Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
Tuesday I participated in the Second Annual Fourth Wall Panel Review as part of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) graduate program. The idea was to invite an artist (James Hyde), a curator (Robert Cozzolino), and a critic (I was wearing my critic hat) to publicly view and discuss the anonymous digital images and written statements of nearly thirty MFA thesis students in the program (a lily-livered few declined to participate) and narrow it down to the three we found most competitive for the kinds of professional opportunities—grants, residencies, exhibitions, teaching positions, etc.—that are determined in this way. It provided the students, attendees from other area institutions, and the general public, with fly-on-the-wall insight into this otherwise secret process.
For three hours we sat with our backs to the audience facing the screen on which the images were projected. The panel differed from others I’ve been on in that there were fewer artists (30 as opposed to several hundred) with more slides each (10), and instead of simply dismissing those we weren’t interested in, we discussed our reasons for doing so. We also took the artist’s statements into account where normally, at least the panels I’ve been on, if they’re considered at all, it’s only to make distinctions at the very end.
Shall we digress onto the subject of artists’ statements? Oh, why not. So I ask: why is it that every time I’m in a situation like this, my colleagues and I unanimously agree that the concept of artists’ statements is ridiculous, yet this relatively new invention persists in being seen as an essential aspect of the artist’s promotional package? Further, statements often work against the artist. As the director of a not-for-profit gallery once told me, “Often we’ll find an artist we like and then read the statement and say ‘no way.’”
The PAFA statements were no exception, containing the usual damning phrases: “My work is about…” “I want to make…” “I am trying to….” By allowing such statements to pass, art schools give the impression that once students are out in the world, we’re going to be interested in them. No one has told them that we’re not interested in the slightest; we don’t care what they think, feel, or want to do. We see tons of stuff, all day, every day, and it’s their job to stand out from the crowd, to make us take notice whether we want to or not. I try to imagine a similar situation in another, more rigorous field—such as a filmmaker attempting to get backing by writing: “I want to make a film about….. Ever since I was a small child I’ve been fascinated by …...”
Fortunately, so we didn’t come off as total curmudgeons, there was one statement that not only piqued our interest, but shed light on the artist’s obliquely rendered subject matter:
My flight is at 10:00 in the morning, which is good because I can wake up at 6:00, catch the trolley by 6:45, then catch the train to the airport, and hopefully be there by 8:30. If the flight were earlier then I’d have to find a friend to drive me because public transit doesn’t start until 5 and it takes about 2 or 3 hours to get there. I have to remember to bring my phone charger. When I wake up I have to put it in my bag. I have to make sure everything I need can fit into a carry on bag, I can’t afford to check it and they ALWAYS lose my bag. A friend of mine checked his bag and they lost it for months, he had to call them everyday about it until they paid him some money. I have to make sure the machines can see everything that is in my bag and on me. I can’t have too many clothes. One pair of pants only. I don’t have to pack my jacket I can wear it even though its too warm. I can’t have too much change or metal stuff in my pocket because it will take too long to empty my pockets before I go through the metal detectors. I seem to always think I have to take my money out of my pockets. I haven’t shaved in a while I wonder if they’ll search me, I hope I don’t miss my flight. I have to make sure I fill my water bottle up when I get there and not before. This one time they changed me to another flight that was already boarding in a different terminal, but to get there I had to go through security again, but my water bottle was full, so they made me go empty it and wait in line again. I had to run to catch the plane. I’ve never connected where it was landing before. I hope they over booked the flight. I’ll volunteer for a free round trip. (Jordan Graw)
The panel was initially proposed by PAFA faculty member and curator of the Arcadia University Art Gallery, Richard Torchia, who told me that the students, to their credit, forwent having a catalog in order to fund this event. There were no prizes involved, just the honor of being chosen. Although we were almost, but not quite, as straightforward as we’d be in a closed panel, the students took it well, and afterward we all went out for drinks.
Ms. Smith’s article has made the already tenuous tenure of artists in academia even more tenuous. Her call for artists to go forth without credentials is naïve at best and seems to assume that graduate programs fail to teach artists survival skills or encourage them to develop emotionally vivid works.
