“They are like high priests murmuring to each other”.
Dr. Jaclyn Meloche just published her book “What is our Role?: Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy”, YYZ ArtistBooks (Toronto). It follows the theme of her symposium some years back at the Lillian Smith Library, also sponsored by YYZ.
Meloche, reflecting on what she learned on her own journey through academia, said that artists today need a Ph.D. to attain the high level of accomplishment that only advanced academic studies deliver. The symposium illustrated this with work by four post-graduate students, all showing strong, interesting, even fascinating art when they started their doctorate. The work got weaker as they progressed through the program; by graduation day their art looked like postmodern clones, the ones that make us roll our eyes in despair. The best way to make that point is finding the stuff which is overtly bad and shining a massive light on it — and that’s data-driven observation.
It looked as if these students had been homogenized, the passion squeezed out of them, they learned to get with the program. Postmodernity is anti-aesthetic, difficult, shocking; ideally it is work no one would know was art unless they were told. Unfortunately, according to Bell Laboratory’s Claude Shannon, information decays without standards and definition.
Robb Storr, MOMA curator and now Dean of Yale Fine Art, said that during the 1960s art moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Art went academic, a problematic move not obvious at the time, rejecting sensory modalities in favor of words. After graduation these students put their dissertation into practice, leading to the deplorable state of contemporary art.
Back in 2008 the banking community crashed the global economy with sub prime loans. If bankers and accountants can go off the rail, then certainly artists are at risk of wearing the emperor’s new clothes. History bears witness to these temporary cultural delusions, from the Dutch Tulip craze to real estate and stock market bubbles.
Which suggests that if it’s 2019 and you’re an MFA or PhD graduate, you’re neither artist nor curator but likely an esoteric priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine.
The more we have scientific thinking about art through history, the more we see art consists of an effort. The epistemology says art is vision and excellence in execution, think of the art of cuisine, the art of conversation, the art of medicine.
And because our thoughts differ from the subtle nonverbal languages of the unconscious, it takes an effort to connect with the liminal or subliminal. But these modalities co-exist, the non-verbal influences the verbal and vice versa; together they form our personality and character. We know of body language and dance; aural language and music; visual language, worth 666 words with inflation. The continually announced death of painting is a delusion; painting predates writing. It would be like announcing the death of speech or text, though it’s true visual art is harder than both, witness how few visual artists there were till recently, when talent and skill stopped being a qualification.
At Dr. Meloche’s lecture’s end I raised a question; the student’s work ignored aesthetics, yet Nobel prize winning physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. Jaclyn frowned, came down like a ton of bricks at hearing the word “beauty” used in a conversation about art. Did I know nothing of current theory? I was spooked by her angry voice, perhaps defending curatorial territory… yet anger reveals insecurity. I mentioned Einstein agreed with Dirac, as did Denis Dutton in his YouTube video “The Art Instinct, a Darwinian Theory of Beauty”.
Aesthetic taste, argues Denis Dutton, is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection. It’s not, as most contemporary art criticism and academic theory would have it, ‘socially constructed.’ The human appreciation for art is innate, and certain artistic values carry across cultures. It seems an aesthetic perception ensured the survival of the perceiver’s genes. What does that mean for the entire discipline of art history? Dutton argues, with forceful logic and hard evidence, that art criticism needs to be premised on an understanding of evolution, not on ‘critical theory’.
Today science says an art predominantly intellectual is severed from its foundation, restricted to superficial levels of consciousness. Discarding a sensory and aesthetic base, we deprive art of the vocabulary and grammar integral to our intellectual being. I gave a condensed version of the above to keep it short. Some in the audience murmured agreement but Dr. Meloche was not pleased.
A while after Jaclyn’s symposium I got in touch with YYZ Artists’ Outlet director Ana Barajas, as I wanted to work with YYZ to publish a book. She asked me to wait, being overworked; a few more emails through the year met with a silence much like the flat-earth society’s answer to astronomer Carl Sagan.
YYZBOOKS attest they are an alternative Canadian press dedicated to critical writing on art and culture. Their mandate is to encourage ideas and critical thinking and to foster appreciation of contemporary Canadian art and culture by producing challenging yet accessible publications that reach diverse audiences. Their objective is to provide a discursive forum for artists and writers and to facilitate new avenues of discourse within Canadian publishing. YYZBOOKS is the publishing arm of YYZ Artists Outlet, a non-profit artist-run centre in Toronto, Canada.
Eight months later YYZ announced the publication of Jaclyn Meloche’s book, but my emails went unanswered. I then sent Ana and Jaclyn a first draft of this article suggesting a discussion, expecting they’d invite me over to chat over Glenlivet and Dufflet’s pastries, but no such luck. A deathly silence gave the impression they had pulled up the medieval drawbridge and barred the gate. Perhaps they were not fully committed to encouraging scholarly critical writing? They really don’t seem eager to produce challenging yet accessible publications that reach diverse audiences. We live in a time when we root for the team and pay lip service to diversity.
