Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Defines Art, and Why?

Posted by Damon Lehrer


The value of art, as it generally has no intrinsic or practical value, is always in question. Everyone involved with art has a stake in the question. On the small end of the scale, most of us unconsciously tweak our art criteria to elevate our own or our friends’ artwork, for example, or a gallery may try to increase our desire for an artist’s work and therefore its value by paying for media coverage of that artist. But the surest way to fiddle with the value of art is to fiddle with its basic definition.


As I described in my previous post, the culture of the university frames art in a way that privileges the attributes of the university, and the marketability of the university experience. The universities are in the uniquely influential position of being the conduit through which most young people flow, as they move into larger cultural spheres. Universities are the Walmart of the intellectual world- their enormous cumulative size, and perceived necessity for a successful life, causes them to change the culture that exists around them, whether they mean to or not. The colleges and departments built around teaching art have become key constructors and gatekeepers of the contexts in which art is seen and understood. The nature of their business, which acquires, alters, and dumps large volumes of students into the culture, has managed through sheer numbers of graduates to swing the entire intellectual framework of the art world in their favor. Universities have rendered our art culture at once more similar and more amenable to university culture.


If you ask the average person on the street in a moderate sized city today who has NOT gone to college to define the word “ART”, their response would probably be fairly straightforward. For the average American a piece of art is still a painting that looks like something. This is a definition that serves the purposes of the average citizen. They can recognize when something before them requires an esthetic reaction, because it has a frame around it.


But ask the same question to a denizen of the contemporary art world of 2011, and you will likely get some version of this also seemingly simple kind of answer: “art” is something made by an "artist". Now why would they answer like this? It seems straightforward enough, not that different from the average uneducated citizen’s response. It’s almost a tautology: it appears obvious. But the reason a member of the contemporary art scene answers like this is not at all obvious to most of us. The reason is that this answer pays.


The contemporary art dealer’s greatest sales tool is the same one that serves other aspects of the capitalist marketplace so well: branding. Imagine what would happen to sales at a department or specialty store if every piece of clothing had to be tested for quality, fit and fashionableness individually. What if there were no brands whose quality, fit, and fashionableness were understood, and therefore of a certain minimum value to the consumer? That store would have to hire an army of attendants, all extremely versed in testing clothes and proving to customers that they were paying a fair price. Or, alternatively, consumers themselves would have to all be experts in cloth and seam quality, durability, the subtleties of fashion, and so forth.


The implementation of the Brand is an inevitable consequence of mass-market society, and is desirable in most contexts for the convenience of both sides of many transactions. The marketer gets a marketing tool, which helps them in their attempts to increase perceived value of their merchandise, and the consumer gets a buying tool, which at least purports to guarantee a certain degree of quality, and carries that same perceived value and status into the life of the purchaser. In the normal world of commerce, these benefits permit the economy to run in an efficient way, and give rise to an advertising industry. But what about in the non-normal world of art commerce?


In the art world, the dealer’s definition of art (that art is what is made by an artist) immensely favors the dealer. And the more open-ended the accepted definition of artist and art is, the more power the dealer has to create value out of nothing. In our department store example, the power balance is between buyer and seller is upheld by the relative expertise of the buyer in identifying a shirt, pants, shoes, etc. The only thing at issue is the quality of the stitching, materials, and fashion taste. Most of this information is clearly labeled by law, and only the taste of the buyer is left to chance and individual savvy. But what if taste was not the only variable left; what if the purchaser of clothes was not allowed to rely on his or her definition of what clothes should DO; what if clothes were allowed, for example, to be invisible?


Why is contemporary art seemingly all about knocking down boundaries, overturning categories, and destroying preconceived notions? To be sure, it’s an interesting and refreshing exercise to air out and test the usefulness of categories that have been with us for centuries. But it is much easier to knock down a structure than to build one up, and the task for the artist in this paradigm soon becomes finding new “old structures” to overturn, or attacking “old structures” in new ways. All fun and exciting, but why has knocking down assumptions and undoing established boundaries come to define the character and philosophy of most of contemporary art?


A history professor might answer this question with something like the following statement: following in the mold of many successive rejections of earlier art establishments, and accelerated by the cynicism about traditional culture and values provoked by the industrialization that culminated in the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, irony and mistrust of institutions and the categories that they support became a dominant cultural mood. This kind of explanation certainly has merit, but there is another force, like dark matter, that remains undetected by most of the art consuming public, and has nothing whatever to do with history or esthetics or philosophies of art. It is simply that in the absence of categories, the capitalist marketing tool of branding becomes a supercharged, unstoppable mega-tool.


