Social Documentary, Film, and Fine Art: What’s Up with the 2013 Sondheim Prize? by Cara Ober

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Gabriela Bulisova Wins the 2013 Sondheim Prize

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A friend of mine called this year’s Sondheim Prize for a photographer, but I didn’t see it coming. His claim was based on obvious ratios in the exhibit and also that “it was time” for a photographer to win Baltimore’s highest fine arts award, simply because it hadn’t happened yet and photography is still a marginalized fine arts medium, deserving to be elevated.

I’m not in favor of awarding art prizes based on quotas and I don’t think the 2013 Sondheim jury was, either. From what I can tell this year’s jury based their decisions on their own sense of quality and aesthetics, without any consideration of past winners, and placed a high value on the one-on-one interviews conducted with each artist the day the prize was awarded. This is the whole reason for choosing a new jury each year. Juries need to be highly subjective, so the same artist doesn’t win every year. They also need to be highly qualified and experienced to lend credibility to their decisions.

This year’s Sondheim exhibit inspired strong reactions from a number of seasoned visitors, many expressing disappointment that the show seemed badly arranged and one-dimensional, and that it didn’t represent an accurate cross-section of the strongest visual arts in the area, with four of the six finalists documentary-based photographers. In Art Courant, a sound Sondheim synopsis by Baynard Woods at City Paper, he noted that “this year’s Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists smells like the jury—Caroline Busta, Jenny Schlenzka, and Beverly Semmes—was desperate to be “relevant.”” Not only were four of the finalists photo and documentary based, a majority of works presented address themes of social justice and inequality based on race, class, and sex.

On the website, ‘Women and Photography,’ 2013 Sondheim Prize Winner Gabriela Bulisova explains the motivation behind her documentary based photography. “When I meet, interview, and photograph those living daily in unimaginable hardship and despair, I am often overcome by my own inability to do more to respond,” she says. “But the dignity, resilience, and persevering humanity of these individuals leaves me with no other choice but to cling to the belief that, with pictures, one can ultimately alleviate pain and rally support for social justice.” If you watched Bulisova’s gorgeous documentary film “Time Zone” at the entrance of the Sondheim exhibit, you came away with a profound feeling of empathy the film’s subject, Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, and the artist’s singular passion for her subject.

The desire to make the world a better place through one’s artwork is an admirable one, but is it necessary to make successful works of art? While many artists place a social cause at the center of their practice, many others emphasize abstract ideas like beauty, self-expression, or narrative for narrative’s sake. When the jury of the top art prize (including the editor of Art Forum) for visual arts favors socially relevant art over purely aesthetic work, it is tempting to see larger movements in the art world and wonder if all art has to be socially relevant to contend for big art prizes.

In a town where a majority of artists create work that features process, materials, and visual aesthetics, it’s not surprising that this audience would feel alienated from such a show. However, choosing a judges from outside Baltimore who have their own aesthetics guarantees a subjective and surprising result, which is how art prize juries are supposed to work. This year’s group favors socially relevant work and next year’s will gravitate to something else, and we’ll probably complain about that, too.

My other reaction to this year’s Sondheim Prize concerns media and context. Bulisova is the second winner who exhibited a movie in a museum, with Matthew Porterfield the first in 2011, where he showed a feature length film. While Avant-garde and experimental film has been shown in museums since way before Andy Warhol, projecting documentary and cinematic film as fine art is a relatively new phenomenon. After visiting the new BMA ‘Front Room’ exhibit where an episode of Nathaniel Mellors absurdist television melodrama, ‘Ourhouse’ plays on a revolving loop, it seems that narrative cinema is a ubiquitous part of the museum experience, while still benefitting from ‘newcomer status.’

All this makes me wonder – if John Waters had created his early films in today’s visual arts climate, would they have been viewed in a museum instead of movie theaters? When will Reality TV qualify as fine art and when will a blue chip artist capitalize upon this rich discovery? It will be interesting to see where this goes.

* Author Cara Ober is a Baltimore-based artist and writer. She is the founder and editor of Bmoreart.

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