The Art World Made Him Do It

L’affaire Lippens.

Last month, local art critic Nate Lippens was exposed as a plagiarist. The Stranger announced it had "recently discovered" that a piece Lippens published in the paper almost four years ago had cribbed certain bits from another writer's 2002 essay in ArtForum. The P-I, for whom Lippens has freelanced over the last couple years, said it had found a similar case.    There was no mention of why exactly this was coming out now. And no further disclosures have been made by either paper. We've been left to assume this is the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps it will be. By the time you read this, both papers may have published lengthy accounts of Lippens' other crimes of misappropriation. But for now he's just twisting in the wind. Stranger editor Christopher Frizzelle informed readers that "on advice from the Poynter Institute (a journalism think tank)," the paper was rereading everything it had published by Lippens—and would, in the meantime, pull all of his work down from The Stranger's Web site. The P-I has done the same.All of which seems like a bit of an absurd overreaction. Did readers really need an urgent bulletin informing them that, four years ago, Lippens may not have been first to mention the themes of "self-mythification and antidocumentation" in the work of San Francisco–based artist Trish Donnelly? Was this discovery so critical that it had to be aired immediately, the stories taken down en masse, and Lippens' reputation trashed, without a more thorough review that might clarify the extent of this guy's problem? It's not as though this was Jayson Blair making up front-page news events.Newspapers, it seems, are so beaten down from years of abuse and scandal that even ones with an ethical standing as low as The Stranger's just can't wait to declare the results of their self-policing. (The idea of Christopher Frizzelle primly seeking counsel from the Poynter Institute is roughly comparable to Borat soliciting guidance from the Anti-Defamation League.) Indeed, when the P-I announced it had found "striking similarities" between a Lippens piece and one published two years earlier in Art in America, it put the news on the front page of its arts section, giving the story more prominent billing than was bestowed on most of the writer's actual work.None of which is to say that Lippens' borrowings are okay. But I'm also sympathetic to the guy. When he became The Stranger's art critic in 2004, he had, by his own admission, very little background in the subject. So he had to learn very quickly how to "talk the talk" in a field awash in pretentious horseshit. You can see this amply demonstrated in the articles he evidently plagiarized—I wouldn't want to read them once, let alone copy them. When phrases like "Their meaningfully transgressive reinscription" are the norm on museum walls and in the field's most respected publications, you can hardly fault a young writer for feeling like he's got to fake it to make it.The summer before I returned to Seattle to become editor of the Weekly, there was a show of site-specific public art along New York's Riverside Park. One of the most enjoyable pieces took a tangled nest of colorful, crocheted rock-climbing rope and laid it across one of the park's big stone gardens. It turned an island of grey, uninhabitable terrain into a cushy, welcoming playground—everybody loved it. But that was before you read the curator's statement posted in front, which intoned:"...The artist spontaneously arranged and composed the piece like a three-dimensional collage. This unique process transforms knitting's intimate aesthetic into a large-scale public sculpture while still maintaining the impulsive element of invention...The work weaves in and out of meanings, triggering chains of associations and ideas. It challenges us to make sense of various elements and puzzling combinations brought together in our environment while looking in a direction we often miss, down, toward the ground on which we stand." Wow, what kid wouldn't want to grow up to do that?More than those in any other art form, visual-arts partisans seem eager to wall their world off from pure sensual pleasure—and from the hoi polloi—by piling up impenetrable verbiage. It's OK just to viscerally love music, to be moved by a drama. (In fact, the few pieces that Lippens wrote for Seattle Weekly in the past year were about music; and we've found no sign of undue influence.) But the visual-arts community seems to have a mission to make the simple complex and the complex incomprehensible. It's as though some of the participants fear the whole thing's a sham. Our own visual-arts writer, Adriana Grant, is one of the local exceptions—someone who writes about what she sees, with real tactile pleasure.Lippens may only have himself to blame, but I also kind of don't blame him. In an art world that feeds on B.S., he gave them what they wanted.mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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