Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Commenting on the commenters

June 25, 2008 - 10:50pm -- Carol Diehl
James Turrell's Roden Crater

Thanks to “Pretty Lady,” “Spatula,” and CAP for comments on my last Whitney post that are worthy of being posts in themselves. While, CAP, I was perhaps too casual in saying “anything can be art,” I actually do believe that, at this point in time, anything someone makes or designates can be (note I said can be, not should be) considered art, and that recognizing this was a necessary step to get us away from the painting-on-a-wall, sculpture-on-a-pedestal mindset that pervaded the first half of the 20th century. I do not agree with “Spatula” that “we have gone too far in deconstruction” since I’m one who delights in art that uses an economy of means (Irwin, Turrell, Eliasson, and a moment of silence in a Sigur Ros concert) to achieve great ends.

However along with deconstruction, we lost our ability to discern. We went rollicking off in the other direction, making deconstruction an excuse for sloppy thinking, sloppy execution, sloppy everything. And I lay much of the blame for this on the proliferation of art schools who profit by making everybody think art is easier than it is, who in order to exist, need the majority of students to come away with a positive experience. I remember a final graduate crit at SVA, when I said to a student about her sculpture, “There’s a lifetime of work to be mined from this”—thinking that I was giving her my highest praise—and she burst into tears because to her mind, she was finished. This was it. What, she’d have to do more?

However I believe the resounding failure of the Whitney Biennial marks the beginning of the end of a too-long era. It goes along with the political scene. We want substance. As with the Iraq war, SUVs, and Froot Loops, we’re not inclined to think something is good for us just because the powers that be say it’s so. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve seen more good art in the past six months than in the last ten years put together—and that we’re having these conversations. Before when I saw stuff like Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates or the Whitney’s publicity I thought that I was the only one who thought it was ridiculous. It’s a relief to learn that I’m not alone.


Oh yes – I completely agree in allowing that anything can be art – I just wanted to remind readers that there are still criteria to be met. If ‘anything goes’ – it certainly doesn’t go in just any old way or how. But these things are usually not obvious on first sight (would hardly merit attention if they were) and as you say, are mostly discerned at a pre-verbal level. What looks simple generally means you’re not quite seeing it all, much less able to put it into words.

It’s also important to be aware of a kind of critical tightrope - of wanting to criticise such works without condemning the whole style or category – of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To me this goes to the heart of the critic’s job.

One of the great things about these kinds of forums is that it allows more considered discussion and exchange between all sorts of interests. It’s not exactly spontaneous or crowded, it’s more like a private salon, in your own time. There are so many of them now it’s hard to say what, if any, influence they might have. But I think most participants enjoy the opportunity to push the issues around a bit.

Dear Carol,
I just discovered your blog and have really enjoyed your honesty and clarity in your writing.

I've taught at several art schools/colleges and I have to say that more and more, the experience at many colleges for a lot of students has become a "checklist". I've had students literally say to me "Portraiture, I've done that before." as if it were some chore or one time task that they completed out of obligation, not because of any passion or commitment.

It's a relief for me to know I'm not alone either, Carol. I'm also seeing a parallel optimism rising in art and politics, the like of which I've never had before. Many of the fundamentalist Christians whom I've become addicted to baiting believe that the literal Apocalypse is upon us; I think that redemption may be at hand instead.

I graduated from Maine College of Art in 2006 - returning to school at age 48 to get a degree in printmaking. I had been a practicing artist and showing my work in gallleries in Maine for years before my return to school, so already had alot of experience under my belt. I'm old school in that I believe that drawing is a fundemental tool. I attended fidgure drawing classes at RISD every Saturday morning for 7 years when I was just a girl. I still consider this experience to be one of the most important pieces of my education. So I was shocked when in my junior year at MECA, drawing was REMOVED as a requirement from the foundations program for certain departments (photography was one of the departments that I recall...)
No drawing??? I couldn't believe it. To my mind, drawing is more crucial than speaking.
For my senior thesis project I did a series of 80 portraits of fellow students and others in the MECA community, and self-published a book entitled Portraits from My Father's Chair: A Collective Portrait of the MECA Creative Community. I felt apologetic at first, that I simply wanted TO DRAW. And portraits, for that matter, how un-avante gard.
There were times that the work at school was so conceptual, and we spent hours discussing it bla bla ad nauseum, when I felt like a wild horse in a stall, pawing at the earth: Just let me MOVE, let me DRAW, let me OUT of here!
I'm all for blasting out of the white box, too, but let's remember the Emperor's Pimply Bare Ass.
I read a great interview with Jim Dine somewhere - he was asked if he felt that he'd "copped out" with his return to the figure in the 70's. He said, (and I think I quote) "No. Avante gard or no avante gard. I could give a shit."

