Brian Sherwin is a prodigiously busy man. Commenting on contemporary art on several sites, he hosts a huge following of grateful readers. A Christian, free-thinking art critic and commentator, Sherwin sets records at the age of 32 with more than 500 interviews of emerging and established artists, unparalleled in scope and depth.
Sherwin takes a break from unraveling the mysteries of modern art and counseling perplexed artists to give us his view of contemporary art, especially in relation to Christianity.
True Colors:What first developed your interest in art?
Brian Sherwin: I’m originally from the small town of Roodhouse, Ill. – surrounded by cornfields and decaying structures that served as a constant reminder of “what was.” Not being interested in hunting or drug use, art was another world to me – a factor of survival.
TC: How did you end up becoming a successful art writer?
Sherwin: Professor Randy Norris at Illinois College introduced me to art criticism. He first noticed my ability as a writer and helped me grow. To be honest, I never thought that art writing would become a career, but I landed my first break while working for mentally disabled adults after college.
That “big break” was the now defunct Myartspace.com, where I became senior editor for six years. This opened doors to art fairs in New York, Miami and Chicago as a press member. I was one of the first “art bloggers” – to the dismay of print writers (“blogger” was such an evil word to them) – accepted as a member of the press by SCOPE Art Show, Art Basel Miami Beach and other major art fairs.
My articles there reached 60,000+ subscribers, which secured me interviews with artists such as Michael Craig-Martin, James Rosenquist and Alex Grey and led to offers from magazines and being referenced by major newspapers.
TC: What was it like to be one of the first online art writers to be taken seriously?
Sherwin: It was a trip to see gallery staff at art fairs act nervous around me just because I had a press badge; they seemed worried about my reaction to the art.
I remember thinking, “If this person knew where I was from, he would call me a “redneck” and my opinion wouldn’t matter.”
Yet there I was, partying with Pamela Anderson in the next room. At times it felt as if I was living a twisted form of performance art and had everyone duped.
TC: You identify yourself as a Christian; how does that influence your work?
Sherwin: I’ll put it this way – I’m one of the few art critics you’ll meet who happens to be openly Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is my savior (the mainstream art world just cringed). I don’t hide that fact, even though fellow art critics have told me that I will “never get anywhere” by making that fact known. I make my living from writing about art. Very few people can say that.
I’d say that God has provided for me and my daughter. My faith has not held me back but inspires me – and it is why I know there is still a lot of work to be done within the world of art. And no, I’m not talking about converting people; but I’m a voice expressing concerns and opinions rarely heard in the world of art. I’ll continue to do that no matter who says, “You can’t do that.”
I’ll add that I know that my religious preference is not tolerated in some circles of the art world, specifically mainstream sections of the art world in New York City – while other religious choices are tolerated. What can I say? Christianity is an easy “punching bag” for some people.
TC: You mentioned bias against openly Christian subjects and artists, although some leading critics and gallerists disagree with that. Please elaborate on how you’ve perceived this, and is it improving or getting worse?
Sherwin: Regarding art critics, the proof is in their words, their political themes and the jabs they make at opposing views in their articles. Art critics who claim to be “open-minded” still stamp specific groups as “maniacs” or worse on a regular basis. Is it far-fetched to suggest that those same critics avoid certain artists and their work based on political/social views alone? I don’t think so.
Art history as documented by these circles is extremely biased, both politically and socially. The public is deprived of some dimensions in art by “gatekeepers” who embrace specific agendas and don’t want the balancing effects of religion involved.
Not to pick on Jerry Saltz (art writer for New York Magazine), but anything he says about Christianity likely has a negative twist. The mainstream art world grazes with the herd by ridiculing anything concerning Christians. This is “comfortable” art criticism for them – a familiar track queued to “repeat.” So boring.
Oddly enough, Saltz and others like him are extremely tolerant of other religions. If Andres Serrano had created “Piss Muhammad” instead of “Piss Christ,” I guarantee it would never be shown by big museums but labeled “hateful” and “intolerant.” The fact that no equivalent “Piss Christ” challenges other religions reveals this bias against Christianity in the art world.
Just to be clear … I don’t have a problem with Serrano or “Piss Christ.” That said, I question why it’s OK to attack only the Christian faith but “deplorable” to visually criticize other religions. Why not “attack” them all visually and have a real debate going?
TC: Do you think the art world is really that hostile, or are individual artists and art promoters afraid of rocking the big PC boats?
Sherwin: Perhaps it’s not bias as much as denial based on fear of repercussions and hostile actions. Of several 9/11 related art exhibits in New York since that horrible day, we only see a few, guarded viewpoints represented and they never mention that the attackers were Muslim terrorists. Some exhibits outright blame America for what happened. Point blank: You see a lot of “we deserved 9/11” type art in New York City, and I wonder if gallery owners are too afraid to present anything other than the “taking blame” mentality.
TC: I’d hate to see them with a mugger: “Take all my money and please break my jaw. I deserve it!”
Sherwin: That same fear is manifest by how social issues are explored in the mainstream art world.
For example, art depicting Christian attitudes and “prejudice” against homosexuality is common in the gallery world. Have some Christians done horrible things to homosexuals? You bet. That said, I can think of a handful of Islamic states that by law, sentence homosexuals to death. Why hasn’t the art world explored that problem in detail? Why are there no museum exhibits questioning Muslims on those issues?