Imagine a world of general commerce where all categories had been intellectually obliterated. A car dealership might decide that it wanted to make more money, and so begins to populate its showroom with large boulders, which it continues to refer to as cars. With the right marketing, and the right branding, these new “cars” fly off the lot, as people come to “understand” the colonialist and exploitative paradigm that the old form of car represented, and although their travel and commuting sensibilities are no longer stimulated by the new form of car, they feel cleaner and much more modern.


This is the reality of the contemporary art world. It is a fantastically profitable one for well-placed art dealers, as well as the critics, magazines, and university art departments that encircle, support, and are enriched by them, and whose inexorable adoption of and investment in this reality make it nearly impossible to make a credible contrary intellectual claim. The only way to take on this interlocking, mutually profitable cultural matrix of cardboard meaning is to begin with a new definition of art. While there isn't much hope of defeating the edifice that is built on the current definition, at least we can offer an alternative at the grassroots of the culture. If we begin to provide young people at the grassroots level with the means to satisfy the craving to actually go somewhere in a car, then they will begin to see that interesting and groovy as the boulder in their garage is, it DOES NOT DRIVE.


In part 2 of this post, I'll offer a alternative to the dealer's definition of art, and talk about the deliberate misuse of the word itself. The word "art" in this past century is commonly conflated with the word "important" in a very un-clarifying, and immensely remunerative way. Only the culture is impoverished, so who cares?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Art School Screed: Make Art, Pay Forever

Posted by Damon Lehrer

I suppose it was a little below the belt of me to actually post Harvard’s VES courses... But having taught in many art schools over a recent ten-year period, I have developed a deep skepticism about the teaching of fine art in colleges and universities. Art schools offer the students who pay dearly to be in them a four-year simulacrum of relevance, tidy hierarchies, and fashionable unruliness. And that’s often about it.

In the case of undergraduates, no efforts are spared in luring students to come to art school with promises that they will be able to live their dreams. The cover page of one high school recruiting booklet I have in front of me states simply: “Make Art, Live Forever.” Na├»ve and impressionable teenagers are flattered into coming to art school, encouraged to take out loans whose future consequences they can’t imagine. The bloating effect the art education industry has had on the wider art culture by convincing waves of adolescents to consider themselves artists, in order to harvest them like crops, is a toxic topic for another post. Ditto for the question of what today’s undergraduate education in painting or drawing trains you to do in life. (Hint: Very little except to go to grad school, where the same scheme awaits).

I am not accusing the mostly individually good people who make up university culture of perpetrating deliberate fraud and larceny on the youth of America. I long aspired to be one of them: to settle into a spot where I would be paid to argue over curricula, collectively bargain for salaries, teach students who mostly don’t care about drawing and painting something about drawing and painting, and go home and have a few hours to myself. Most professors are doing what they can to live, just like the rest of us. And if they do sense the small and large compromises that are made, they cannot speak out, because they are part of a system that depends on those compromises.

The reality is that in most art schools and departments, student tuition supports seven or eight permanent professors who have been there for decades and have decades more to go before they retire. And the phalanx of administrators and their gym memberships and the buildings and physical plant of the school, as well as the dozens of migrant-worker-like adjunct teachers, who were recently students themselves, hustling and waiting and hoping for a hinted at permanent job (which they will almost certainly never get).

There are two main reasons to go to graduate school in painting or drawing. The first is to improve your work while living for a couple of years in an artistic community. The second is to get an MFA degree, which in theory allows you to teach in art colleges and university art departments.

Now while an MFA does give you the credentials to teach college (two years of “low-residency” study apparently makes you a “master”), there are a vanishingly small number of permanent jobs available in proportion to the number of “masters” anointed each year. Graduates who want to teach will most likely find themselves working as adjuncts, easily replaced by the oversupply of adjuncts they themselves are helping to reproduce. The situation has gotten worse as the economy has slipped, but even in the preceding two decades, it has been extremely hard to land a good teaching job. Our voracious industry of art education is enjoying an economic bubble similar to other recent economic bubbles. The cost of an art education cannot keep rising so ludicrously relative to its value.

(A related topic: the profitability to art schools of expanding the definition of art to “anything," as they have done… so many more student/customers are interested in “anything” than in painting or drawing! And what of the effect on our culture as those “art is anything” students go out and form our culture?)

The Boston Figurative Art Center (BFAC) formed last fall from a group of artists who were enrolled or were considering enrolling in graduate school, but who believed they could achieve a better, more specifically tailored community without the high price.

The Center is part of a trend toward re-establishing guild and atelier-like structures in which professional artists can share knowledge, support and compete with one another. Students can learn about the tools and crafts that are specific to the form of art that they intend to pursue in their professional lives. There is no promise of an empty degree, or a non-existent job, or indeed even of success; only the promise of community and the valuing of real and germane artistic knowledge. To draw and paint well one mostly has to practice and learn by observing how others succeed, and we want to provide an environment that matches that reality.

