Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conversation with a Student, pt. 2

Here's the second part of a lengthy e-mail exchange I had with Sean Ng, a highly articulate student of mine this semester (spring 2010) at the Parsons School of Design. Click here to read part one.

Sean 2/25/10:

Hello Paul,

With regard to the influence of language in art, I have read the piece in the Times and I think it opens up an adjacent field of discussion - the influence of curators on artistic discourse and on artists. The problem with subordinating the visual product to a construct of ideas, in my opinion, is that it replaces the artistic process with a design process. This is probably one of the reasons why Damien Hirst is an artist that we love to hate - yours words, not mine - because it appears we have all been seduced by the implacable logic of cool design.

I had quite a bit of an argument with a number of my peers from the previous semester with regard to the Bauhaus collection largely because I thought it was an amazingly ambitious exercise in building a universal design vernacular and nobody else agreed. A situation commonly confronted in class is when a piece is put on the wall, someone asks why the lines were blue and the student who made it replies he simply liked the colour. I personally feel that every choice in the process of making a piece should have a conscious underpinning but a considerable majority prefer a more intuitive approach. Students often accuse teachers of over analysing or abetting the excessive analysis of their work (we get that a lot in Lab [a Parsons Foundation Course] which makes it a particularly painful exercise) and I'm curious, what do you actually think?


p.s. Which of Derrida's work would you suggest I start with?

Paul 2/25/10:

Regarding the influence of curators, you've really hit on something that I think is a huge problem, and pretty recent in overall terms, say, the last 10-15 years. It's very common now for a curator to come up with some grand concept which is often extremely obscure (e.g. Bifurcated Epistomological Syllogisms Relating to Gender and Class), and then shoehorn together works that have little in common that supposedly fit the thesis. Even worse are the assignment based shows in which the curators approach artists with their concept and have them make work to fit. This is illustration at its worst.

A great curator has to have two things that are often mutually exclusive - first she has to be extremely smart, knowledgeable about history, and possessing of a really good eye, and second, she must have the humility to understand that the work comes first and the theory and analysis spring from the observation of the work, not the other way around. People like this are in short supply. There is a whole generation of curators that essentially consider themselves artists, which, of course, they are not. Many of the department chairs at the big programs are non-practitioners, which I think is outrageous.

Re. Hirst (and Urs Fischer, and Roni Horn, and Tino Sehgal, and Pipilotti Rist), I think that Roberta Smith hit it right on the head in that Times piece when she pointed out the ideas they are exploring are stylized and professionalized versions of topics that bubbled up in the ferment of the late '60's. It's important to look at the time frame of early Post-Modernism; in the late '60's, all institutions of power were under heavy scrutiny in Europe and the USA (civil rights, women's rights, Vietnam, the Sorbonne, etc.) and it only makes sense that art itself would be reevaluated, critiqued, turned inside-out. But now that it's all codifed and reflexive and expected, it's just a look or a kind of mannerism.

In terms of the Bauhaus - yes, the concept of the overall aesthetic environment is very seductive. When you think of certain Japanese interiors, particularly before the huge western influence took hold after WWII, you can really see this in practice. The whole room, the furniture, the flowers, the placement of the window and the view becomes a complete artistic statement. As a result, that isn't a huge tradition of picture-making in Japan (like painting in the west) because the entire environment is the art.

I went in expecting to like the Bauhaus show for this reason, but found it kind of flat. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I could have seen it when it was new? Mondrian's paintings still look incredibly fresh to me, but furniture made in the same spirit looks dated.

And last but not least - intuition vs. analysis; a huge topic! I'll try and keep it short, but I'm so far not doing a very good job in this e-mail.

Art and design will always be, at root, intuitive and emotional. If your classmate chose blue because that was the only tube of paint that he had then it was just laziness, but if he had other colors at hand, even just a couple, then that was an example of an emotional, artistic decision. There can be no art without these kinds of choices, BUT, it's important to be able to look at the result after the fact and realize why you did it, was it successful, did it communicate what you were thinking and feeling, and if not, why? How could you do it differently? This is why one goes to art school.

