Do They Like Art Here?

I wandered through two different MFA exhibitions presented by two different schools and was perplexed to find the same thing: lots of theory, but no actual objects or art that inspired me to go home and make my own. In fact, some of the time, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. Was this process? Or product? I have felt the same anxiety in recent years reading descriptions of exhibitions at local museums and have had the same question: what is being shown? The theory, the subject matter, is apparent and often interesting, but if I would see sculpture, painting, video, photographs, assemblage, or beyond was not clear at all. Sometimes, mystified, I would go see. And more often than not, I would be disappointed. What's happening? Looking around, someone said to me once, "I don't think they like art here."

Beauty used to be part of art. Have we lost beauty? In 1898, Leo Tolstoy completed his book-length essay What Is Art? He was a clear proponent of beauty, and much of the book discusses theories of it. While his theories contained many oddities, Tolstoy understood the complexities of art. He wrote:
So that art, which consumes enormous amounts of human labour and of human lives, and breaks down love among people, not only is not anything clearly and firmly defined, but is understood in such contradictory ways by its lovers, that it is difficult to say what generally is understood as art, and particularly as good, useful art…
Perhaps we will never agree what "good, useful art" is, although many, this writer included, would like to assert their own definition. Reading an article about the 2015 Venice Biennale by the art critic Roberta Smith confirmed that I wasn't imagining a change: there is a recognized agenda today. She writes: 
…"All the World's Futures" brings out into the open a central preoccupation of the moment, namely the limiting belief that art is not doing its job unless it has loud and clear social concerns, a position whose popularity has made 'social practice' the latest new thing to be taught in art schools.
I agree that this belief is "limiting." Who has the right to prescribe and/or proscribe what art should do? To push against prescription/proscription, Duchamp, in 1917, as a social protest, gave us the now-classic urinal in the art gallery: disrupting how we saw art and challenging the bourgeoisie. His social act was to push against "limiting" perceptions.

In her opening paragraph, Smith writes that the current Biennale's message is "The world is a mass of intractable ills on which art must shed light." Are we really in the dark? Read the paper or turn on the news: we can't pretend that all is well when we have wars and droughts, earthquakes and floods, murders, and so many more things to depress and outrage us. Are we not allowed a measure of escape, uplift, or inspiration to do good or better? This is not say the art should be devoid of message, but a balance would be nice. It has always seemed to me that the message may be good, but if the work is poorly made, no one will want to look at it. The converse is also true: it may be beautiful, yet empty. I believe in social message, but I think it can also be subtle, not just "loud and clear."

How is art being taught in universities today and to what end? Grad students can speak very well, they can explain and edify, succinctly describe their experiences. The students are clearly engaged with their work, a good thing. But where is the experience for the viewer? The finished piece cannot be bought by an individual; it is often baffling, frequently large, and, I dare say, occasionally ugly. It can only be understood with wall text or mounds of essays. The visual work does not speak on its own. It is sometimes hard to feel, emotionally. Or it is emotional without apparent craft. How can we engage all kinds of viewers, not just those schooled in the theory? If this is now what art is, who is going to want to pay to go to grad school to make it? 

The current idea of "social justice" is being encouraged. It's a good idea. "Social practice" in the art world can be used to address fairness and equality, access to art by those outside of the educational system, inclusion of communities. But when those same universities teaching social practice theories are still hiring adjunct professors on a semester-to-semester contract with no benefits and no job security, it makes one pause. 

I hope that art programs will move forward eventually to promote virtuosic techniques and handskills, keep the attitude that art can change our ways of seeing, shed light where it is rarely seen, connect with the viewers, and continue to encourage thoughtful, inspiring, and even beautiful works that inspire others to see and make. But, as seen in the recent MFA shows and alluded to in the current Venice Biennale, the "new thing" right now is not quite that.


Anonymous said…
This needed to be said, and you have said it better than many of us could! Thank you.
And I love that sunset with its lines of communication and crossed wires.
Nicole Andrews said…
I completely agree, the denigration of skill, depressed me from the very beginning...when exclaiming ' A student that can draw,' in my interview for an art degree, That statement should have left me running for the hills, instead I went through a disparate , nonsensical adherence to fashion, which turns people into imitators of style with spurious content, and a disdainful attitude to skill and craft. It has taken me 20 years to start to recover my own aptitudes, I know it's a huge and endless debate ' what is art? 'But I believe the authentic goes hand in hand with beautiful.
Lizzie said…
This is so sad. I met an early form of this, when I went to college for my one-year "Foundation" course (pre-university). Everything had to conform to the Ideal - it was all proscribed and was not allowed to "just be beautiful". Everything had to have a function and it was All about Function and Form. I felt crushed and confused. I was only 18 years old and hadn't found my own artistic voice yet. To have my embryonic art criticised because it was "pretty", or "had no purpose", was so disheartening. I wandered from one study area to another - photography, ceramics - where I wasn't allowed to make delicate or dainty things - I was supposed to use "systems" and "form" - "fine art" where I wasn't allowed to paint what I wanted, because it was "pretty". Friends bucked the trend and stuck to their guns, with some success, but I didn't have the confidence. I left after a year, believing that I would "never be an artist", because apparently what I did was "not art".
Now I make books. I use form and colour and texture, to create useable, real, tangible items with purpose. But it's all done on my terms. And I have started printmaking when I can find time... I'm beginning to draw again, to experiment... But this has taken thirty years.
What will happen to the current generation of Art Students? How long will it take, for them to realise they are being conned and cheated, to find their own voices and dare to express them as they choose?
I thought the fashion for rubbishing figurative and natural form art would die out - instead, the Art World seems to have become more and more hung up on Purpose and Social Responsibility... and lost its way completely.
I want to see (and make) art that excites, that arrests, that interests. I want to see colour, form, shape. And yes, beauty. And sometimes ugliness - but in a form that I can access and understand (mostly anyway).
How sad it is, that just now Art is an essay, not a picture...

A good post, Alisa - thank you for discussing this issue.