Caretaking the Echo Pond: The Practice of Art in the Fin-de-Siecle Academy
Issue #32, April 1997
For some individuals, the efforts put forth to earn one's socio-economic keep are conceived as a kind of "toiling in the vineyard," with the expenditure of effort guided by an implication of fruitful harvest and a concluding dionysian celebration. Others conduct their labor in tune to the percussive syncopation of Lee Dorsey's "workin' in a coalmine, goin' down, down, down," knowing that when "...Saturday night rolls around, (they're) too tired for havin' fun."
It almost goes without saying that the real progress of the American worker's journey from consumer paradise to the current advent of techno-dystopian toil is charted along the waypoints represented by the preceding popular epithets. This begs the even more depressing question of just who will be left to sing the Internationale as the New Globalism concludes its current process of post-ideological economic consolidation. Certainly, it will not be members of the techno-mangerial elite crooning from behind their gated communities while they operate society's servo-mechanisms by remote-internet-control. And most certainly, it will not be the growing population of the socially excarcerated, hypnotized as they are by the aimless spectacles of mock-redemption broadcast by the corporate jumbotron. That leaves a small minority of psychically disaffected who might still sing the Internationale, and they are quietly falling through society's cracks, each the victim of an unfortunate game of musical chairs that is slowly eroding the very fabric of civil society.
Fortunately, in my little neck of the coalmine, all I have to do is find out who can sing (in visual form), period, and endeavor to help them sing better. Job Title: Art Teacher. Job Description: Teach students how to make art. It's not as easy as it sounds because part-and-parcel of that Job Description is the subtextual mission of teaching students how to conceive of themselves as a specific kind of subject ("the artist") in a world that suddenly seems to have left art behind. Fortunately, that world is sufficiently guilt-ridden to invest sizable institutional energy in the pretense that it values art. Right now, there is still the idea of being-an-artist-so-as-to garner-patronizing-administrative-attention, but even this gambit seems to be quickly growing stale. Now that the ideological contest called the "Cold War" has been settled, there is no great political need to parade avant-garde artists around as emblems of unfettered innovation and a mythical freedom of expression. Just as the "justice system" needs criminals to legitimate itself as a socially necessary industry, so too does a new artworld of moebius-spiraling administration need a population of artists to legitimate itself as being a useful boon to society's reigning myth of itself. With the end of the Cold War comes the end of one kind of reigning myth — the myth of the avant-garde artist — but it is one that has yet to be replaced by another, thus leaving administration-for-the-sake-of-administration standing momentarily naked without its fig leaf of higher purpose.
This peculiar interregnum between one dead myth of aesthetic credibility and another that is not yet born brings forth a whole set of questions, not the least of which being the one that asks about the proper place that art education might hold in the larger scholarly community of the University. This question is propelled in part by the fact that being-an-artist (like being-an-intellectual) is in itself a practice and cannot claim the true status of an academic discipline. The distinction is worth pondering: a "discipline" represents a stable and conveyable body of taxonomized knowledge and organized methods of inquiry. It assumes that intelligence (i.e. the recognition of patterns operating in lived experience) can benefit in clarity and purpose from the programmatic manipulation of standard, time-honored abstractions rampant in schooled intellectuality.
On the other hand, a "practice" operates by giving priority to the patterns gleaned from lived experience, even as they might contradict disciplinary assumptions. Even though a practice has a vocabulary of methods and a history of purposes which can and should be taught, such a historical vocabulary is necessarily limited (even as it is eternally debated). In practical terms, this means that art education seeks to bring students to the state of self-directed practice sooner rather than later, in recognition of the fact that true education in any field boils down to the process of students "standing around until they catch on," leading to the construction of a curriculum that has been designed to minimize the standing around so as to maximize the catching on.
But what exactly is it that students are supposed to be catching on to in the post-avant-garde artistic climate? This is the most important of our questions, to which I advance a provisional answer distilled from the writings of Dave Hickey: art is vernacular expression redeemed by the codes of high style. The vernacular expression part of the equation is something that cannot, indeed, should not, be taught. It stems from the symbolic thematics that are imbricated in the student's (sense of) individual, generational and cultural self-definition; in other words, an individual mode of marking specific time that is taught by lived experience. As for codes of high style, they themselves are subject to so many historical fluctuations that they may be too elastic to teach in the context of a detailed program, whether they be taught as technologically displaceable skills or presentational/organizational strategies that are themselves subtly coded with presumptions of class, gender and ethnicity that are intrinsically at odds with the pluralistic cult of elective affinities.
