Talking Art
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Talking Art

The Culture of Practice and the Practice of Culture in MFA Education

Gary Alan Fine

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eBook - ePub

Talking Art

The Culture of Practice and the Practice of Culture in MFA Education

Gary Alan Fine

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In Talking Art, acclaimed ethnographer Gary Alan Fine gives us an eye-opening look at the contemporary university-based master's-level art program. Through an in-depth analysis of the practice of the critique and other aspects of the curriculum, Fine reveals how MFA programs have shifted the goal of creating art away from beauty and toward theory. Contemporary visual art, Fine argues, is no longer a calling or a passion—it's a discipline, with an academic culture that requires its practitioners to be verbally skilled in the presentation of their intentions. Talking Art offers a remarkable and disconcerting view into the crucial role that universities play in creating that culture.

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Art General


Producing Practice

Although I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, I do not have the traditional skills of the sculptor; I cannot carve or cast or weld or model in clay. . . . Why not? HOWARD SINGERMAN1
To be an artist is to make work. Art demands production. As Bridget put it with a mix of pride and frustration, “We’re artists, but we’re actually students, so we are actually workers. We are working [even] in our sleep. That’s kind of horrible, but it’s also wonderful” (Field Notes). One student described the “artist’s job”: “My job is to make things and put them into the world.” They select materials, transform them, and through the magic of transformation the result becomes theirs2—and then ours. Bridget works diligently, yet mastering a set of skills is not part of her education. As Howard Singerman noted almost twenty years ago, the graduate education of artists has turned away from production skills, as craft traditions have been shunted aside. Of his graduate days, Singerman recalls, “It was clear at the time that the craft practices of a particular métier were no longer central to my training; we learned to think, not inside a material tradition, but rather about it, along its frame.”3
This is a story of materiality and the challenges to craft production: how the making of objects is treated in the world of contemporary art, and how the materials encourage and constrain certain forms of production. Students identify as object-makers for whom training in making is overwhelmed by training in thinking, talking, reading, and writing. Recognizing the wide divergence in the forms of artistic practice, of course, what was true for Singerman remains true today. Traditional skills are acquired haphazardly and as part of a personal agenda, not collectively taught. Technique takes a backseat to theory. Meaning-making has priority over object-making.
This change in art education has been widely recognized, but less emphasized is that the change was not merely in preferences or aesthetic judgment, but resulted from the changed position of the trainee and the professor in an academic structure. Set within the university (and elite art schools that model themselves on universities), practitioner-educators judge competence in an institution in which theory and interpretation dominate. This is separate from valuation based on craft proficiency, economic exchange, or admired beauty. In a world of multiple evaluative systems, tied to fields of action, authorities create hierarchies of judgment,4 which are sometimes in conflict.5 For students, the embrace or rejection of these hierarchies owes much to the standards of universities. Works of art are claims about the world, moral and political stances, judged by the effectiveness of their argument for an audience of professors and their allies in critical and curatorial fields.
In examining the university-based art world, I focus on the local group–based system of evaluation. Evaluation occurs within sites of interaction and places of community. These judgments depend on social relations and micro-cultures. I subsequently address how student-artists are trained in talk, writing, and self-presentation, and how they respond in light of the organization of the world of contemporary art. I begin with the work itself and the creative process as a field of action.6 Only after the work is produced can critique begin.
Students—including Marissa, Esau, Hanna, and Soheila—enter graduate school with a skill set. They know how to do things: painting, photographing, performing, or filming. For some these talents are sufficient for their career, while others desire more. But how do they expand their repertoire? Students take classes, requiring critiques, writing, knowledge of theory, or even, occasionally, of art history, but at these three schools, they do not take classes on technique. While workshops are scheduled, and staff and faculty share knowledge, students are expected to know how to “make art” before they enter. They are admitted as artists, not as novices.
These abilities, whether learned beforehand or gained on the fly, are what have come to be known through the writing of Pierre Bourdieu,7 and with a more linguistic thrust by Ludwig Wittgenstein,8 as a theory of practice. Artists draw on a bundle of acquired competencies that constitutes what they do; material skills produce meaningful work and reveal belonging in a field of action. As a result, the form of objects can reveal their artistic intentions. Even if it is assumed that intentions produce objects, those intentions are always limited, channeled, and shaped by the capabilities of the artist and the possibilities of the material.
