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Media Circus

Art Attack

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/8/2001

I was beginning to feel sorry for Sun art critic Glenn McNatt, but I changed my mind. On July 13, the opening day of Artscape, McNatt filed his sole review of art exhibits at the massive annual festival. Instead of focusing on the artwork on display--in 12 scattered gallery sites, no less--he used his space to castigate, in vivid terms, the way it was displayed: "an embarrassing mess," "visual white noise," "a dog's breakfast."

Many local artists reacted to McNatt's piece in even stronger--and less civil--language. In letters published by The Sun and e-mails circulated via the Internet mailing list Artmobile, local artists struck back, charging that McNatt viewed the Artscape exhibits before they were fully in place, that he's out of touch with the local art scene, that he's unqualified for his post, and, most gravely, that he abuses his role as critic by carting around his own photography portfolio to show to curators. I should stress that this last complaint, as far as I've determined, is nothing more than a bitchy, much-repeated rumor--more on that below.

McNatt's column didn't just touch a sore spot; it was more like he lanced a boil that had been swelling for several years. Among the Artmobile subscribers who weighed in, nearly all agreed with painter/sculptor Helen Glazer, who wrote a lengthy epistle to The Sun (posted on Artmobile but not published by the paper) blasting not just the Artscape review but McNatt's overall output since becoming the daily paper's art critic two and a half years ago. Glazer accused McNatt of "careless and uninformed writing," "[gallery] PR filtered through fuzzy thinking," and "hit-or-miss coverage of the local scene," and compared him unfavorably with the paper's "television, music, theater, and movie critics."

Quite a brouhaha. As I said, I was feeling a little sorry for McNatt . . . until I talked with him recently and found him entirely unrattled by--indeed, well-nigh oblivious to--the howlings of the Artmob. He made no great claims for his credentials other than to say that he's always written about culture, even during his 10-year stint as a scribe of unsigned Sun editorials. When he took over the art-critic post, he said, his editors directed him to emphasize major museums and major exhibits. As to viewing displays before they're ready for the public, he says it's a standard practice for the sake of timely reviews, and that he makes allowances for curatorial rough edges.

He dismissed the claim that he uses his beat to advance his own artistic efforts as "absolutely untrue." When I told him I'd traced this yarn to an "eyewitness" at School 33 Art Center, McNatt explained that prior to a recent show of photo essays at the South Baltimore gallery he'd mentioned to the exhibit's guest curator that he had done some work in that vein "20 or 25 years ago." She invited him to bring a set of these prints along when he visited the gallery, he says.

McNatt's real problem, in my view, is his lack of what could be called an informed passion for art. Sometimes I appreciate his attempts to demystify art for the lay reader, but more often I agree with an Artmobster who wrote that he makes Baltimore seem duller than it really is. McNatt's predecessor, John Dorsey, annoyed me with his mincing "sophisticated" prose and his compulsive overinterpretation of ambiguous art, but Glazer's summary of McNatt's "favored format" is depressingly accurate: "[M]an looks at art, man finds it perplexing, man realizes that it actually means something after all."

More importantly, The Sun grossly underreports on the fertile local art scene. McNatt practically admitted this during our brief interview, saying that, for its size, this town has a disproportionately large population of artists. Whoever told McNatt to go easy on the local coverage is doing Baltimore--and art, and readers, and McNatt himself--a disservice, compounding the Baltimore Museum of Art's Olympian indifference. (The BMA has made token gestures, such as last year's big Joyce Scott show, but in general it does a better job of showcasing local music in its concert series than it does local art in its galleries.) Although I'm no art-scene regular myself, I'm strongly aware of what I'd venture to call an authentic Baltimore aesthetic--funky, eclectic, shot through with humor and local references. It'd be a shame if The Washington Post discovered this phenomenon before The Sun got around to it.

All this said, I've got bones to pick with the Artmobilers whose slams against McNatt were personal and just plain mean, violating the mailing list's own informal etiquette (as summarized in introductory blurbs): "Our general rule is to only beat up on people who are extremely famous." Glenn McNatt, extremely famous? All us e-scribblers need to remind ourselves that what we type in the heat of the moment now goes on our permanent record.

As this episode points out, there's both an upside and a downside to the way e-mail is changing our public dialogue: Artmobile gives local artists a platform to talk en masse about art and challenge what passes for a critical establishment in this burg. But nobody's fact-checking this electronic rumor mill. The e-mail list allows participants to express--nay, publish--their thoughts with utter spontaneity. And that can cut both ways.

'Nuff Said

I'm pleased to announce the passage of the Media Circus baton to former City Paper senior staff writer Michael Anft, who has newspaper ink for blood and a mind like an HDTV camera. My departure from the media-critic armchair after a mere 14 months is voluntary, amicable, and timely, and I will continue to contribute to CP in other capacities. I realize, however, that it may come as a shock to those who think Eileen Murphy still writes this column. Over to you, Mike.

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