Arts & Culture

"Crap"? Critique of Wichita art scene inspires heated conversations

An arts commentary by Wichita painter Curt Clonts made waves on social media this week.
An arts commentary by Wichita painter Curt Clonts made waves on social media this week. The Wichita Eagle

A controversial commentary by a well-known Wichita painter this week has Wichita’s art community buzzing.

The piece, one of Curt Clonts’ “An Artist’s Perspective” commentaries for KMUW 89.1-FM, derides what Clonts perceives as a rise in “overly literal political art,” “self-indulgent installation art, click-image digital media, and art for the sake of shock.”

Clonts wrote of what he thinks is a lack of quality, long-lasting and memorable art, and scoffed at the “art-speak blather that seems to accompany many of these images.”

Some in the Wichita art community took offense at what they saw as dismissive, curmudgeonly commentary.

To foster the social media conversations in real life, Harvester Arts is organizing a public forum on Sept. 27, said Ryan Gates, co-founder of Harvester Arts.

“This piece went out and aired to tens of thousands who heard that, and this very small group is out having the continued conversation on social media,” Gates said. “The idea behind wanting to host this is to open the conversation to everybody.”

The controversy

On Facebook, the controversy seemed to revolve around three assertions Clonts made in the commentary:

▪ Too many galleries are engaging in “art-as-trend,” with exhibits Clonts refers to as “crap.” He says galleries are promoting kitsch and trends that reek of “impermanence and the prevalence of social media.”

▪ “I want to see wonderfully executed, quality paintings and sculpture again,” Clonts said, which some artists who work with new media forms say devalues the work they do.

▪ Artists whose messages have political themes take objection to Clonts’ critique of “art as overt social commentary.”

Clonts specifically mentions the Ulrich Museum of Art’s new “Coded_Couture” show, which features 10 international artist-designers whose works show the interplay between technology and high fashion.

“I read that it hopes to explore a range of ideas including ‘quantifiable biological data,’ ” Clonts said. “What the hell does that even mean? I’m just not in the mood.”

What the hell does that even mean?

Curt Clonts, writing about the “Coded_Culture” exhibit description at Ulrich Museum of Art

Clonts would not talk further on his commentary, saying “the piece speaks for itself.”

The Ulrich Museum of Art responded to Clonts’ critique in an e-mail to The Eagle on Friday.

“The Ulrich is proud to be a catalyst in our community about the importance and relevance of art today,” said Jennifer Lane, public relations and marketing manager at the Ulrich. “Our tagline ‘Today’s Art Matters’ is something we take very seriously, and seeing our activities cited in a discussion of art-as-trend is evidence that our activities are relevant and thought provoking.”

At least nine local artists posted lengthy responses to the piece on Facebook – some positive and some negative.

Armando Minjarez, leader of the ICT Army of Artists – a group that often paints socially conscious murals around town – called Clonts’ critique “irresponsible.” Minjarez said the critique over-generalizes art categories, leading to “dismissive” criticism.

“Historically speaking, white males have been the voices that have defined art criticism in the U.S. and in many places around the world,” he said in an interview. “That’s certainly still the case in Wichita, although that might be changing in the art world in general. … I just want to ensure that we have diverse voices in the art community in Wichita. If we really are about having a healthy art community, then it must be inclusive and other voices must be heard.”

Gates, the co-founder of Harvester Arts – a gallery with a strong emphasis on installation and performance art that brings in out-of-town artists for two-week residencies – was initially upset by the piece, but by Friday, Gates said he was more intrigued than upset.

“Am I mad as a person? … The answer is no,” he said. “I am intrigued by the discussion and discourse that it has promoted, and I personally disagree with Curt’s opinion. I think that’s OK. That disagreement and that discourse is where critical dialogue takes place.”

That disagreement and that discourse is where critical dialogue takes place.

Ryan Gates, co-founder of Harvester Arts

Other artists in Wichita agreed with Clonts’ critique – one going so far as to commend him for telling the truth.

Start of a conversation

Kate Van Steenhuyse, founder and CEO of Harvester Arts, said the arts community in Wichita benefits from criticism like Clonts’.

“I think the nature of social media is that things can often get heated – that’s kind of the blessing and the curse of that format,” she said. “The discussion just shows that people are really passionate about it, and that’s a beautiful thing. We’re going to continue to foster that conversation.”

Local artist Emily Brookover said that for the most part, the social media conversations were “really constructive and thoughtful.”

At the end of the day I think it’s crucial for the artistic community here in Wichita to remember that we are all on the same team.

Emily Brookover, local artist

“At the end of the day I think it’s crucial for the artistic community here in Wichita to remember that we are all on the same team,” Brookover said in an e-mail to The Eagle. “We have enough stacked against us in terms of politics, the market, arts funding, etc. I think Curt got the ball rolling on some really meaningful conversation – my hope is that everyone stays mindful and that the conversations that continue have purpose. There really is room for everyone.”

Lu Anne Stephens, KMUW’s director of content, said in an e-mail that the station had heard “directly from fewer than a half-dozen people through email.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

Public forum on the arts in Wichita

What: Discussion of the role of art in Wichita after a KMUW commentary stirred controversy in the local art scene

When: 6 p.m. Sept. 27 (refreshments served starting at 5:30 p.m.)

Where: Harvester Arts, 215 N. Washington