As a teacher, I feel like the emotional, intuitive part is hard-wired inside you all, I need to do very little to draw this out. As a result, it might sometimes seem as if I don't place a premium on this, but in fact I think it's the most important part! The analytical, however, doesn't come so naturally, and this is why I really try and provide training in this regard. And to tie this in with the beginning of this long e-mail, I think that the only way to diminish the power of star curators is for artists to become a hell of a lot more articulate.

Derrida's seminal work, in which he introduces the now-ubiquitous concept of deconstruction is called "Of Grammatology." I've only read excerpts, and have no plans to wade through the whole thing, so I'll count on you for a concise summary - let me know when you finish!

Talk soon,

Sean 2/28/2010:

I understand that museums are under increasing pressure to justify their costs, and to what extent does this contribute to the decisions of curators? Also, when you mention an entire generation of curators, this necessarily leads us back to their educational background and what the schools have been teaching. But I'm curious, from your experience, what sort of relationship do the big programs and their curators have with artists?

A friend of mine in London just went to look at the Van Doesburg exhibition. She does not have a background in art, and reacted with distaste to his compositions, something about them being too intellectual. It seems to me that if artists from that period - like Van Doesburg and Mondrian - tried to rationalise art in a similar fashion that all other intellectual fields (anthropology, history, social sciences, etc) were being rationalised, then the artists of our time have infused art with the overarching values of commerce that seem so important today. Mannerism indeed!

Re. furniture, I think the plastic arts have not aged as well because they tend to fall into design and are constantly appropriated and re-appropriated to the point that they no longer look new. There seems also to be a very perverse phenomenon today where because mass production has become so common, our obsession with concept and design have resulted in a neglect of craft while emphasising notions of craftsmanship. Ikea, Crate and Barrel or even Muji cleverly manufacture objects that look rough hewn/imperfect on a large scale and the result is saturation.

You mentioned whole room in Japanese art and I cannot help but think of the Packard collection now showing at the Met. They have this fascinating reconstruction of a room with wonderful lacquered screens.

Very interesting, this explain why your critiques have been so useful. On Derrida, that's what spring break's for. I have a friend coming down from Yale where she does art history and this will certainly be great fodder for discussion!


Paul 2/28/2010:

A bunch of issues here, let me address them one at a time:

The museum business: more people have been attending museums in the last decade than at any time in history, the museums are literally rolling in dough. At the same time, it seems that the concerns of the contemporary art institutions must be incredibly obscure to people without a background - shows are often hermetic critiques of art itself. I often wonder what civilians make of this stuff.

Art education: Your point about the curators, and artists for that matter, is a good one. That generation of post-modernist rebels from the '60's and '70's are now faculty members and department chairs. The current group of artists and curators (me included) were their students. This is why so much contemporary art are subtle re-interpretations of late '60's concerns. The Tino Seghal at the Guggenheim is a good example - it's Conceptual Art slightly repackaged.

Neo-plasticism: Van Doesburg and Mondrian weren't intellectualizing, but distilling and simplifying - trying to get at a kind of universal pictorial language. They wanted their pictures to hang on the walls of Utopia. The idea of universals and absolutes is at a very low ebb - cultural difference and specificity is emphasized now. I think this is a positive develpment, but there are many shared aspects a of being human that are now ignored.

Commerce: We're coming off of the hottest art market in history. After world markets crashed in fall of 2008, many people thought that it would actually be a positive thing for art. If it wasn't glamorous anymore, a lot of the silly stuff and silly artists would just drift away. Something is definitely changing, but it's still unclear what the landscape will look like when the dust settles.

Furniture: Giving mass market crap the imprimatur of art and craft seems like it's one of the central evils of our era, but it's been around since the 19th century. The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism ushered it in, and advertising has made it essentially permanent.

See you tomorrow,