The group that became the core of The BFAC started in August, 2010 as a class. There were about three students, which slowly grew to six, of varying intensities of attendance. We charged $25 per class, about the price of adult education classes. We bore all the risk if students stopped coming or missed classes. The model got paid, and I usually didn’t.

In October 2010, I was on the verge of giving up when I went out for drinks after class with two students, Mike Pina and George Ratkevich. George was applying to grad school, and Mike was thinking about doing the same. Both were looking for a change in their artistic lives. Needless to say, they got an earful from me about the value vs. expense of graduate school.

On the way back from the bar, I started to think that although we couldn’t grant a useless degree, we could perhaps create an artistic, social, and intellectual community for the many figurative artists without one. And we could probably do it for a lot less than the cost of graduate school. A month or so later, we broke the rent up in six parts, made that the membership fee, and had our first model session as the BFAC.

Now, three and a half months after the official beginning, we have model sessions in three studios, and upcoming gallery shows in July and October. We are contemplating a move to a larger space on the third floor of Vernon Street Studios, and we have a small group of devoted artists and a larger group of artists who work with us and who are beginning to identify with us.

We are seeding a movement of people who are tired of waiting for the culture to come around to acknowledging that what they do is valid and contemporary. We will make our own culture around what we think is valuable, and if there are enough of us, we will start to shift the larger culture toward us. Complaining is no longer enough- now we are going to make an alternative to the absurdity all around.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I'm going to interpose what I hope will be a bit of dark humor, to soften up the audience for an un-funny future post which is tentatively titled My Art School Screed: Make Art, Pay Forever. What follows here are entries from Harvard University's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies online course catalog from 2009. That's what they call the Art Department at Harvard- "VES"; a not so tacit admission that art making does not belong in the university. They are only a sampling of the humorous class descriptions to be found there (or also, I imagine, in the most recent catalog- I haven't looked at this year's offerings.) I have inserted brief observations of an ironical sort after most of the descriptions, as I couldn't turn off the commentary in my head as I read these the first time- they are followed by my initials, DL. I also leave in the course numbers and administrative numerology just to make it possible for anyone to cross-check that these indeed are real. We may take these examples, I think, as bellwethers for any American high culture university art department, and expect to find similar follies across the country.


*Visual and Environmental Studies 38. Baggage: Studio Course - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 43153 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Andrew B. Witkin

Half course (spring term). M., 9–12. and additional times to be arranged.

Engaging personal and public notions of authorship, veracity, legibility, history and value, this class focuses on exploration and performance in collecting. Students will examine possibilities and patterns to understand choice, advice, intuition and peculiarity with the goal of better communication. Sources include information distribution models, history, exhibitions in and out of art contexts and a focus on comfort. This will aid students in investigations into personal and collaborative projects employing a variety of media, methods and modes.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary. Students from other disciplines are highly encouraged to take the course

Note the (could it possibly be unintentionally?) ironic phrase “with the goal of better communication.” DL



*Visual and Environmental Studies 53a. Fundamentals of Animation: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 1360 Enrollment: Limited to 10.

Sarah Jane Lapp

Half course (spring term). Tu., 1–5, and weekly film screenings F., 1–3; .

Strategies for creating an alternative cosmos - imagined, utopic, glorious.


Great! which drugs will we be taking? DL


[*Visual and Environmental Studies 58r. Image, Sound, Culture: Studio Course]

Catalog Number: 6680 Enrollment: Limited to 10.

Lucien G. Castaing-Taylor

Half course (spring term). F., 9–12, F., 2–5.

Students use video, sound, and/or hypermedia to produce short works about embodied experience, culture, and nature, and are introduced to current issues in aesthetics and ethnography.

Note: Expected to be given in 2010–11. No previous studio experience necessary.

Hypermedia? And yet another coup for limited scope- the students are strictly limited to explorations within culture OR nature. DL


*Visual and Environmental Studies 37. Lay of the Land: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 3090 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Stephen Prina

Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

The pursuit of and response to the horizontal in art will be the focus of this studio class. To cite a few examples, abstract expressionist painting, cartography, earthworks, landscape photography, 19th century German Romantic landscape painting, and Rayograms will provide models of the horizontal that will be points of departure for studio projects, the forms of which will be determined by what the investigation provides. Students will shift medium from project to project.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

Follow on: Course on the use of Yellow in the wardrobe of Beethoven’s hypothetical cross-dressing lover. DL



*Visual and Environmental Studies 36. Making as Thinking: Sculpture - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 23095 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Helen Mirra

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

A studio course in which to experiment with simultaneous making and thinking, with simple yet unbounded materials and methods.