A disingenuous response came a year later, when this article first appeared on my personal blog. The board of YYZ found time to reply immediately, unlike Barajas, and they said that YYZ was grateful to their director for all the work she was doing, and the reason she had ignored my emails over 12 months was simply because she was busy, very busy.
|“On behalf of the board of directors of YYZ Artists Outlet, we were disappointed to see your text single out our Director Ana Barajas, who has been employed with us for many years and has done an excellent job in all facets of her work.
We take this kind of mistreatment and misrepresentation of our staff very seriously. We also take input from all community seriously and have attempted to remedy any misunderstandings by adding more information regarding our publication process to our website. I will repeat this information below:
Our publishing process takes time as we convene in separate review stages that involve staff, a series of specialized committees, and later as a Board of Directors”.
It should be noted however that we do not work with artists or writers who attempt to bully us or our staff through public defamation. At this time, we are not interested in publishing your work with the exception of the open call entry you submitted to our Decentre Redux questionnaire, the publication of which will hopefully occur in 2019.
Hum… Cognitive dissonance and a denial at best insincere. Ignoring 3 polite emails over a year is not your typical attempt to remedy misunderstandings. Then I looked up what I’d written for Decenter Redux three years ago and started laughing: “repeated complaints from peers on Facebook tell us that over the last decades, academics at artist-run centers have censored the art shown, restricting it to intellectual values, and in doing so they may have throttled the muse, poor thing. Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments. This homogeneity includes limiting participation to those sharing the same outlook and language, narrowing the game to believers in a common ideology, in effect creating a tautology.”
From years of effort and funds invested in Dr. Jaclyn Meloche’s work, Ana Barajas and YYZ were in effect ‘married’ to her. They were not going to support and publish a contrary view, not for all the diversity and inclusion in their mandate. This is a decision to reject diversity, and it questions their claim of impartial knowledge brokers. There’s clearly a bias, failing their mission statement. (Later note: it’s now March 2020, 4 or 5 years after their call, they still haven’t published Decentre Redux II, which would be like shining a light on what they hide. This reluctance could be unconscious, or purposeful.)
Flash back to H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World, on the papacy of Innocent III (1160-1216): “And it was just because many of them secretly doubted the entire soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it. They were intolerant of questions or dissent, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were not.”
It’s interesting to find this pattern prevalent in today’s art. “There is a concerted effort among many progressives to pre-empt artistic risk-taking. They want the artist to work on pre-approved themes and express pre-approved truths, even if the artist herself or himself suspects those truths may not actually be truths at all.” Gabriel Scorgie The context here was that when you placate ideology, art turns into marketing. Helen Pluckrose even wrote in Aero that “something has gone wrong in the university… their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview.”
Danielle S. McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that when we can no longer explore and discuss ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets. Worrisome at best, our Canadian failure of logic and scholarship, this refusal to engage for fear that it might shake the tree. Possibly YYZArtistBooks allow ‘critical thinking’ only for their friends, and friends don’t critique each other or the status quo.
|In an Apollonian culture increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, (artists) struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both radical politics and high theory are attempts by the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the (arts) as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating (art) with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.
Ross Dothan, Oh! the humanities! The New York Times, August 2018
Basically I disagree with Meloche’s faith in Academia as a site to shape artists. I think some serious reforms are needed, if not an entire revolution. Is this idea disturbing? Some find it offensive, I’m more like “I came, I saw, I pounded the keyboard”.
One jumps through hoops and gets with the program, learns to be an artist like all artists should be… the homogeneity, what’s not to love? Unavoidably, when a bad idea enters the system it spreads like a virus, and when bad ideas take root they are tenaciously hard to uproot.
No school wants to stand and rock the boat – there’s no place for opinions once curators have spoken, yet immutable laws say the good must make way for the better. As Oliver Cromwell might say to them too: “begone, you have sat too long for all the good that you have done”.
Many of those who grew up with learning that art needs no skill or effort will object, in fact will actively resist change. But the times they are a-changing, some of us want more from art than stinky shoes.
Take that to a more sophisticated level; quality in art threatens the art community. In the seminar room, teachers must teach, grade papers, attend administrative and academic meetings, go home and spend time with their children and partner, there’s little time for studio work, no place for that creative growth from intense involvement. When art is but thinking, those lacking talent in visual art can be visual artists; in academia, quality is found in the explanation and the work illustrates the idea. It did not matter if the illustration was boring, if it presents an insider language tagging it an academic thesis. You can see how that misses the mark.
We’re taught to praise these offering even when wrong or illegitimate, for who would speak truth to power, if that means your friends, colleagues, or department head. Else we’re so used to bad art, so starved that we look for whatever solace we glean from the bland offerings of our hypertrophied intellects. Or perversely, we praise art for being counter-aesthetic, which means unattractive and uninteresting; that’s now an important concept in art. No Art, denying art, bad art, the opposite of art; it’s a big thing. But with No Art you have no art.
If we have not seen as far as others, it could be that we’re standing on the shoulders of very short giants, or else giants are standing on our shoulders. And that’s why if you’re a recent graduate you’re neither artist nor curator, but a high priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine.
volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 15 -17