Writing Archive

"Academic" and Other Pejoratives

paper delivered at the Southeastern College Art Conference, November 11, 2011

Part I: Pot, Meet Kettle

Denis Dutton, in The Art Instinct, makes a convincing argument that art is an extension of traits that contribute to survival and sexual selection. It's a multifaceted argument that resists an easy summary, but the conclusion is that skill displays and artistic authenticity elicit a positive emotional response in humans, particularly in our evaluations of one another. The cultivation of skill would be a likely feature of Dutton's pedagogy.

In contrast, Robert Storr, in his essay for Steven Henry Madoff’s Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, makes the surprising assertion that in regards to drawing, “...today few schools accord much importance to the nude.” My experience in teaching art took me to a half-dozen institutions, and all of them except the architecture school required figure drawing. Even the architecture school hired me to teach figure drawing one semester. Moreover, this was the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, whose dean, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is thanked by name in the acknowledgments of Propositions, and who conducted the charette that laid out the operating procedures and conceptual design of the Art + Research post-graduate program that Madoff was organizing down in Miami. I grant that Robert Storr has had a different career in academia than I've had, but this discrepancy is hard to explain.

The overarching feeling of going between The Art Instinct and Propositions is that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, between Dutton's pre-modernist outlook and Madoff & Company's post-modernist outlook. Dutton's argument for art comes back to an innate human predilection for a certain Pleistocene savanna landscape. The architect Charles Renfro, in his essay for Propositions, “Undesigning the New Art School,” derisively reports in a section entitled “Thoreau It All Away” that “the romantic notion of the artist working in rural isolation is still a dominant feature in art facilities, particularly in the colony model. … It was a philosophical conceit of education in these rural settings that the primacy of nature encourages thoughtful work.” Although Dutton finds things to like here and there, to him, modernism is a century-long, barely defensible aberration of taste. For Propositions, modernism is a minor episode of intellectual history marked by a belief in individual genius and formal purity, both of which are now rightly disregarded. You would conclude from either book, for different reasons, that 20th century abstraction in America had produced nothing of note.

Johann Hari once observed that the post-modern and the pre-modern were natural allies, although he was talking about Michel Focault and the Ayatollah Khomeni. Believing too much in eternal verities and not believing in them enough brings you to the same mistaken place.

Part II: Duchamp Über Alles

Between the two, Dutton is more generous. He acknowledges that the new forms exist, and here and there, he finds things to like in them, but regards them on the whole to be the products of intellectual justifications instead of self-justification as art. Propositions takes as its premise an attitude that I call Dadaist Triumphalism, which views art since 1900 as a fight between Picasso and Duchamp, and declares Duchamp the winner. Dadaism is not just one of several interesting developments in 20th century art that we might study and refer to in our own work if we felt the need to do so – it is the only one that matters. “Of course, in the past twenty-five years, the inventory of cultural production has expanded far beyond anything before in the history of art,” says Madoff in his introduction. “But there has been one unstoppable influence, particularly after the 1960s: the juggernaut of Marcel Duchamp as the tutelary spirit hovering above the notion of art as the outward sign of an idea manifested through any sensorial means, using any object from any precinct of production as its instrument, with its concept claiming priority over the making or appropriation of the optical thing, of the sign itself.”

Duchamp's greater influence over the present than Picasso's is restated in so many words by Thierry de Duve, and taken for granted throughout Propositions. The only admission that things may not be so simple comes from conceptual artist Ernesto Pujol, who writes, “If you live in New York City, it looks as if all of the new art crated now is conceptual. However, if you visit cities and towns across our tired empire, most students are painting in some form or another. Painting remains the most populated major in art schools.” This accords with my experience traveling to art schools around the country, but it does not accord with my experience in New York City, where painting is always on offer in copious portions in the galleries, and in reduced but certainly extant portions in the contemporary art museums as well.

I use the metaphor grudgingly, because the notion of artists beating other artists, as if art was a kind of boxing match, is an idiotic way of looking at art history. But it would be more accurate to say that Duchamp won a fraction of the contemporary museums and a fraction of the galleries, and Picasso won everything else. New York Times critic Roberta Smith was on to something when she coined the term “curator art,” namely, art that is mostly of interest to curators and other insiders who have been marinated in art theory. Some distinction needed to be made between art intended for a powerful minority of Dadaist Triumphalists and art intended for everybody else.

Part III: What is Modern Art?

On one hand, we have Dutton's idea of art, which is methodical, well-argued, based on evidence, and likely the best explanation available of what's going on in the categorical center of art. On the other hand, we have Madoff's and his associates' idea of art, which is circular, erratically argued, and sometimes runs counter to evidence, but is nevertheless an accurate explanation of what's going on at the categorical fringes of art and within the institutions that strive to support those fringes. Both of them get modernism wrong in ways that bear upon the problem of art education at the college level.

Restated in a simplistic way, the pre-modern view regards modernism as an insult to continuity, while the post-modern view regards modernism as an insult to progress. Both of them regard modernism as an insult to humanity, conceived biologically or religiously by the pre-moderns and politically by the post-moderns. Modernism, however, provides an important attitude to maintaining the vitality of an artistic genre, and it grows in importance as the number of genres proliferate alongside one another in a pluralist art environment. That attitude is the notion of “academic” as a pejorative. The modernist impulse can be traced back to the Impressionists, who were the first artists to notice problems with the academic model, both stylistically and politically within the art world at the time, and had the technical means – made possible by advances in industrial processes – to attempt something different. Arguably, this is the central discovery of modernism, and the one that stuck as styles came and went over the next eight or nine decades. The rejection of the academic reached an intense level in painting and sculpture in the 1940s and '50s, at which point every artistic convention available to visual art was under reconsideration, but it is not particular to that time.