Note: No studio experience necessary.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music…”; and by the way, I wonder if Harvard students are up to the task of both making and thinking at the same time- I anticipate frustration. DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 32. Reconstruction: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 1790 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Helen Mirra

Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

A studio course, for making things out of other things, attending to the realms of demolition, waste, surplus, and detritus.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

No previous studio experience required?! What are these people thinking- HOW COULD YOU EVEN CONTEMPLATE TAKING THIS WITHOUT A PH.D! DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 29. Painting Day and Night - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 44403 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Drew Beattie

Half course (fall term). Tu., 1–6.

A studio course emphasizing the fundamentals of oil painting. Students will capture the illusion of form, space and light through the handling of paint and color. Subjects will include still life arrangements, the interior of the studio and views out its windows. Images from the observation of daylight will be followed by those belonging to night.

Note: No studio experience necessary.

Wait- you’re going to teach us how to paint something? How did you get in the building- SOMEONE CALL SECURITY! DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 22. Subtle Skills: Studio Course - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 88474 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Instructor to be determined

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 9–12.

In this beginning-level studio course, students get acquainted with a variety of painting and drawing media. Students paint and draw during and outside class, working to find their own painterly practice. The course aims to put skill into perspective while unassumingly practicing and studying some of the tools used for image making. Critiques, readings, and exhibition visits are integral to the course.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

Could this be another interloper aiming to undermine our vision of the university in which students pay money to us in exchange for being confused? Oh, no, wait; phew! The course promises to put skill into perspective, which has at least three possible and completely unrelated meanings so that’s O.K. then. DL


*Visual and Environmental Studies 80. Loitering: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 9394 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Stephen Prina

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

You will hang out in the vicinity of culture and make things in response to it. This class is not thematic or linked to any particular discipline.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

This is more like it! DL

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The first mark


Posted by Mary Helen Miller


Last Saturday was the start of a new pose with Dawn. We fiddled with the few elements that we can change from pose to pose—the lighting, the backdrop material, the way Dawn sat. This time, we kept her clothed, in a silky floral dress, then stuck her in a bright blue camping chair and had her keep on one sock. The sock looked a little lopsided and goofy to me, but her feet never made it on my canvas anyway.


It’s funny what happens next, in the time between setting up the scene and setting up your easel. You pull down your eyebrows, scrunch up your cheeks and nose, and amble around the room looking at the model from different spots. The squinty-wander isn’t something they teach you, it’s just something you find yourself doing one day.


When I start a painting, I usually don’t map out my composition in great detail. Instead, I block in the outline of some major forms, wipe them away, and do it a couple more times until I’m vaguely satisfied. Then, I cover my canvas up with paint. Lots of it. Too much of it.


I’ve been watching Mike paint for a few weeks now. While I search for forms by pushing around thick, slick paint, he slowly builds his up with thin, careful lines and layers. When we started the new pose, I told myself that just this one time, I’d do my best to guard my clean canvas from my goopy brushes. But then I kept dipping back for more paint like an addict, and by the end of the three hours, my canvas was coated.


So I asked Mike about how he goes into a new painting—what does he try to accomplish on Day 1? Why is he so frugal with his paint?


Mike’s a drawing nut. I think he’s been to every life-drawing group in the Boston area, and he makes a point to practice frequently. And it shows.


He started his painting of Dawn with a single vertical line down his canvas. When he looked at Dawn sitting in the camping chair, he noticed that her ear, her neck, her fingers, and the back of her knee all lined up. So, he drew a line with his paint, and that was his point of entry.


“If I see something in the pose—a drawing element that helps me unify it, that I can get on the canvas—I can start attacking it with paint,” he said.


He lets himself be excited about the drawing and composition on that first day. Focusing on those elements, and enjoying them, can be hard for some of us. On the days that I’m just drawing, I find joy in it. But on the days that I’m painting, drawing becomes a tedious chore that I have to do to get to the fun part. The temptation is to flippantly scribble a drawing, then start laying on paint. Then later, I’m mad at myself because I’m stuck with a wobbly drawing to paint on.


But drawing doesn’t have to be just a cold, mathematical task. It can be a chance to spot exciting passages, and plant little seeds. Mike says that when things don’t line up exactly how he’d hoped—like, say, the ear above the hands above the knee—he starts to think more abstractly. He looks for curves and lines that aren’t blatantly obvious but that turn into a gestural mark.


“When you start to find these abstract lines in it, it starts to become more of a painting or an object in itself,” he said.


Then, he pulls the painting out of the drawing, by adding color. After that, he says he doesn’t know what happens, but a painting surfaces.


“Something comes out, and it either stinks or it’s good.”