“They are like high priests murmuring to each other”.
Dr. Jaclyn Meloche just published her book through YYZArtistBooks (Toronto). Titled “What is our Role?: Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy”. 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.
It looked as if these students had been homogenized, the originality squeezed out of them; they learned to get with the program. Postmodernity is anti-aesthetic, difficult, shocking; ideally it consists of work that no one would know was art unless they were told. MOMA/Yale’s Robb Storr says that during the 1960s, art moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room; artists and curators went academic. They made art intellectual (a problematic move), rejecting right-brain non-verbal languages in favor of left-brain intellect. After graduation these students put their education 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 an entire profession of bankers and accountants can go off the rail, then certainly artists are even more at risk of going wrong because they love to wear the emperor’s new clothes. History bears witness to entire cultures turning delusional, like the Dutch Tulip craze or 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 science we have on the nature of art across history, the more we learn that art consists of an effort, first and foremost. Partly because our conscious knowledge cannot express the nonverbal languages that our mind uses alongside the intellect; it takes an effort to connect with them. But these languages co-exist; the non-verbal influences the verbal mind, and vice versa; together they form our character. We know of body language, dance; aural language, music; visual language, worth a thousand words. Art is the process the mind uses to develop and expand its non-verbal languages, just as writing is the form to expand verbal language, intellectual thought. The final aspect of art, a quality assigned to it since the dawn of time, was excellence.
At the lecture’s end I raised a question; the work shown ignored aesthetics and beauty. 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 came down like a ton of bricks, with severe disapproval at hearing the word beauty used in a conversation about art. Did I know nothing of postmodernism? I was spooked by so stringent a voice: she was likely defending curatorial territory… yet a dialogue should be an exchange of opinions and not the imposition of questionable assumptions. I brought up Denis Dutton’s 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 abstract ‘theory’.
Today science reveals a visual language of non-verbal communication such as body language, aural language, visual language and other subliminal deep brain functions. That means making art into an intellectual process is harmful, severs it from its supportive structures. We restrict art to superficial levels when we discard its sensory and aesthetic foundation, we deprive art of the vocabulary and grammar that are integral to our intellectual being and its intellectual meaning. I presented a condensed version of the above to keep it short, including other scientists who established beauty as an algorithm. 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 our team, yet still pay lip service to diversity.
A disingenuous response came a year later, when this article was first published on my personal blog. The board of YYZ found time to reply immediately, unlike Barajas, and they said that YYZ was grateful to director Ana Barajas for all the work she was doing, and the reason Ana had ignored my emails over 12 months was simply because she was 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 short 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.”
These problems that I’d mentioned three years earlier reappear once again writ large. Because of budget and years of effort 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. A strategy to ignore and reject diversity put in doubt their claim of being impartial knowledge brokers. They had clearly acquired a bias, thus failing their mission statement.
It brought to mind 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 – here’s a Gabriel Scorgie post shared by St. Catharine’s Bart Gazzola: “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 suspects those truths may not actually be truths at all.” The context here was that when you placate ideological critics it pushes art into the realm of propaganda.
Helen Pluckrose also writes in Areo that “Something has gone wrong in the university… their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview.” Possibly YYZArtistBooks encourages ‘critical thinking’ only by their friends, and friends don’t critique each other. 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.
|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. Some find this idea disturbing, others 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 the other artists… what’s not to love in the homogeneity? 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 up and rock the boat – there’s no place for opinions after a curator has 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”.
Many of those who grew up with the idea that art means placing your shoes on a table will not change their mind, in fact will actively resist change. But the times they are a-changing, some of us want something better from art than stinky shoes on the table.
Take that to a more sophisticated level; asking for quality in art threatens the art community. In academia, the quality of a work of art is believed to reside in the explanation, the work itself just illustrates the idea. It did not matter if the illustration was boring as long as the written explanation spoke that insider language making it an academic thesis. You can see how that misses the mark.
We’re taught to praise whatever we’re offered even when it is illegitimate; no one will speak truth to their friends, colleagues, or department head. It could also be we’re so used to bad art, so starved of good work that we look for whatever solace we can glean from the bland offerings of our time. Or perversely, we praise art for belonging to the postmodern counter-aesthetic, which means unattractive and uninteresting; we’re told 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’s because we’re standing on the shoulders of very short giants, or else giants are standing on our shoulders. And that is why in 2018 if you’re a recent graduate you’re neither artist nor a 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