Fear is the mother of cowardice. Unfortunately, cowards have been “running the show” for decades. I’ll probably receive criticism for saying this, but no matter how much the mainstream art world insults Christians, they don’t worry about being murdered or having their exhibits blown up. The likes of Jerry Saltz or art dealer Larry Gagosian have no fear of angering Christians, who are an easy target.
Muslims on the other hand … well, the mainstream art world clearly does not want to “go there.” I can hear them shaking behind gallery doors. Heck, Theo van Gogh was murdered by Muslim extremists, and the mainstream art world barely whispered about it. Those who did, failed to mention the Muslim-extremist link. I can only imagine how loud that “world” would have screamed if a Christian had murdered Van Gogh instead.
Their fear is represented by what these individuals tend to champion as well. Contrast the virulent outrage over Christian condemnation of Wojnarowicz’ “A Fire in My Belly,” while the art world stood in almost complete solidarity with Muslim calls for censorship of specific artworks. This happened in Chicago a number of times. What kind of message is that?
The mainstream art world loves to explore the “dark side” of Christianity but rarely will you see the “dark side” of another religion. I’m the guy saying, “Explore them all.” In this case, both should be addressed visually – and exhibited for public discourse because both directly impact our society.
TC: Do you think some worthwhile artists have been snubbed or their careers damaged because of their beliefs?
Sherwin: Having interviewed over 500 artists, the majority of which have exhibited in New York or with big art fairs, I can tell you that many hide their Christian faith. They know it’s not in their favor to reveal that fact. I’m not going to “out” anyone, but a number of successful artists made it clear that they couldn’t be upfront without placing their careers at risk. The fact that people feel they must hide religious preference, especially in the United States, reveals that there is a huge problem within the art world in general.
TC: Any thoughts about how this bias can be overcome by artists of faith?
Sherwin: We need to see more artists coming out of the religious closet by speaking about their religious choice. A lot of people automatically think that Christian influence in art is just baby Jesus images – that isn’t so. We need to show that we’re more than a collection of stereotypes. But it’s a double-edged sword in that it also requires that Christians in general be more tolerant of artwork that offends our sensibilities based on faith.
There have been groups formed to help Christians handle professional bigotry in New York City and Chicago since at least the 1970s. From what I’ve observed though, the anti-Christian vibe appears to be stronger than ever. I think the problem in those groups is an “us vs. them” mentality. There doesn’t need to be a “loser”; there is more than enough room for a plethora of viewpoints to be acknowledged and debated.
Commercial art galleries have every right to exhibit whatever they want, and I’m not going to tell a business owner what to sell. Unfortunately, bigotry in high profile commercial art galleries directly influences the museum world. This is where Christian artists may gain ground, because many of those institutions receive some form of public funding and should reflect public diversity. Write your representative and let politicians know how you feel. The mainstream art world fears that kind of initiative, because if the gatekeepers lose the museum keys it will be a major cog in their art market machine.
TC: Could you give just a few examples of U.S. artists whose work you particularly enjoy or find intriguing at the moment?
Sherwin: I enjoy a wide range of art, such as what Chet Zar has done both as an artist and as an individual with a huge heart for charity. I also followed Laurie Lipton’s career; she’s done a lot to put focus back on drawing. Carrie Ann Baade created this wonderful world where contemporary and classic symbology mesh together beautifully … and shock me, I’m impressed by some of the paintings Marilyn Manson has created. As you can hopefully tell, I’m very tolerant. I may not agree with some viewpoints held by Manson, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying his artwork.
TC: I understand you communicated with Andrew Breitbart before his tragic death on matters of art and the press. Is there anything you’d like to share with us about this?
Sherwin: Breitbart was supportive of my art writing and allowed me to post links on his Facebook wall. He seemed far more open-minded than the left gives him credit for, although we disagreed on some issues.
Breitbart understood some of my concerns about bias within the mainstream art world. At one point he said he’d like to hear more about these issues – but the guy was a workhorse and had a full plate. That said, I think Breitbart understood that some conservatives need to stop looking at the mainstream art world as an enemy and help bring more balance to it. Art is an extremely important aspect of our culture, and he understood that.
Breitbart was amused by a bet that I had with critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz challenged my declaration that the mainstream art world is intolerant of conservatives. Saltz went as far as to suggest that conservative themes in art do not even exist today. Breitbart knew better.
TC: What happened in your bet on conservative art with Jerry Saltz?
Sherwin: Long story short; Saltz challenged me to find a specific number of artists exploring conservative themes (for example, pro-life views) and offered to review the work and find an exhibit space for it. He later backed out of the bet – only to state that I had backed out. Saltz is more than capable of researching this kind of art on his own; he has the resources and influence. But what can you expect from an art critic who calls conservatives “maniacs” or worse? He clearly does not want that kind of art in his “world.”
TC: You have said that you consider yourself one of the few truly “neutral” art writers in America. What do you mean by that?
Sherwin: Neutral with a bite. The art world needs to open up and accept challenge. I loathe art censorship, period. It’s a back-and-forth that has got us nowhere. If you can’t agree with art personally, at least be glad that in this country, it can be shown. That is the way it should be in my opinion.
You can find Brian Sherwin at his new, online home at FineArtViews, where he curates, dispenses artists’ interviews, art criticism, news and practical advice for working artists. He is also published or linked to Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine and elsewhere. He also advocates for youth art education.