ArtPrize, Evangelicals, and the Indelible Stench

Yesterday marked the opening of the voting in the fourth annual ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids, Michigan art festival that transforms the Midwestern city every fall. ArtPrize aspires to inspire an artistic renaissance in Grand Rapids by inviting artists to compete for two massive prizes; one prize – awarded by a vote of the adults of Grand Rapids – is $200,000 and the other – awarded by a jury – is for $100,000. In order to compete, artists the world over need only pay a $50 entry fee and find somewhere in the city willing to host their work of art for about a month. This year’s contest contains over 1500 works of art; the entries include almost every conceivable medium and feature in virtually every public space in downtown Grand Rapids, as well as in many private establishments.

For what it’s worth, ArtPrize is every bit as fascinating and immersive as it sounds. Grand Rapids itself has less than 200,000 residents (although the area has close to ¾ million people), so the presence of 1500+ art installations turns the entire downtown into an art gallery, and that’s without noting that myriad sculptures, murals, and other installations from previous years have found permanent homes in Grand Rapids. You needn’t be an art fanatic to find something that intrigues you on display, and the crowds milling about this massive explosion of creativity at all daylight hours add an ambience of civic goodwill that usually only exists in the most optimistic of science fiction movies. Take it from someone who’s been there: when you add in the river gently flowing through it all – complete with massive salmon jumping their way up a downtown fish ladder in the early autumn – ArtPrize has to be experienced to be believed.

You might assume that such an annual transformation would be a cause for celebration. A rich benefactor birthed a month-long celebration of art in a Midwestern city best known for office furniture and Calvinism, and the result has made downtown Grand Rapids as interesting – for at least one month per year – as anywhere in North America. As some of you will know, however, the September 2012 issue of GQ carries an article ( that makes ArtPrize look like a secondary concern in comparison to the religious beliefs of the ArtPrize benefactor’s family members. Note carefully: the story isn’t ArtPrize, and the story isn’t Rick DeVos who has founded and funded ArtPrize (and whose own religious views are never established in the article). The story, according to GQ, is the other members of the DeVos family; people who are attacked by author Matthew Power for funding conservative and evangelical causes, and who presumably scheme as part of some dark ArtPrize conspiracy at which Power periodically hints.

In fairness to Power, he does find time to take other cheap shots too – particularly at Amway, the company from which Rick DeVos’s grandfather earned his fortune. With that said, however, my concern has less to do with the piece Power wrote than with what it symbolizes. I understand that many in the media dislike Christians who use theology to justify political engagement; at the very least, people who aren’t religiously devout find such reasoning inscrutable. That’s fine. But the DeVos political views are neither extreme nor unusual. As Republican-voting Christians, the DeVos family’s views – whether you find them right or wrong – are inarguably unexceptional. But the article in question doesn’t argue that Rick Devos is indelibly tainted by his extended family; it starts with that assumption. My question, therefore, as an evangelical Christian, is when did we get such a stink on us that singlehandedly turning a Midwestern city into an artistic paradise is negated by being related to one of us?

One may try to dismiss Power’s piece as an isolated case written by a malcontent from Brooklyn, but GQ published it – presumably after sitting on it for nearly a year (it was written about last year’s ArtPrize, but timed to run in the month that this year’s began). That shows a level of deliberate consideration on the part of GQ that might as well serve as a public service announcement declaring it OK to regard evangelicals with the scorn generally reserved for animal abusers, pedophiles, and meth addicts.
In which case, permit me to translate this message to evangelicals into language we can all understand: the Culture War is over, and we evangelicals are the equivalent of Serbian war criminals. People of good taste should ostracize us accordingly.

That may seem harsh or lacking in nuance, but after the written hatchet jobs that have followed other visible evangelicals lately (Tim Tebow and Lolo Jones, we feel you), is there really any remaining doubt? The GQ article exemplifies an ongoing trend. With that in mind, I offer you some advice: if you should venture to Grand Rapids this month, try to at least feel a little dirty as you enjoy it; after all, it was paid for by someone related to evangelicals. And that is a stench that won’t wash off.

One thought on “ArtPrize, Evangelicals, and the Indelible Stench

  1. Aaron!
    Yeayyy! You have started a blog. Thanks to your Pa for the info…. Interesting reads, and of course there is a HUGE connection of news/world events and the Christian. Thanks for your words…. and don’t you mind the “stench that won’t wash off”.
    2 Cor2:14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?

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