During my Cincinnati years, I began to exercise my public
identities as a writer, an artist and a curator for alternative-arts
spaces. Each role has given me a voice to contribute to aesthetic
discourse, but, somewhat unexpectedly, the trifecta has also cultivated a
multifaceted empathy for all the hardworking individuals that make our
local arts what they are. A very small number of people with limited
resources expend enormous effort — often in the hours between day jobs
that pay their bills — to cultivate wonder and challenge the way we see
I’ve always retained a personal interest in philosophy and art theory, but over the past four years of writing for CityBeat,
I’ve found that theory necessarily morphs in order to be usefully
applied to real-life encounters with art. A number of ideas — epiphanies
or otherwise gradually wrought — emerged that have shaped my
experiences of our local art scene. I’ve been invited to share them
here. The following guiding principles will surely shift for me in a
lifetime, but they are my “tells” in how you’ve read me approaching art,
and hopefully they’ll also offer some insight into our community.
Art is research and not “edutainment.” While there might be spectacular elements, I believe art is akin to other progressive research, say in physics or psychology. As such, I am excited by an element of struggle in experiencing artworks from any period. I’ve found that sometimes my initial impressions are totally off base, and that if I’m willing to give art — even static objects — longer stretches of time, unexpected things start to happen.
Since art explores and problematizes, I never have the expectation for it to be tidy or pretty, but I do demand beauty, even in the most cerebral work.
There is almost nothing that I’m predisposed to dislike in
art. I am continually surprised by where I find thrilling, strange,
I’m skeptical about how significant the back-story is to an
experience of an artwork. This runs against my Marxist grains a little
bit, because I’m usually very invested in socioeconomic readings of any
situation. But my experience, on the beat as an art critic, has left me
sensing that who the artist is or why they think they produced something
usually gets in the way of their art’s maximum potential.
Having gotten to see Cincinnati from the vantage point of several
different roles, I am most protective of the artists. I am cautious
about projects that appear to support artists but actually pull them
away from their “true work,” the practice of art-making that is set
deeply inside of them. I believe the best way an artist can contribute
to a healthy society is to be empowered to go on the journey of making
the work — with all the doubt and struggle and sublimity that comes into
a studio practice — and then share that with an audience.
I’ve seen that artists in Cincinnati are endlessly generous,
always donating works to your good causes, leading crews of teenagers to
paint your buildings and giving more of themselves than they can afford
to. Even when there is compensation, I think there is an element of
In the wake of individual artist grants being struck from the
budget of our local government, I entertain a fantasy of an organization
stepping up to fund intense summer residencies for local artists to
make their own work, with teams of assistants helping them to create
ambitious new projects, and exhibitions and venues already lined up and
publicized. Enabling them to go deeper than they might otherwise will
reap rewards from which we as viewers benefit.
That there isn’t a program quite like this locally might speak to a collective loss of faith in the capabilities of contemporary art and artists.
Also, those who support art need your support any way you can offer it. Nearly all smaller, alternative art galleries are funded by those who operate them, and a number of them have chosen not to take any commission off of the sale of art, so as to function as a totally artist-friendly space. They lose money monthly in order to bring art about which they feel passionately into public view.
Likewise, I know few gallerists in commercial spaces who
don’t work second jobs to help support their galleries. Even when they
are making sales, their first mission is usually to share something
significant with their community. All I mean is that, in this town,
little is materially gained through these efforts beyond the belief that
we are edified through the act of looking.
I’m grateful to have been given the chance to share my impressions and ideas with you, the reader, for a few years. No doubt I’ll pop back in to write a piece here and there in the future; I’m not relocating all that far away.
I hope I’ve drawn your attention to corners of our art scene you might not have been familiar with and offered additional ways to consider what we might have thought we understood. I could have filled this page with my deep gratitude for many individuals who have supported and mentored me. I’ll assume instead that all of them are reading and sign off cosmically. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Matt Morris will be pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts in Art Theory Practice at Northwestern University beginning in September. He has been contributing to CityBeat’s arts coverage since 2007.