Thursday, October 27, 2005

Considering Excavations

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


Ginna Purrington said...

I definitely hear what you're saying -- unfortunately it seems to be a part of the anti-intellectualism of the whole country. What depresses me further is that the worlds of art and literature should be places where we use our brains and critical thinking skills to fight against the anti-intellectualism of the good-ol' boy world. Instead the same laziness exists.
Recently I submitted a poem to workshop in which I employed Balder, a figure from Norse mythology. I didn't include an explanitory note when I originally submitted it, although I did send an e-mail prior to my critique session in which I outlined the basics of Balder's history. There were other elements of the poem that weren't immediately transparent, but were not out of reach, (especially with the internet) but when I got to workshop, only a couple of people had taken the time to look them up. I wasn't trying to create a treasure hunt, but I don't think that everything in my poetry needs to be immediately obvious, either. So much of the criticism that gets tossed around in our classes is along the lines of not understanding. Obviously sometimes this is the writer's fault. But sometimes the readers don't put any effort into reaching outside themselves and really experiencing the work on its own terms. It frustrates me.
One hopeful thing is that one professor encourages us all to be autodidacts -- that is, self-educators -- what we all have to be outside of formal education. I'm kind of a school junkie, so this seems obvious to me. But it feels empowering to be given the tools that we already have -- our own brains -- to chip away at things.

Totally different topic.
Once in high school we had a poem and a drawing on the same page in the Andrean. Had you drawn that picture (of a kind of crazy looking guy) anyway? Or was it an illustration of the poem? I don't expect you remember, but I've always wondered.

Hungry Hyaena said...


As the literati like to say, Balder is a badass.

You might check out an article in the October Harper's that deals with Jonathan Franzen's bias against experimental fiction. Personally, I am more likely to side with Franzen, in the same way that I dislike most artwork that aims to "break new ground." Quite simply, experimental works are usually boring, difficult and, before long, irrelevant. (Not to mention thoughtless and unintelligent.) Of course, it is the rare experimental piece that strikes a chord and stays for generations, but even a seminal work like Joyce's Ulysses will be forgotten by non-academics in another hundred years - the precipitous decline of this book in even the eyes of the academy is worth noting.

While I usually think of auto-didacts as those folks who never received any formal education, I like your use of the word. In that sense, I agree that all good people need to be auto-didacts, never tiring of learning because, as Merlin says, that is the only "thing for it."

As far as the Andrean is concerned, I don't know where my copies are these days. I'm sure my mother has some in Virginia; I'll take a peek next time I go home. I don't remember either my drawing or your poem, though, and I definitely don't recall making a drawing based on your poem, especially since the staff would have had to supply me with the poem in advance. It's possible, though, as I have forgotten so many details.

Send me some poetry sometime.

Mikhail Capone said...

"Too many contemporary artists, despite the impressive sums they spend on schooling, are un(der)educated, ignorant of literature, science, and history. This cultural and intellectual illiteracy compromises their work"

Not quite what you were talking about, but you reminded me of game shows. I hate them and don't watch them, but I read that a while ago the people who went on these shows were quite brilliant and impressed people with their knowledge. But what the TV people discovered is that the people at home didn't know most of the answers and often didn't know what the hell the people were talking about, so they dumbed down the shows to include lots of pop culture, commercial and everyday thing references so that the audience could feel smart and "part of it".

The tables have been turned. Now if you don't get it, it's "them" that are elitists and intellectuals, not you who's ignorant.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Sounds familiar. My parents used to watch "Jeopardy" religiously - starting in the late 80s, when they got their first television - and my father, a real polymath, would always play along, usually missing (or blanking on) only ten to fifteen questions. These days, however, they no longer watch the program, as my father finds it too "dumbed down to take." I haven't seen the program in years, but I'll take his word for it. Oh, well...just one more example.

paddalumpakins said...

I LOVE this post. And I'm jealous of your father for finding Jeopardy too easy now. I've never been any good at it.

I totally agree with you. A 60,000 dollar education should at least buy you a firm liberal arts grounding. I really believe part of the reason artist stated objectives and their work are so often disperate is because the education system has failed on that level. I think the contemporary field is weak because of it.

Ginna Purrington said...

you are far too well-read. and I can't read that essay online. so now I have to go to the library AND subscribe to Harper's -- I love George Saunders.

lots of geese here too, and their poops. the ADF&G guys band their legs and steal their eggs in the springtime because they think there are too many. the sound of them honking reminds me of the cross-country loops next to the cornfields in fall. ah, delaware.

Michael said...

The sound of them honking makes me think of fast food straws being pushed up and down in the plastic lids.
Once I saw a flock flying under an armaggedon-style thunderstorm. It sounded like this:
wonka... wonka... wonka... wonka...
[flash] KABOOM!!!
Poor bastards.
As or art and education, I think that academia has such a had time teaching Art because 'we've' spent the last 150 years 'blowing the lid off' of Art. 'Anything goes' is a hard credo to teach with any rigor (not to mention a mild untruth).
Personally, I would really like to see a radically differnt approach to teaching art. I'll spare y'all the rant, but what we have now is, in my humble 'pinion, not quite cutting it.
Wonka wonka wonka wonka....

Hungry Hyaena said...

The straw-in-lid description is pretty fitting, Mike. i hadn't made that connection.

Would you be willing to post the art education rant over at Feel Free to Wander?