Martha, I’m glad drawing worked for you, and that you found what you needed, but I don’t agree that it’s a universal learning tool. Sometimes it can be stifling. I learned to render before I knew what I wanted to do, and later found my ability a hindrance, something I have to constantly work against—the way I feel that 20 years of classical piano training has made it more difficult for me to improvise in the way I'd like. Ever listen to someone operatically trained try to sing jazz? I believe an education in drawing should be made available to anyone who wants it, but I’m leery of “requirements” for artists. As for Jim Dine, I think he’s the least interesting of the Pop artists, someone who needs a lot more conceptual oomph to bring him up to speed. Again, I’m after that perfect marriage of idea and execution. If we’re talking about that generation, take a look at some of Claes Oldenburg’s drawings, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis manage to switch between classical music and jazz, but maybe they’re exceptions that prove the rule. Then again Miles went to The Juilliard.

The thing with any thorough basic training is it won’t equip you to discover or invent – it’ll hopefully show you what has been discovered or invented – suggest various options to compare and combine but ultimately being a good student is no guarantee of becoming something more. I think the next step is probably more to do with character or circumstance. Some people are by nature conformist, others non-conformist. Each finds their place in art.

But sooner or later, to make an impact you end up “killing the thing you love” or tearing up the rule book in order to find /make yourself. That seems true throughout the history of art. Even then some people are adept at abandoning things without necessarily finding a replacement, other discard cautiously, take a lifetime, can easily go unnoticed. It’s a nerve wracking undertaking, whichever way you look at it.

I certainly don’t envy anyone trying to draw up an art school syllabus – that somehow accommodates photography and all the digital extensions this brings now with traditional requirements of drawing and design. There has got to be basics, but it’s hard to say how much life drawing ought to included.

Interesting that Jarrett and Marsalis are among my least favorite musicians. Anyway, I’m not a believer in the idea that you have to learn the rules to break them. Duchamp and Cage had little use for school, nor did Johns and Rauschenberg, Frank Lloyd Wright or Buckminster Fuller. To my mind, art school should be more about exposure rather than indoctrination. But then I never went, and haven’t felt the lack.

Hi Carol

First off - this is a terrific conversation - thankyou! And thankyou for your blog. I enjoy your writing, your sharp insights and especially your humor!
I never went to art school either, until I was 48. I married young and had 5 kids by the time I was 29. I had the good fortune to attend a local figure drawing group in Southern Maine for many years while my kids were growing up and learned alot by osmosis there, and I have been making self-portraits since I was a teenager. So, I guess I'm pretty much self taught. I took some drawing classes at USM when I was thirty and I recall my professor standing behind me at my easel saying, "I'm just going to leave you alone." When I decided to get my degree in 2003, my artist friends thought I was nuts. But after years of childcare including a daughter with profound special needs, I felt depleted and isolated, and needed a full immersion into an art community. For me, going back to school was a resuscitation.
When I say that drawing is fundamental, I mean learning TO draw, not HOW to draw. I agree that too much focus on rendering is suffocating. I have to constantly counsel my adult students (I teach Continuing Studies classes at MECA) from their early trauma suffered in grade school art classes and get them back to feeling excited about the marks on the page.
And marks are what excite me about Jim Dine's drawings. I've read that Dine was never comfortable being grouped with the Pop movement. I admire his prints especially, and his wild experimentation at the etching press. His Nancy Outside in July series is a stunner.
I love the idea of art school being more about exposure than requirements. But as CAP mentioned, there have to be basics. So, what would they be? Here's a new can 'o' worms:
Could art history be optional?

