Inside/Outside

18 03 2012

Howard Singerman opens the sixth chapter of Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University by pointing out not only the primacy of language in university art education, but also the place of the artist in the work and in the instruction of art itself.  In an age of conceptual art, with language being a large factor in both the construction and understanding of a work, the artist’s statement and the artist’s talk are not just addendums to the work—they are the work.

Rirkrit Tiravanija speaking at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010.

Universities and museums become a sort of circuit for conceptual and alternative media artists, like night clubs for a band or book-signings for an author. Since large municipal museums are unlikely to show the work of lesser-known artists, and galleries have a hard time promoting their work due to a lack of physical commodities to sell in many cases, the most ephemeral, most conceptual kinds of artwork are promoted through the institution of the university.  In these cases, artists come with the work—it’s not just a bunch of paintings in a crate.  They help with the installation (in some cases the work is actually produced at the university), visit studios of upper classmen and graduate students, and typically give a presentation on their work.

This kind of interaction with the artists has a powerful effect on students.  When they are so intimately involved with the artist and with the creation of the work (when that occurs), the possibilities of conceptual and non-object-based work can seem very exciting.  They are, indeed.  It is those possibilities upon which this blog is based.

The problem with this model for art legitimation is that it ends up being a circular system.  Conceptual artists have too small of a market on which to sell their works, thus getting them into the primary market of collectors, the secondary  market of the auction houses, and finally the legitimization that comes with the acquisition of their work by a noted museum and the textbook recognition that comes with that. They, in effect, cut around the market part of that system and are injected directly into the legitimization of the curriculum by becoming an active part of it.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971

The market for conceptual work is not the art (commodity) market.  It is the university.  So students inspired to work this way then go into the market that exists for it:  the university from whence they came.  They want to become an artist like Chris Burden (see page 161 of Art Subjects for an amusing example of one of Burden’s artist’s visits), getting stipends for artist’s talks.  They want to become university art instructors—to be able to make a living involved with art while producing the kinds of work they themselves are legitimating.  Quoting Raymond Parker, Singerman states, “The taught art world determines the status of the teachers in the eyes of the students:  ‘The teacher distinguishes himself from the student by the authority with which he acts as a part of the art world (p. 158).’”  While Burden was teaching at UCLA, a student (not in one of his classes), payed homage to this iconic performance by seeming to run out of the classroom and commit suicide as a performance. Burden resigned as a result, not wanting to inspire further and perhaps more reckless actions by students. The incident highlights the kind of influence instructors have over students in what they produce and in what they promote.

The problems with this system are twofold, but they both center on the insularity of the system.  First, the legitimation of artists taking place within the university alienates those outside of the university, more specifically—those outside the university art department.  While the intimate interaction with the artists is indeed powerful for the students, faculty, and the relatively small number of community attendees involved, it is not a part of the experience of those who just come into the gallery to see the exhibition.  A video projected on the wall of crowds of people bustling about their day might have been an intense and rewarding work of collaboration for a visiting artist and a group of students, but it has no power for the pre-med major wandering through between classes who wasn’t present for the artist’s talk the day before.  To her, it may just be another weird video installation in the art department—they’re always doing strange things over there.  As I’ve stated elsewhere in this blog, when art is treated as a curiosity rather than as essential, its place power in the larger society is greatly diminished.

Secondly, this system produces graduates who are trained to make artwork for this insular system.  Students get BFAs in order to get MFAs.  They get MFAs in order to teach.  They teach students working toward BFAs, and the circle continues.  This system may not be a problem, if not for the small size of the pool of instructors.  At the university where I taught for five years, there were over 900 declared art majors Fall Semester of 2012.  There were 24 full-time art faculty.

