On Tuesday night I attended a cocktail reception at Mixed Greens' new Chelsea digs, a nice, contemporary space with a comfortable flow. The reception was billed as a private affair and there were only twenty to thirty people in attendance, making art viewing and navigation easy.
The affair was pleasant enough; I sipped white wine and shuffled about the room, chatting with an artist friend of mine who had spent the day studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When I applied to art graduate programs in 1999, no schools requested GRE scores, so I was surprised to learn that Stanford, a program on my friend's list, does so. In most respects, I feel that the requirement is a good one; too many artists lack a liberal arts grounding. My friend, however, but pointed out that the GRE isn't a reliable measure of general knowledge, even if it does provide review committees with some sense of an applicant's aptitude. We moved to the bar area, refilled our empty plastic cups and the conversation moved in some other direction.
Still, this is a concern that I return to regularly. Many contemporary artists, despite the impressive sums they (or their family) have spend on graduate schooling, are un(der)educated, ignorant especially of literature, science, and history. This cultural and intellectual illiteracy compromises their work. Little wonder so many artists draw only on their immediate experience or the events of the day without regard to context beyond art world borders!
Some of the onus for this failure must be placed on the art world itself. When applying to art graduate programs, prospective students have a better chance of being accepted if they are familiar with "the system." Attending an undergraduate program with a "fine arts" focus, rather than a general liberal arts college with multi-disciplinary requirements, makes the applicant more art world savvy. These fine arts undergrad programs are essentially high-priced trade schools; the young artist is an apprentice. Their time in these stepping stone institutions prepares them well for many aspects of the art world - whether graduate school applications, grant writing, or mastery of art speak - but it leaves them unable to discuss the similarity between Shakespeare and H. L. Mencken or the political factors which led to the twentieth century's European nationalism. In fact, some of the artists I know deride such knowledge as esoteric (or "nerdy") and conversations about these subjects as self-consciously "heady." (Last week's "The Significance of Pluto to the Waterboy" essay addresses this anti-intellectual posturing.)
But what serious artist wouldn't want to learn as much as possible and, more importantly, apply it? T.H. White's Merlin, in "The Once and Future King," puts it well.
“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing that the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”Personally, I agree with the wizard's prescription, but it doesn't apply universally. A great many ignorant people are perfectly happy! Still, the work of even the happiest, un(der)educated artist risks cultural irrelevance because it is too tied to art world insularity.
The celebrated art critic Donald Kuspit insists that most contemporary art "reifies innovation into novelty and upsets the balance, leaving a disspirited intellectuality in its wake." Indeed, the art world's decision to prioritize innovation is an imaginative failure. Moreover, the work produced in the quest for novelty is usually (and paradoxically) unoriginal, overly indebted to art world and auction house trade winds.
The variety of art world artist that I'm critiquing might be characterized as Archilochus's hedgehog, the creature that knows only one "big thing." The hedgehog is a specialist, in the context of the art world, shaped by trade school and the market. The fox, according the Archilochus, is a generalist, an animal that knows many things, but nothing so well as the hedgehog knows his or her one. Not surprisingly, I gravitate toward artwork made by foxes whose excavations are broad, even if their digs are more shallow. Digging deeply in just one spot will eventually make your work irrelevant to all but those who share your particular focus.
Bear in mind that, compared to most contemporary artists, I'm an intellectual conservative. I might even be labelled something of a traditionalist. Although I champion cultural relativism, I detest postmodern approaches to philosophy or morality; I'm as much a realistic pragmatist as I am a progressive dreamer, and I'm often out of step with contemporary aesthetic thinking. When I find a work of art frivolous, cloying or stupid, it's likely that other artists and critics will agree that it is superior, possibly even historically important!
Alvin Lustig, the twentieth century designer, believed that
"modernism reflected larger social goals of integrating art and life, blurring the boundaries that had separated high art and utilitarian object. As he put it, 'If I seem to place a heavy mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of those who are really only expected to make nice shapes and colors, it is because history demands it. Every act that allows productive facilities to serve only itself, contributes inevitably to the threat of destruction that already looms on the horizon.'"That a work engages the intellect or is truly utilitarian is important to me. Lustig may have considered only architecture and graphic design capable of fulfilling these requirements, but I feel strongly that the best contemporary painting, drawing and sculpture can communicate in as vital a way as the walls of Lascaux. Centuries have complicated our interpretation of images, and necessitated that we process a great deal more information than our forebears, but we remain the essential ape.
Photo credit: ripped from mathscareers.org