But wasn't Rauschenberg a Black Mountain devotee? Continuing to go there long after he'd finished his course?
And without his take on Albers' werklehre (it in turn Albers' version of Itten's teachings from the Bauhaus) he would never have experimented so wildly with materials. His genius (RR's) lay in adopting werklehre - but then ignoring that it was a preliminary step or just research for work - it just was the work! That's what I mean by breaking the rules or destroying the old order.You see a glimpse of the past in it, but it's also totally transformed.

Similarly, with Cage - spent a long time studying composition with Schoenberg and others in Cali, I seem to recall - was pretty much near middle-age before he really got radical.

Duchamp was pretty traditionally trained as well - worked as a commercial illustrator (along with Kupka) before really sizing up Cubism and the rest of the scene.

Even guys like Soutine, turn out to have put in the hours in life class back in Vilna (3 years!)

Last to the party! (User warning: I've got a bit of a novel-length post here. Sorry about that.)

First of all, Carol, thank you for creating a wonderful place to talk out art issues. I really love that Artvent causes me to walk around thinking for days - and the commenters are equally provoking and stimulating.

Secondly, I also feel profound relief at not being alone with some of my criticism towards contemporary professional art practices. The artspeak, for instance, is so widespread and de rigeur that I felt like a gay man living in a small town because I found it absurd, ridiculous and detrimental - and it seemed like I was the only one!

On to ideas:

On whether anything could and should be considered art.
Carol: "Recognizing this was a necessary step to get us away from the painting-on-a-wall, sculpture-on-a-pedestal mindset that pervaded the first half of the 20th century."

See, I think there is actually more than one step. Opening up the floor to include a wide multitude of new tools and materials was a wonderful and necessary thing. Loosening up the idea of what constituted an artwork to include reimagined everyday objects, working with pieces of print, embracing computer-based creations: all wonderful, all propelling the art community towards creating better work. One of my favourite artists is Joshua Davis, who writes code to make his images; one of the artworks that affected me to the point of changing the way I live is an installation by Louise Bourgeois. I am thoroughly behind step number one.

There is some distance from that, however, to "anything can be art". Defining what is and isn't art is a sticky process, kind of like defining what is and isn't pornography. It often ends up in "I just know it when I see it." One woman's porn is another woman's Anais Nin or Rodin. But I do think some definition, some limit on the "anything" is necessary, because removing the question altogether is a step off a cliff that ends up propelling lazy people to demand that we take the act of planting a perfectly ordinary tomato patch on someone's lawn as a work of art, for instance. It's not propelling us as a creative community forward. It's making for a lot of garbage to sift through at best, and creating a devolution to muddle against at worst.

Perhaps the way to come at it is by drawing the definition not around HOW something is made, but WHAT ends up being made, and evaluate from there. I think the "how" gets too much play, in general, and is used as a sort of shortcut to significance.

On the importance of schooling in art, and drawing in particular:
Carol: "I learned to render before I knew what I wanted to do, and later found my ability a hindrance."
My own experience with drawing is that it's not about rendering. A teacher who makes it about rendering doesn't understand drawing at all. Drawing is about the analysis of form in space, and about recording that analysis. Drawing is a thinking process. In this regard, I think it's pretty crucial to teach students to think with a pencil, because it will help them in whatever projects they end up doing. I draw a lot in my job as a web designer - not just sketches of layouts, but visual articulation and record of ideas. It's damn helpful.

Cap: "The thing with any thorough basic training is it won’t equip you to discover or invent – it’ll hopefully show you what has been discovered or invented."

This is a view that sees both art and technology in a curiously linear and romantically unrealistic way: that they are about continual improvement which necessarily entails discarding the old in favour of the new. (It's also unsettlingly close to the planned obsolescence that is integral to the car and electronics markets"). Actually, technology is a cumulative process. If we were to discard the wheel, we'd be in major trouble. And art is not like technology anyway. The needs it fulfills are more complex, intangible and ineffable. Art is a process of conversation, of feeling, thinking, imagining - the artist conversing with the world, the materials, her own self. Invention and discovery are part of the making process, but to reduce the results of this process solely to invention and discovery strikes me as Wrong.