The odds of becoming a big, rich, rock star are recognized as small—there can only be one Metallica out of the millions of metal bands playing shows in dive bars in small towns.  The odds of becoming an art star are similarly small (maybe even smaller) and even art students, as optimistic as they may be, understand that.  Of the tens of thousands of MFA graduates in the United States every year, there are under 1000 graduate programs, and each may be hiring one to three full-time faculty in a given year, if any.  The turnover rate for tenure-track professors is not high.

As an undergraduate, I was inspired to work in conceptual and performance art by the work of my Alternative Media professor at Eastern Washington University, Tom Askman.  Visiting artist Rirkrit Tiravanija got me excited about exploring the experiential and the idea that anything—even cooking for strangers—could be art.  A studio visit from Juane Quick-To-See Smith encouraged me me to go to graduate school.  An extended graduate studio visit from Joanna Frueh and the knowledge that the artists I most admired—Allan Kaprow, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Enrique Chagoya—had experience teaching while producing art stoked my optimism when I graduated.  It seemed very possible that I would one day be able to have a stable income while making art and even potentially making a difference in art.

For all the talk of conceptual, interactive, alternative media-based art and its potential to reach outside of the institutions of art and engage the larger population, both the inspiration and the occupational stability for those artists comes from within the institution.  Here, the university has replaced the gallery and the museum.  An art artist creates work within the educational setting, which inspires students to work in similar ways in order and end up legitimized by that educational setting.  For all my rhetoric about operating outside of academia (yes, I talked about it even as a student), my plan was to seek employment within.

I was not doused with confetti when I graduated from BSU. Now I feel cheated.

For five years, I taught as an adjunct instructor at the university where I earned my MFA.  In those five years, I applied for so many tenure-track positions, I lost count.  In those five years, I was never so much as interviewed for a position.  I do not know the reasons for my unemployability in the academic field, and to guess at what they may be would be misguided.  The point is that I have finally moved to a different field.  Last week, I got a “real” job.  Outside of the university, outside of the art world—this job is far from thinking about how everything and everyday can be an art experience.

My training and expertise in Derridean Deconstruction and Semiotics mean little in my current position, and by “little” I mean “nothing.”  After twelve years as either an art student or an instructor, it’s strange to go to work every day in that “real world” I always talked so passionately about.  My challenge is to continue to incorporate the ideas of Kaprow, Singerman, James Elkins, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur C. Danto, Lucy Lippard, Suzanne Lacey, Rachel McKibbens, Cheryl Maddalena, Nick Newman, and the other artists, writers, theorists and poets who influenced me into my own experience of everyday life.

The cliché goes, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”  For five years, that was my life.  Now, I have to work.  Make no mistake:  this is not a self-pitying blog post.  I am not resigning from performing poetry, writing blogs, organizing events, or critiquing every form of cultural production that crosses into my field of vision.  I will continue to make art.  I now have the challenge of making art truly outside of academia—in the “real” world.

Works Cited:

Singerman, Howard.  Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.

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3 responses

8 04 2012
Tiffanie

Nice blog and observations. I know it could seem cruel and impermissible by university standards, but I wish more art students realized these sorts of things early on. I can’t tell what it would do, but it could definitely get them to think.

The field of philosophy might be disparagingly similar, or worse. At least there is art in the “real” world, but philosophy cannot survive without the institution. I have known the circularity in both my art and philosophy endeavors, yet I still foolishly indulge them.

Thanks for sharing and congratulations on the job! Hope you like it!

15 04 2012
Contemporary Critique

Thanks, Tiffanie! For some reason, I didn’t see this a week ago. As always, your insights are keen.

30 01 2014
WW

Thoughtful post. I did it the other way: years of working in the “real world” (although most fields have their own versions of the dominant discourse, expectations, norms, etc., that we can get tangled up in), got tired of that, went to art school and, after five years of adjunct work was lucky enough to get a tenure-line position. There are definitely artists who are making work to be seen beyond just the art school crowd, but they are not the majority.

I hope you can find a way to keep making artwork, if it gives you pleasure (which is really the only reason to do it anyway).

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