At Rackham Auditorium last Thursday, the Beat-tradition poet Gary Snyder criticized fellow writers who lament the chore of getting work published and sold, as though publishing their work were beside the point.

“Well, they just haven’t thought it through – not in an artistic sense and not in a spiritual sense,” the 78-year-old poet declared. “Karl (Pohrt, the founder and owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop) and his work are as much a part of it as any other step in the process.”

Snyder’s comments brought up the idea that artists are involved in a kind of public service and that, as public figures, they’re obliged to accept accountability for what they produce. Not a revolutionary idea by any means, but it does distinguish, qualitatively, between creative work done solely for personal expression and creative work done for an audience – and, often, for a price.

“To be an artist means to work with others in mind,” Snyder said, between poems that reflected both on the moody limbo of baggage claim areas and the beauty of Japan’s New Year celebrations.

It’s no wonder artists easily get the reputation of being attention-seekers. The advantages of working hard to get one’s work into public view may seem self-important and calculating – when what may have started as a labor of love or of obsession becomes a touchstone for public discourse.

Snyder seemed to be framing art as a critic might: “It’s not art until you’re willing to go public and take the heat, baby,” he said. Snyder wasn’t entirely dismissing work done for personal expression. He distinguished between art made with an eye for others and art made “to build soul,” putting an onus on the obligation artists have to dive into a place where their work can be put to the test.

When the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s legal battles with artist Christoph Buchel halted public viewing of an enormous installation, the cartoonishly dramatic legal blows from both sides prompted Mass MoCA to publish on its website a list of questions the public had about the stymied exhibit. Among these was whether the legal disputes were actually a secret collaboration between the museum and the artist, meant to create a subversive performance on the state of contemporary art. Was this the art?

Considering the circumstances, it may have been an honest question. The art the museum-goers had been waiting for certainly wasn’t available, but the snide and antagonistic machinations between museum and artist could be tracked practically by the minute and from the comfort of your own home. It’s as though Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit gave free admission to some meta-commentary on art.

Here, “heat” came not only from professional critics but also from all the people who have easy access to the material – whoever asked MoCAD the million-dollar question.

I agree with Snyder that vulnerability is part of the point of public service of art. The way a work is presented once it’s in that public realm can try to change the playing field, exempting the work from candid criticism.

Something I feel tends to cheat in this brave exposure is the artist explanation placard, the paragraph or two accompanying a work of visual art. These can be terse or wordy. The ones I take issue with explain what the work is supposed to mean and how it’s supposed to feel. It does give a kind of full disclosure and lets a viewer judge the work on its own terms, something I feel can be important ammunition for a critical viewer.

On the other hand, it harnesses the work with a description of the work’s effect. The artist hasn’t made a work of art in the piece itself, since clearly the piece alone doesn’t suffice to get the message across – and the artist demonstrates, with such a placard, that the message matters. A lot.

One such contemporary work, in the de Young museum in San Francisco, was pointed out to me by a friend whose impression of the work changed drastically after reading the placard. Charred pieces of wood hung at different heights from invisible wires, collectively giving the illusion of a hovering cube. It was technically impressive and fun to stand near and practice missing the forest for the trees and finding the forest again.

But the work itself – the pieces of wood – said little to me about the black congregation that died in a church burned in a hate crime, the souls of the victims collecting in solidarity and the sense of awe and horror I was supposed to feel. It would have been informative for the placard to state that the wood was original pieces from that destroyed building. As it was, there was a very moving idea present in the work, but it wasn’t something I could see without the artist coddling it into existence.

The closest books of poetry come to doing this when they have a glowing introduction, and even then those are rarely written by the author and don’t argue their own interpretation. Part of what such texts bank on is the freedom of interpretation, and therefore of audience approval, allowed by not having a play-by-play alongside each poem.

Pohrt is working on transitioning Shaman Drum from a for-profit business to a non-profit, changing the strict definition of how his store serves the public. Hopefully the kind of transparency that often goes along with non-profits will push more of the publishing business into public view, generating more heat – and more light.

Colodner doesn’t like when people tell her what art means. But e-mail her your thoughts on Renoir at

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