Free-floating molecules in the vast vacuum of art
Post #1271 • January 7, 2009, 10:10 AM • 42 Comments
No such question can be answered definitively; but I would like to draw attention to two errors that have contributed to the triumph of shallowness. The first is the overestimation of originality as an artistic virtue in itself; and the second is the false analogy that is often drawn between art and science in point of progress.
The reasoning that follows this assertion, made halfway in, is impeccable. The points of data leading up to it, however, look a little thin. At the very least, they contradict mine. Dalrymple claims to have "talked to quite a number of art students" and on this basis observes, "Rarely do they receive any formal training in (say) drawing or painting." I spent the last year teaching at a college with a classical painting curriculum in which Giorgione might have felt at home. Before then I taught drawing and painting, with traditional and modern permutations thereof, for six years in a university-level art program with a more generalist approach. Maybe things are different in England - I find that hard to believe - but in my experience, students destined for all kinds of art-making typically receive at least a handful of foundational drawing and painting classes in their first year. Whether these classes are taught sympathetically or competently in every instance is worth asking. But even a far-out program like the one at CalArts describes itself as "begin[ning] with a series of foundation courses in which students investigate various media, art-historical traditions and theoretical positions." The site doesn't feature course listings, but one would reasonably assume that "various media" includes paint, for which it claims to offer instruction in the preceding paragraph, and that such instruction does not consist of how to smear it upon one's person or something like that.
Rather, I think a couple of different problems are at work. Firstly, the generalist approach to a four-year curriculum in art doesn't provide a great background for figurative artists. It's not a disaster either, presuming goodwill on the part of the teachers and students with sufficient native abilities, but unlike an exclusively figurative program such as that of my erstwhile employer, the odds of a fully-formed realist artist coming out the other end are worse than even. Figuration isn't the point here, but competency. Mastery of any medium is equally difficult, but achieving basic competence varies widely depending on medium and style. Basic competence in figurative art requires a few years of pounding skills. Basic competence in abstraction probably requires one. Basic competence in photography can be gathered in a few weeks. The early results of photography are much more satisfying than the early results of oil painting. Discouragement follows suit proportionately, and it takes a particularly driven kind of student to fight through it. In 2006 I took a silkscreen class at MassArt, and noted the overarching degree to which the students relied on photography to get an image together. And these were not necessarily photography students.
Secondly, if you look at what work by living artists receives the highest levels of critical attention, you find a preponderance of photo, video, and installation, and a cross-media preponderance of conceptual approaches and concerns about identity. This does not, by any means, represent the totality of work being made right now, which is so diverse and copious as to justify literally anything as a signficant movement at the moment. Neither does it represent the best work being made, which as a group is style-agnostic. It represents the predilections of a critical class that, like middlebrows have always done, reads art because it can't quite see it, but unlike middlebrows of the past, grew up in a time when humanity's visual record mainly comprised photography and video.
It would be easy and often apt to accuse the students of ignorance or torpor, but one could alternately credit them with a rational economic decision. They see that they can get satisfying results more easily from photo-based media than drawing-based ones, and they see that beyond a certain foundational level, skill-building and critical/curatorial appreciation correlate not at all. They also see that this critical class values beauty only to the extent that it lies on a conceptual framework as an optional coating of aesthetic lacquer. If you desire the attentions of this critical class, you will act accordingly. That means putting high premiums on novelty, justifications, and piquant ideas (which need only the most superficial examinations - the merest hintings qualify as an "addressing" of them), and letting the highest reaches of beauty go.