The academic impulse is to deduce simple principles from complex fields of human knowledge and human activity. This is necessary and often useful work, especially in math, science, and the hard humanities. In the soft humanities, in which necessity and utility are perennial open questions, deduction produces absurdities after a relatively short while. The deductions become conventions, the conventions run out of steam as more and more people adopt them, and finally it becomes necessary to make new deductions about the complicated field under consideration.

I like the metaphor of steam, because the problem is not with the conventions themselves, but with the vitality that drives them. A mighty train uses more fuel to move apace with a lot of people on board, and this is what happens with artistic styles. Thus we see a pattern in art history since 1900 in which styles go from reviled to accepted to standardized to discarded. Academicism is not the conventions themselves, it is the conventions used in a dead way. It is art by rote, it is artistic principles adopted as a matter of faith, it is art styled according to conventions instead of the other way around. Put fresh fuel in the train, though, and it starts right up.

That fuel is inspiration, the energetic, consummately human impulse to explore the possible. Here, a post-modernist would object to where this leads: into the so-called romantic cult of individual genius. But it need not lead there. Art made in groups relies on group inspiration. Art that relies on audience participation requires a sufficiently informed and proactive audience. To my knowledge, works of relational aesthetics have not been attempted on the dead. The energy of other people is needed.

It follows too that any style of art can be academic. In a rare moment of self-critical candor in Propositions, Pujol points out a need to “define Conceptualism beyond its by-now rigid academic classicism, its oxygen-lacking formalism, beyond the dictatorial notions of purity that all hegemonic styles inevitably acquire.” Drawing classes are thought of by certain contemporary artists as academic holdovers from a bygone era, and they've been suggesting for years that it's unnecessary to teach drawing in a world in which photographic processes are readily available. But you can make academic art just as easily with a camera as a pencil. In light of creative practice that boils down to ideas, Renfro, the architect, questions the need for rooms in which one can make things. But the dematerialization of the object, executed according to a script, is as academic as copying the figure drawing lithographs of Charles Bargue.

Part IV: Jumping in the Ocean Without Getting Wet

This conclusion puts us in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to be academics without being academic.

My experience is that it can't be done, and this experience is echoed throughout Propositions. Conceptual artist John Baldessari says in conversation with the painter Michael Craig-Martin, “I would say that you can't teach art, but it might be a good idea to have artists teaching. You know, so at least you have people who profess to be doing something we call art, and it might be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.” Baldessari, Thierry de Duve, Charles Esche, and many others doubt that art belongs in the academic setting. One chapter of Propositions reprints responses to a questionnaire sent out to twelve artists. A common theme throughout the responses is that the primary value of schooling was the competition and encouragement from fellow students. The teaching itself was incomplete and somewhat incidental, and that didn't end up mattering.

Lest we conclude that Baldessari's pedagogy is as nihilistic as his art practice, the abstract painter and longtime teacher Walter Darby Bannard, in a book I edited entitled Aphorisms for Artists, says this in the introduction: “Good students will eagerly try anything anyway, and lesser ones will, one way or another, resist everything no matter what you tell them.”

And lest we conclude at this point that this is a challenge particular to the modernists with their belief in intuited visual quality, and the post-modernists with their belief in nothing in particular, the pre-modernists suffer the same problem. For the 2007-08 school year I taught in an art department modeled on the realist atelier. It's assumed that if you're a painting or sculpture student there, you are there to learn how to render the figure, build spaces and forms with orthogonal perspective, and use traditional mediums. Students never encounter abstraction. Foundation-level two-dimensional design was taught by copying old masters. And by their senior year, most of these students were at best adequately competent. Even that targeted curriculum couldn't reliably close the gap between skill and artistry.

I don't think that the school was doing anything wrong. I think they had an impossible problem, the same one we all have as teachers – we can't do anything about a student's talent. Here and there among artist-educators, and also among the pages of Propositions, you see calls for a contemporary reimplementation of the apprenticeship system. I think this would greatly improve the overall quality of art education, but mostly because it would drastically reduce the number of students, and oblige the remaining ones into commitments that were far more consuming than the commitment needed to stay enrolled in a university art program.

Pujol suggests seriously that

Art students need access to training in other disciplines, combining what we may identify as the very best of historical and contemporary drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and installation art with conservation, ecological and environmental efforts; ethics; cultural anthropology; urban sociology, behavioral psychology; global political science and economics; robotics; and media theory, among other fields.

This curriculum, if anyone ever figured out how to implement it, would, by exposing the student to fractional understanding of deep topics and depriving them of time spent with materials, all but force them into modes of art-making in which ideas are primary and mediums are incidental.

In light of the fact that we are not going to produce great sociologists or roboticists within the structure of an art program, a responsibly broad curriculum is likely going to have to be similar to the Bauhaus model that we are already using in foundations, followed by open-ended studios that we have probably already implemented. A basic philosophy class should be required, so that if the time comes in an artist's development to dive into capital-T Theory, it won't happen in an intellectual vacuum, and in any case there will no harm in understanding what philosophers mean by logic, argument, fallacy, and so on.

But most importantly, we have to continually step out from behind the curtain of academia to point out that the whole arrangement is a convenient fiction, partly for our students, and partly for ourselves. We can teach conventions. As I said before, conventions are not in themselves academic. Furthermore, we are going to be called upon to teach conventions like it or not, because if Dutton is right about the human predilection for beauty and skill displays, and I think he is, students are going to come to us and ask us how to produce them. But it's up to us to keep the steam in the engine, to make sure that we're operating from a place of inspiration, or we'll degenerate into academics in the pejorative sense.

Word count: 2467

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