Carol: " I feel that 20 years of classical piano training has made it more difficult for me to improvise in the way I'd like. Ever listen to someone operatically trained try to sing jazz?"
If an art form is a language, then what matters is being fluent in it. I think whatever medium you choose, mastery of this medium is absolutely crucial. It's not ALL it takes to create great work, but great work simply will not happen without it. Ever listen to someone who has no musical skills at all trying to sing jazz?

In contemporary art, people often try to get away with no skill in the medium they work in by arguing that it's ONLY the ineffable soul part of art that matters. I disagree. The ability to bring the ineffable soul bit across in an eloquent fashion is as crucial as having the soul bit to begin with.

Formal training in an institution is only one of many ways to develop this necessary skill. But it takes time, trial/error and yes, exposure to what's possible to develop this skill. School is an efficient way to get it. It's also an expensive way to get it, and along the way, you will have to sift and judge and put up with nonsense as much as by acquiring mastery by any other means.

I would like to repost this comment on my own blog, to keep all these ideas handy - Carol, I hope that's OK with you.

And thank you, everyone, for great conversation!

Laurie Anderson and Annie Lenox have classical training. Pat Benatar trained on opera. Zhang Ziyi went from Chinese opera to kung fu. Clearly the skills can cross over. The question is how they get there.

I wouldn't expect 20 years of classical training on piano to tell you much about improvisation. (I am not a musician.) I would expect that 18 years of classical and 2 years of improvisational jazz would be quite productive, though.

I would also not expect early training in rendering to enable you to make other kinds of art. My education at art school presupposed I could render. The first semester freshman drawing class had us working from the figure at 2/3 life size in compressed charcoal. Second semester had us doing ink washes on craft paper. Crits were stern and incisive. It was neither an indoctrination nor mere exposure.

Traditional Chinese wushu training involves eighteen weapons and several internal and external unarmed styles. (Jet Li trained on the 18 arms.) A good computer science education has you working in different kinds of languages, procedrual, imperative, and functional, and maybe a little hardware too. Poetry students try writing everything from sestinas to free verse.

At some point education goes from imitative to generative and I suspect the crossover happens when the student has finally done enough imitation of sufficient variety. I would no more question drawing's role in art than the saber's role in kung fu, or the role of the circle of fifths in music, or the role of rhyme in poetry. It's not that these things can't be circumvented, but that they're so wrapped up in the fundamentals of their mediums that it's a shame not to have some appreciative experience with them.

There is a fundamental difference, I believe, between 'mastery of a medium' and 'indoctrination.' Mastering a medium means learning how to do what you want to do with it; indoctrination means learning someone else's rigid technique. They're almost entirely unrelated.

Since you didn't go to art school, Carol, you may not be aware that most art schools today aren't actually teaching anything. Not only are they not teaching students to rigidly render, or paint classically, they're not even teaching basic principles, such as 'paint fat over thin,' or color theory, or composition, or welding, woodcarving, casting, etc. They expect the students to 'just feel it' and figure out how to kluge their feelings into something that stands up well enough to be critiqued, which it will be. Viciously.

Like Spatula, I think with my hands. This was not understood, and was widely excoriated, in the art schools I attended. In order to think with my hands I needed a few tools to start with--I needed to know the characteristics of my medium, the range of possibilities and qualities it could manifest. Only then could I begin to do jazz with it. Only then could I begin to seamlessly integrate concept and medium.

So I don't think just 'exposing' students to art is enough; you've got to hand them a toolbox as well. Some will like some tools better than others, and some will dump out the box and dance on it. But refusing to acknowledge that the box is there or that it's relevant is the worse kind of abuse.

Thankyou, Pretty Lady, for your eloquent articulation! I agree whole heartedly! There HAVE to be the basic tools. We must have an alphabet, a vocabulary. Drawing is one of the basic building blocks of this universal language. We begin to make marks as soon as we are able to grab ahold of a chunk of coal, or a crayola crayon - whatever it is that's at hand. My Aunt told me that she walked into the nursery years ago to find my cousin (who eventually graduated from RISD with a degree in architecture) reaching into his diaper and happily painting a mural on the wall above his crib...

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