I concur with Ms. Smith that the Ph.D. in art is a bad idea in the United States, where an M.F.A. entails 60 hours of graduate credit. No one says an education is cheap.
To imply, however, that this is money ill spent is to endanger the job of every artist with a university appointment. That Ms. Smith thinks a band of renegade conceptual artists will do a better job of teaching young artists than university professors do is insulting. It’s also like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as it comes at a time when many colleges are already cutting art faculty.
Although I could be considered a casualty--I'd love to do more teaching-- this reminds me of the lawmaker I saw on television news some years ago, talking about how municipal water supplies should not be improved because it would threaten the bottled water industry (looks as if he got his way).
It's a sure sign that a discipline has become too academically entrenched when its practitioners are threatened by anyone they have not themselves ordained as “expert” or “professional.”
And especially incongruous in a field where the job is to ask questions, not answer them.
In our rush to control our children’s experience, we forget that people sometimes learn most from attempting to do those things for which they’re not naturally gifted.
As a child, my most obvious talents were musical, and although I studied classical piano for 20 years, I turned out to be an artist—no doubt because, not in spite of, of the challenges art continues to present.
I don’t practice yoga because I’m naturally flexible, but because I’m not.
In Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin says:
In my years…as a teacher, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s the kids with the greatest facility who can run up against the biggest problems. You are the best in your class without even trying, which is the best way to learn nothing…The not-so-facile kid just plugs along, every step is a working step, and he comes to the twentieth step and it’s just another step. But facility is a funny thing—it takes you way up, you soar, and you look like you’re really doing something—but at a certain point you go as far as you can with facility, and then you hit the big questions. And for you, who’ve never been pressed, that can present a huge roadblock. I’ve seen a lot of kids get waylaid at this point…
I’m convinced children are best served when the quality of their effort is applauded, rather than their success. ("The process is the reality," as Samuel Johnson said.) And because there’s a Times article to back up every opinion, here’s Praise Children for Effort, Not Intelligence, Study Says, from 1998.
In the August Interview, I read an exchange between filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, who achieved international fame at 27 after spending untold hours in his bedroom mashing up the Beatles “white” album with Jay Z’s The Black Album to make the The Grey Album. Intended for his friends and released for free on the Web, it was downloaded, bootlegged and shared by millions until the lawyers got in the way. His collaboration with Cee-Lo, dubbed Gnarls Barkley, resulted in “Crazy”, the song that was the summer of 2006, and he’s produced two of my favorite albums: Gorillaz’s Demon Days and the new Beck, which has a title I wish I’d made up: Modern Guilt.
In the interview, Soderbergh (whose own career began similarly, with international prominence at age 26 for the low budget film sex, lies and videotape), notes that the “traditional models for success are just disappearing” to which Danger Mouse says, “Well, in the history of humans making music, how long have musicians been rich and famous? In the end, I think musicians know that getting up in the morning and making music you love, doesn’t necessarily mean that you deserve billions of dollars or worship from anybody.” Then:
SS: I’ve heard you say that you don’t necessarily believe in talent.
DM: No, I don’t.
SS: But I’m wondering if you’re making a distinction between talent and skill.
DM: I guess I just look at talent as a very subjective thing. I mean, if you’ve never tried playing an oboe, how do you know you’re not the most talented oboe player ever? The point is that if you don’t love it, then it doesn’t matter. No matter how naturally gifted you are, it’s your passion that’s going to make you better and maybe touch some people. There is no genius—there is only love.
Looking for an illustration for this post, I was wandering around YouTube and came across this live video of “Hong Kong”—from the Gorillaz album D-Sides—a song that sends me into a swoon each time I hear it. I don’t think Danger Mouse produced “Hong Kong,” so it’s not exactly related, but then that’s the beauty of a blog, I can go where I want with it. Even though it’s not the absolutely best recording of the song, Damon Albarn will make you swoon anyway, but what’s really special about it is the performance of the beauteous Zhen Zhen on the harp-like guzheng.