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False controversy

IPFW’s Visual Communication and Design Senior BFA show gets mainstream media attention. Unfortunately, it’s for the wrong reason.

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Leave it up to Fort Wayne to create a false controversy surrounding the arts. The exhibition in question is IPFW’s current Visual Communication and Design Senior BFA show. The specific art pieces in question are William Baulkey’s series of bloody fashion photographs entitled “Fashion Victims.” Baulkey describes the body of work as “a blend of crime scene and fashion photography, with four stories intertwined by a serial killer character named Casanova.”

In an almost impossible logic chain, WANE-TV’s Matt McCutcheon recently reported on these photographs and asked the question with a headline “Is it art, or a painful memory of the past?” in relation to the murders of IPFW students this past year.

This is ridiculous for many reasons. First, the fact that Mr. McCutcheon is questioning whether this is art or not because of the possibly emotional content is baffling. Emotional content is a hallmark of great art; it allows greater depth and recognition between the artifacts and the viewers. Secondly, I find it irresponsible to report a connection between these images to the murders of two IPFW students several months ago. There is literally no connection between the two. Baulkey’s photographs use clichéd staging for his fashion-based crime scenes, few of which have blood, and all of which are done tastefully. When asked how the exhibition affected them, most students commented on the obvious fashion references, and their interest in the work. McCutcheon was tipped off about this show because of the concerns of one student who said that she was, “slightly shocked that IPFW would have this up at our campus after two deaths.”

And so it would seem that this false controversy was the combination of a news hungry reporter and an overly sensitive viewer. This whole situation is the result of an undereducated public and media, and we find ourselves in this situation because of the severe lack of media coverage that the arts receive in Fort Wayne and the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, it seems that the arts only really gets much coverage in Fort Wayne when, for whatever reason, it’s pronounced shocking or controversial. Usually, this pronouncement is based on the most spurious or superficial look at the source. Such is the case this time. Looking at Baulkey’s work in the context of, for example, the artistic/culture wars of a dozen years ago, when artists like Andre Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were canonized as first amendment saints and demonized as purveyors of shock trash, it seems passive, and not nearly as offensive or jarring as now-historical pieces like Serrano’s “PissChrist” or Mapplethorpe’s photographic exploration of light and all things homoerotic.

But what made artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano notable is that neither really set out to shock “the mainstream” back in the early 90s; the work was seized on by right-wing politicians as an example of modern cultural decadence, and the artists and their work found themselves in the spotlight of a cultural debate about public funding of the arts.

Of course, some artists do try to confront the viewer head-on, and few movements were able to do so like the “Young British Artists” as they became known critically. YBA Artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Chris Ofilli, and the Chapman Brothers (Jake and Dinos), all deliberately courted controversy, pressing their respective boots in the faces of those viewing the works, and have become quite successful at doing so. On an artistic level, these artists have expanded the conversation of contemporary art by flexing their first amendment rights when possible to start a controversy. This group of artists was brought “over the pond” by the British Media Mogul Charles Saatchi to scandalize the Americans, and to give his collection of these artists works new markets and even higher auction sales. Their work grew through “bad attention” like this, which is something of a feat in itself.

But it needs to be said that in this case of the YBA, the press was on the side of artist and the artist the press. These two cultural agents stirred up (and continue to stir up) the excitement and desires of the public effortlessly to make their names commonplace in Britain and the art world capitals throughout America and Europe.

There is a large difference between the strategies that these artists employed, and what too many midwestern journalists and those in the cocktail party circuit do to get a little attention. On the one hand, we always hear the maxim that “All press is good press.” On the other hand, does a young and relatively fragile contemporary arts scene hungry for new viewers and potential buyers really need its prospects undermined by controversy that really has very little to do with the work itself? Even though I am sure that there was no ill will in the decision to turn an exhibition controversial through a little guided media coverage, this is exactly the kind of thing which fueled the fires of the national scandal in the early nineties and ultimately resulted in the slashing of government funding of the visual arts (which the art world has never recovered), and setting back the public understanding of the arts.

It is a shame that more attention was not placed upon the rest of the VCD exhibition, because it has a lot of interesting pieces in it including Brad Pilecki’s visually beautiful, and masterfully constructed home interface display that looks literally like a million bucks. There is also Jennifer Michael’s fun and cartoonist sightseeing website of New York City or Portley’s (Matt Colwell) great web design which was coupled with a bit of fashion design as well. This show is definitely worth seeing for its well-crafted works, not its false controversy.

IPFW’s Visual Communications and Design Senior BFA Exhibition Opened on November 14th, and will be open to the public for viewing in IPFW’s Fine Arts Building through December 12th.

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