This quandary breeds our final question, which is amplified by recent changes in the institutional and political forces (i.e. changes that reflect the financial and ethical realities of the neo-conservative "culture war" on civil society in general and educational institutions in particular) that are re-forming the orthodoxies of contemporary education and culture. Does the student's arrival at this state of practice ("praxis"?) suffice as being something more than partaking of an institutional opportunity for said student to puff up his or her grade point average while taking a playful and reflective break from the dehumanizing business of passively sponging up endless lectures addressing endless subjects from endless perspectives? The fact that this question has now come to the fore says a lot about the times in which we live, for not too long ago it was assumed that such a break would inevitably make a positive contribution to the larger educational mission of shaping individually integrated and socially engaged human beings. To this we can add an additional claim that was made for an institutional creativity curriculum: it taught the orthodoxy of the unorthodox, and its presence in and beyond the University community was thought to have a salutary (albeit delayed) effect on the conceptual gridlocks that characterized other disciplines and practices. By emphasizing and valorizing unconventional shifts in perception and perspective, it allowed for the formation of new premises for the examination of old problems that on many occasions had far-ranging effects, not the least of which was to build a modernist canon that defined all of art history as the developmental succession of evolving styles rather than a loose-knit cluster of tradition-specific iconographies.
In the art studio, this mode of institutional creativity provided the opportunity to programatically equate the idea of "art practice" with the idea of "modernist art practice," thus inculcating into those traditional bastions of "the humanities" some of the parameters of modernism's critique of humanism as being (in Emmanual Levinas' phrase) "not sufficiently human." In turn, this gradually affected the perspectives that form the operating premises of other disciplines. But now that the traditional disciplines of the humanities have become an almost exclusive arena for the development of cultural theory and the practice of cultural critique, the studio conceived as a sanctioned laboratory for perspectival deviance seems to have suddenly fallen far from its position of favor, in part because laborers in other sectors of the humanities have developed the notion (recently expressed by Hal Foster) that "critical theory has served as a secret continuation of modernism by other means: after the decline of late-modernist painting and sculpture, it occupied the position of high art." In short, the presence of the art studio amid the scholarly community of the University now seems singularly vulnerable to hostile scrutiny from both right-wing budget slashers and left-wing death-of-the-author types, as if a paying-of-the-karmic-piper were in order after some cost-benefit demon had suddenly emerged from a deep sleep.
Because I teach at a dedicated art school, these questions about the status and desirability of art in the University would seem to be distant from my day-to-day experience, yet even in art school they encroach in ways that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. In art school, the idea of art is a given and is supposed to be in no need of bureaucratic rationalization or fiscal apology. Yet, in recent years the need for ever-more elusive approval from accreditation agencies has incrementally moved into the administrative foreground of art school education, and the requirements of these agencies has grown incrementally more exacting over the years. I suspect that this subtle advent is in some ways a response to the political gutting of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the fear that a similar inquisition might be directed at certain culturally-oriented initiatives of the Department of Education.
All one need do is remember the strident anti-education theme that was at the core of Robert Dole's Republican nomination speech last summer, and one can see the soon-to-be-written theme that will keynote the Gore-Kemp election in the year 2000. In preparation for this seemingly inevitable battle, accreditation initiatives are being developed as a way of cleaning up our academic house before unwanted political visitors can position themselves to tell us to clean up our houses their way lest they be repossessed. On the practical level, these new initiatives change very little about the way that my colleagues and I ply our actual trade, but they have forced us to re-think how we present what we do to the rest of the world from which we have insulated ourselves for far too long. And the fact that we have to make this adjustment to "our thinking" in itself will insure that the art-school environment of the future will have little to do with the way it was in the past.
A longer historical view can be instructively inserted at this juncture. As society transformed itself from tribal organization to civilizational empire, the preparation of artistic practice can be perceived as going from an insular shamanic inheritance to chain-gang piece work done under priestly theocratic supervision, as was the case in Pharonic Egypt. As this piece work became more technically challenging, guild systems evolved to develop and convey necessary skills as a kind of earn-while-you-learn program where technique was passed on rather like inherited property, with apprentices and journeymen laboring hard to queue up for elusive master status in pre-union shop environments dominated by senior practitioners who were not disposed to encourage competition. This was the case at the zenith of the renaissance. But as the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance gave way to the iconoclastic/iconophilic political battles of the counter-reformation, the first art schools were opened up, substituting a seemingly efficient pay-while-you-learn model of artistic education for the older conditions of skill gained from apprenticeship. This change in art education signaled a larger change in what society expected from the artist, for at that point "high art" had clearly distinguished itself from applied craft, and the cult of the artist as an ideal and exemplary human being had taken full political flower in a society that grew both literate and anxious under the influence of an information glut made available by the invention of the printing press. The ideological stakes were high, and the myth of the heroic artist was pressed into service for a dramatic preemptive strike against a succession of iconoclasms, even though the institutions that sought that service were undeniably corrupt and in decline.
Here was born the modern idea of the academy, in which an implicit mission of protecting and confirming elite proficiencies came to the forefront. The papal patron may have withered, but the need for bourgeois images grew, and schools teaching the strategies and techniques of image-making had come to be commonplace in most large urban areas. It was at this point that the Modernist reformation comes into play, for the academies had become self-serving and internally politicized, and in so doing had lost contact with the cultural fabrics that surrounded them. To be more precise, they had lost contact with an emerging condition of experience that was bred as a collective reaction-formation to urban society's growing emphasis on various forms of regimentation and photographic surveillance, and the concomitant need for a new kind of artist hero, an aristocrat-of-the-spirit who could recover a mythical human essence in a world that was geared to programmatic dehumanization. By definition, the academies could not produce such an artist, for academic etiquette was viewed as being at odds with the discovery of such an essence, which carried with it the supreme narcissistic reward, the reward of an illusory immortality, a kind of transcendent-special-personhood that money could never buy.
