Sunday, August 24, 2008

Life Study, Part One

(First published in the Griffith REVIEW, August, 2006)
I used to be in love with Tracey Emin. She was bold, self-made and bolshie, and she didn’t care what anyone thought of her. I fell out of love when she stopped making her art herself and began writing about being a celebrity for The Guardian. It turned out that she cared quite a lot about what people thought of her.
Before Tracey, I had a crush on Cindy Sherman. She was an older woman, and someone on whom I thought I could model myself. It ended when I realised that all she really had to offer was a sense of fashion, and even then not her own. There were other women, other artists, all of them older and successful within a system that had once favoured only men with fame and money and the opportunity to be more than a footnote in art history. It was only later that I figured out that it was just an elaborate con.
I am not love with anyone anymore. And I have stopped believing in a lot of what is thought of as art these days. It’s as if a couple of hundred dull-headed, middle-aged men and women – not just artists, but educators, curators, gallerists and critics – have come up with a set of rules to define what real art and real artists are. The rules are vague, and yet still as constricting and moralistic as anything concocted by a Reformation cleric. Which is, I guess, exactly what one should expect since art became a kind of religion in the late twentieth century, a cargo cult for the upper middle class, with the artists themselves playing makeshift shamans.
This is one of the rules: love has no place in art. The conceptualist American artist Jeff Koons, who was once a highly paid marketing executive, insists that art has been too subjective in the past, too concerned with the messy, emotive sprawl of self-expression, as opposed to what he calls objective art – art so sanitised of the germy interior life of the artist that his or her only role in its creation is an idea. The actual making of the finished work, the elements of craftsmanship, are for him best left up to others – preferably others who have no real interest or engagement with the artist other than interpreting his instructions with as much technical precision as possible. In Koons’ world, being able to draw or paint or shape a material is a drawback: traditional skills are a distraction from the process of conception; they are too easily subverted by the awkward, unrefined impulses of inspiration that dance at an unpredictable tempo within an artist’s heart and psyche.
Koons’ self-serving view is exactly the sort of glib schtick that was served up as critical theory to me in art school, where every student had to come up with a justification of his or her work in front of a group of peers and lecturers, an ordeal that was no more enlightening than a heretic’s inquisition. The works themselves were incidental (no one really looked at them) – what mattered was how you talked about them. We were told that this would happen in the 'real world' – that we needed to learn how to deconstruct and qualify, that our artwork was necessarily less without a complex explanation. I recognised early on that what they were really talking about (without realising it) was what brand marketers refer to as positioning. I learned to think like a snake oil salesman; I learned to spruik my wares – never mind the quality, feel the width. Of all the bad habits I learned at art school, this was the hardest to break.
Truth is, I didn’t last long there. I dropped out after just six months. A decade later, I am one of the few former students of that year still practising art, and the only one who is painting full-time and supporting myself from my work.
What provoked me to leave art school was the sense that the art I was being 'taught' was so leached of both technical rigour and emotion that it had been reduced to a kind of glib in-joke between teachers and students. For example, one work that garnered faculty acclaim was a series of dirty, elongated pillows mounted on a wall, vibrating. Another consisted of an ironing board at erection angle penetrating the open door of a clothes dryer. While viewers snickered, and the artists diluted any potential academic criticism with well-practised, casuistic spin, these were ultimately empty works that appeared to revel in their lack of craft. And, like nearly all art of this time, they were reliant on context – being in a gallery space – in order for them to be viewed as art at all.
As a student, I was left with no illusions as to what was valued at art school – painting and drawing were nothing but quaint anachronisms.
The highlight of my two terms at art school was a mid-semester exhibition, held in the church-like, asbestos-ridden building that served as the studio space for first-year students. Not recognising it as an artwork, a guest had left an empty wine glass on a plinth atop which a small mount of powdered ochre was piled. The work’s creator, a mature-aged student, was enraged. “That’s my art!” she screamed. She snatched the glass up from the plinth and threw it a dozen metres through an open back door. It shattered loudly against a brick wall outside, stopping all conversation and focusing everyone’s attention on the irate artist. Performance and installation art were encouraged at this art school, and it was agreed later, by students and faculty, that this incident had been the best example of either ever produced a first-year student.
(To be continued)


Anonymous said...

Oh I hated art school for all the same reasons! The talk was more important than the art, I could never understand why my worst art works were applauded some times. (usually experiments that looked awful)

And other times my most emotive works were condemned so harshly I could barely pick up a brush to paint. For inspiration I was told to go look at the masters and paint like them.

Art school will kill true creativity in a heart beat. I too, left and now exhibit regularly in galleries. I couldn't paint in art school, leaving made me free.

Art is Moving said...

Wow.. great topic would love to have a dialogue about this...My drawing 101 teacher in my final critique in my under grad said my eyes looked like roaches. How does that affect a hyper sensitive, social phobic artist. Who feels that art is her life line?

Also, in my teaching I have heard countless horror stories of folks being victims of art teachers. Judged..
Would love to here it all.....

Lisa Rasmussen said...
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Anonymous said...

At art school I had a horrifying time with one teacher. He at one time criticised & questioned my pasting a photo I took of a friend's young daughter at a window, into an otherwise abstract oil painting. It had felt so right to me but I did not justify it well verbally. I left the tutorial devastated, ripped out the offending photograph later. When I brought back the work to the class the next week minus the photo my fellow students were disappointed. I also regretted changing the work to please the teacher and he wasn't even pleased. He was just being 'provocative'. I was so incensed about it all that I destroyed the piece entirely later and didn't return to classes the following year and I don't make art now but that is my choice.

I read that Van Gogh went to art school and left early in the piece when he found he could not please the teachers as they kept telling him he was wrong. He didn't believe them and did it his way.

Anonymous said...

I was always drawn to Cindy Sherman's works and her ideas. On the more radical side I always enjoyed Maria Kozic's ideas & art.

leslie herger said...

What you write of is the exact kind of bull shit drivel that makes me glad I went to a state school where art was not the focus. Sure we had our own subset of what I've referred to as "art wankers." Those shallow blowhards making lame stuff to get attention but eventually the work falls flat due to poor quality.

I had a series of technically proficient instructors who drilled into me the importance of technical skills, of practice and hard work.

While I've taken a longer road to art than some and spend more time teaching than much else, frankly I'm one of the few who still practice. Quitting is common in art.