organized open show in Washington (with 600 artists) called Artomatic.

J. W. Mahoney is well-known to anyone who knows anything about Washington art and artists. James recently retired from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and is a widely respected and published art critic, teacher and artist.

Mahoney is also the regional arts editor for Art in America magazine. He is also a well-known artist, arts juror, curator, art professor, and one of the most influential visual arts voices in our area; his installation at the current Artomatic has already been the subject of tremendous (and violent) viewer reaction (go see it).

And James sends the following Open Letter to Blake Gopnik:

Aw Blake, why not a little amateur dentistry every once in a while? Someone might drill a hole in your head and a little light might shine in. Yeah, violently spiteful language, but “five floors of mediocrity jammed into shabby rooms in an indiscriminate show that does nothing to advance the cause of serious art?” What’s the “cause of serious art,” Blake? You’ve never been a real artist, so that would have to be a guess on your part. Unless you’re a “failed” artist, which I’m not – nor is any artist here. I’m an art critic, too, and I know what “untrained” art looks like, and Art-o-matic is loaded with all kinds of such madness, openness, and awfulness. And sometimes, if you look, real grace.

In 1978, Walter Hopps, then adjunct curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts, “curated” a show at Washington’s now-defunct Museum of Temporary Art entitled “36 Hours,” during which artists could bring in anything (of a certain size) during a 36-hour period and Walter would find a place to hang it. Good, bad, or ugly. I was proud to have been in that show, as I am to be in this one. Why? Look at how “indiscriminate” it all is, how generally free of the kinds of comfortably gifted, commercially sensitive, critically “savvy” (your word, never mine) art that most galleries and museums necessarily have to exhibit in order to maintain their identities – work I often respect and write about, as you do. Alternative spaces, as creatively as they operate, can show only a few dozen artists a year. Art-o-matic circumvents every aesthetic filter, respects no critical power, and opens its doors anyway.

What final virtue exists in a circus like Art-o-matic? Art is made in order to make concrete the deep abstraction that is the self. Each artist here, regardless of the depths of their relation to the discourse of art history, has a story and a unique identity that emerges on these walls. In enormous vulnerability. To be able to stand alongside the occasionally talentless courage, manic generosity, and raw eccentricity of my fellow artists is a real honor. Because what art is about isn’t safe.

What you write is journalism, Blake, not art criticism. Your writing is quite often toxic, and maybe Washington’s just not your town. Think about it. You say Ter Borch is better than Vermeer? Don’t make me laugh.

J. W. Mahoney

Bravo Mr. Mahoney! Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!!!

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