My use of the term narcissistic reward is central to my assessment of the state of art and art education, and it is also central to how I conduct my own practice of both. It is a commonplace in art historical studies to examine the art of the past in terms of patronage studies, by which I mean the relationship of the production of specific works of art to the social and economic investment in same. One can go on to look at the history of art education as the history of the institutional programs to engender said art. Yet, when we look at the art of the present (in fact, the art of the past century), such examinations seem strangely absent, as if the entire Modernist movement sprang full blown from history's brow without serving any external myths of credibility. In fact, a history of Modernist patronage, running from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to Alfred Barr to the advent of the institutional patron at the end of the twentieth century reconfirms the lesson of the songs that pipers play, and of who ends up garnering the king's shilling (even as we make a concomitant admittance to the existence of new kings in the emerging power world of trans-national corporate wealth). However, this inquiry into patterns of art patronage notwithstanding, the persistent myth of the Modernist, avant-garde artist is something quite different, for it claims to accept history rather than society as a judge, thus bespeaking the anti-social imperatives of the pathological narcissist, all dressed up in the tattered cloak of a hypocritical idealism. The narcissistic avant-garde artist lives like an eternal child so that the rest of us can face the adult death of unavoidable social servitude as a kind of noble sacrifice; a bleak inversion of the Christ-died-for-our-sins myth. It is nice work if you can get it, and many try, hence the formation of avant-garde art schools devoted to the preparation of avant-garde artists, all in the business of selling the unlikely potential for such an advent. Here is where the plot thickens.
Rarely does anybody meditate on the oxymoronical status of the term avant-garde institution (or for that matter, "institutional avant-garde"), and when they do they almost always become post-modern cynics who side with the institutional side of the term, an alliance that supports the idea of continued employment — continued institutional employment I might add, hence the designation of an institutional patron, seeking its particular type of self-confirming image. It is an image that confirms administration itself, and is usually expressed in visual terms as something called (with decreasing precision) conceptual art, that being the art of deploying ideas as visual material into institutional space via the techniques of networking, sub- contracting and stage managing — the presentational equivalents of the talents that administrators themselves bring to their self-appointed tasks. The difference is that in the new scenario, the administrators operate in a condition of barely gainful employment, while the administrator manques (i.e. artists) gain only notches on their resumes that might lead to the occasional fellowship or teaching position, there being no room for the patronage of commerce in the new world of art bureaucracy.
This new chapter in art and its patronage comes soon after the historical time in which the university art department added the most recent and controversial chapter to the history of art education, and the coincidence is not accidental, for university art education always was put into the position of privileging art history and theory in a way that art school education was not: such privileging of history and theory are the inevitable lingua franca of political survival in a university life socially geared for the education of administrators. This is the necessary socio-economic backdrop, for if the shift between a modernist and post-modernist moment in art education can be described as a change in focus from the student's crystallization of materials and experience into a unified and essential whole to a kind of signing of experience via the art of code, than surely the hidden priorities of the university art education lies somewhere in the backdrop of this transformation.
Thus, the polar coordinates for art and art education are now established: on the one hand, the narcissistic imperative of gaining an elusive totality (using art to heal the narcissistic wound gained from the daily humiliations of being but another cog in the collective nightmare) and, on the other hand, a cynical imperative of operating effectively amid the new academy of omnipresent administration via the presentational algebra of code manipulation — post-modernism called by another name. It is widely recognized that there can be no going back to the way things were, for reasons both political and professional. But it is also important to consider the real and unavoidable importance of the narcissistic basis of creativity, which begins as therapy for the damaged life, transforms into a critique of a damaging society and ends as a view of the possibility of a better world, at least when it doesn't get sidetracked by the siren song of administration envy. It is a process that needs all of its paradoxical parts to function, and its important features of self-and-world symbolization need to be discovered rather than merely taught. Herein lies the secret to the art of art teaching, which lies in leading students to those moments of discovery.
Herein also lies the tension that remains in art at the end of the age of ideology. It is a dialectical tension between narcissism and administration that in fact well-serves the socio-economic world of transnational capitalism by providing the image industry of that world an enclosed petri-dish for research and development: a kind of forget-how-to-think-tank for the translation of impulse control problems into fashion's latest set of stylistic pseudo-metaphors. In short, what is now called art education offers a tremendous return on society's meager investment, for it is frequently from the prescience of art education that "the next new thing" is percolated, starting as nascent generational issue and ending (quickly) as another place-holder on art history's postcard rack. We conduct bizarre experiments on ourselves so that the spectacles of the future will be able to change shape, at least a little bit.
Mark Van Proyen is an artist, art critic, and bon vivant who lives in Bolinas CA. He can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.