If you're like me, you're pretty tired of apologizing for the Contemporary Arts Center's Mapplethorpe exhibition. You wish we didn't have to continue to bear the burden of this local-turned-national controversy from 16 years ago.
I'm not talking about the burden of hyper-sensitive anti-art zealotry or the burden of the ongoing academic debate on the merits of controversial art. I'm referring to the nationwide abandonment of the individual artist — that's the burden and legacy we face.
Gone are the days of individual artist support, choked out of existence by conservatives enraged by what they perceived to be sexual and anti-religious excesses on the part of publicly supported individual artists in the 1990s. That's the Mapplethorpe legacy.
While the red/blue values debate rocks our national consciousness back and forth along the axis of controversy, artists suffer. We can't seem to find a way to make being an artist and making a living mutually inclusive, and doing so is no longer even a part of our discourse.
I spoke about this issue with soon-to-be MFA (Master of Fine Art) graduates at UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP), 18 of whom graduate June 10. Some of them will take the ideas and knowledge gained here out into the world, and others plan to continue expressing ideas and sharing knowledge in Greater Cincinnati.
"We might be the scrappy little bruiser next to some of the larger cities in terms of an art scene, but I think there's a lot to be said for the art community in this area," said Matt Board, an electronic/analog artist and MFA candidate. "I think it's contributed a lot to our development."
While these artists contribute to the community around them, will they in turn see support from that community? Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has argued that the artist has a role as a public intellectual. If so, what's the role of the public, for whom an artist is interpreting culture?
"I think (artists) have to take the responsibility of translating culture," says Emil Robinson, a painting student from Cincinnati who intends to stay here to live and work as an artist. "I don't think it should be some pressure on your work. You just make your work 24-7, and you have to take as much responsibility into your head. But the people in Cincinnati have a responsibility to engage themselves with the art."
Then is the public's role to engage with art made here? Is it enough to simply recognize the efforts of highly trained, monstrously talented and deeply dedicated working artists as they pose questions and interrogate the living crap out of contemporary culture?
Each year, DAAP's MFA graduates make the decision to stay in Cincinnati or leave. The grad students I spoke to aren't necessarily eager to skip town, but they know they must be somewhere their work is valued and they can make a living.
The financial support they received at UC enabled them to focus their artistic skill without scrounging elsewhere for survival. But now what?
It seems we're content to let these visionaries struggle, as the talented toil and the aesthetically inventive squeeze a paycheck from consecutive days of uncreative monotony. We're content to let the vast imaginations of our creatively endowed brethren wait, wilt and whither away while they grasp at a living wage.
"I do think it's really hard to become an art star in Cincinnati, if that's what you want," says photography MFA Josh Pfeifer, who plans to teach and inspire others to use photography as a medium. "I do want to be somewhat recognized as an image maker, but that's not as high on my priority list. All I want in life is to be that one little piece in the puzzle."
Kim Taylor, a painter who finds sublime beauty in grotesque bodily imagery, plans to stay in Cincinnati and work as a designer. She's concerned about the role of the artist in Cincinnati as well as the role of Cincinnati in the greater art world.
"I just think that you interact and engage in the community you're in and be a part of it," she says. "I think Cincinnati has all this great potential that people don't realize. ... It just gets put in this little orbit."
At the end of this part of their academic career, these MFAs have announced their intention to pour a lifetime into making art that enhances the world's supply of ideas.
"In terms of trying to make social change, historically artists tend to be open-minded, tend to be more liberal," Taylor says. "So it's kind of a way of passing on that, being more accepting, more receptive of new thoughts."
"Just to be engaged with that level of beauty inside a work, just as a person walking in off the street, I think that does promote social change," Board says. "I mean, it's not changing government systems, but it does have a cultural effect."
These MFAs face a life as a public intellectual whose artwork — ideas in manifest form — preserve, enlighten and provide context for a modern world. Our responsibility to them is to provide an environment in which they can live comfortably. (Check out their thesis work at UC's University Galleries on Sycamore downtown.)
With a base of support, artists can express contemporary ideas in new, challenging ways and present those ideas to the rest of the world. Embracing the individual artist as a publicly significant figure and providing opportunities to make their important work financially possible is a huge step for Cincinnati to take in reversing the Mapplethorpe legacy.
Then perhaps the world will recognize the truth Taylor sees: "We're not a bunch of rubes that get all upset about some photographs."
Contact stacey recht czar: sczar(at)citybeat.com