Even when artists expand their practice and experiment in different genres, as many do in school and beyond, they must develop technique on their own, albeit in a supportive environment. The artist becomes an entrepreneur and an advocate for her own production choices. The MFA, especially in small programs, is organized around individual needs of students. Students receive a studio as a site for making. As one who has trained sociology students for decades, I was puzzled. We insist on a sequence of methodology courses. Every student must learn statistical analysis, how to conduct a survey, and, at Northwestern University, how to accomplish ethnographic research. I assumed that art students would learn those skills that Howard Singerman never acquired. They would be taught to mix and apply paint (“mark-making,” as it is called), and they would learn wet darkroom skills or their digital equivalent. This was not the case. I found that students learned on a “just in time” need basis, in contrast to the belief that a set of skills existed that were necessary for artistic competence (carving, casting, welding, or modeling for sculptors).
Still, much is to be learned, despite the skepticism over the existence of a consensual core of knowledge. The creation of work can be complex and multi-layered. Consider Ryan Shultz, a 2009 Northwestern MFA graduate. Ryan is a painter whose representational portraits reflect a “punk” reality. I use Ryan as an example because he is deliciously articulate about his practices:
I shot approximately 300 photographs in preparation for the painting, changing the camera angle and directing Jakub to make slight adjustments to the position of his body between each shot. The figure depicted in the painting is a composite of these images initially constructed digitally via Adobe Photoshop. I kept this composite image in several layers in this program so that I could adjust the color and value of each composite part independently. . . . I then purchased the stretcher bars and a yard of high quality Belgian linen. I like a medium texture because it shows just enough of the warp and the woof of the linen threads. I carefully stretched the linen and then applied the first coat of acrylic gesso. After this was dried I sanded the surface just enough to remove the roughness. If sanded too much, it would lose the beautiful quality of the linen, the uneven nature of the threads, the knots that randomly come about when the linen is made. [He chooses not to use cotton duck canvas.] The type of painterly effect one is trying to achieve determines every aspect of the painting process, down to the actual support, be it wood, linen, or cotton. . . . After the first coat is applied and sanded, I repeated this process two more times, for a total of three sanded coats of gesso. Then, when dried, I applied an imprimatura which is a colored stain of paint that is applied to the surface. This kills the brightness of the canvas, allowing me to paint accurately, as it is nearly impossible to judge a color or value on a white surface. Once dry I started my drawing on the surface with charcoal. I slowly sketched out the entire image, starting with generic shapes and then slowly moved into detail. Then I drew the outlines with paint. . . . I then went in using Cremnitz white, burnt sienna, and raw umber, creating a sepia value structure. I use Cremnitz white, a thick ropey, lead based white that has a translucent nature to it. Skin is translucent so it makes sense to use Cremnitz white instead of titanium white . . . because it is so opaque it makes the skin look like plastic, like the skin of a Barbie doll. . . . As I continued developing the underpainting, I made more changes. . . . I then worked over a month and a half painting this underpainting, rendering the values, sculpting the form. The highlights must be the thickest and must have the most detail to attain this appearance of volumetric relief. I do this using small brushes, creating thick impastos with great nuance. Once the underpainting was done I glazed color over it. . . . I use about 12 colors in any given painting, employing not only transparent layers but translucent and opaque layers as well. By putting these colors down in succession, suspended in oil, they give the painting an incredible sense of volume. After the major color layers have been laid on the canvas, I do a series of touch up layers, slightly altering tones with subtle glazes.9
In this explicit consideration of his practice, Ryan Shultz is not a typical MFA artist. But finding a work process is central to any artist’s career. Artists make choices, and this determines how they view themselves, with which artistic communities they will associate, and the style by which others will define their work.
One student, a printmaker, dragged a seven-sided printing plate as she walked from her home to her studio. Each day one side of the plate became scratched; upon arriving at her studio she printed the plate, creating seven prints that increasingly revealed the marks of her journey. Her process was deliberate, as what she termed the “plateness of the piece” was revealed (Field Notes). The doing of the work connected to how the often unnoticed urban environment reveals how we, like the plates, are marked by our experience. The mode of production is linked to the intention of the artist. This artist’s “slow” process and that of Ryan Schultz emphasize the deliberation possible in artistic production.
In contrast, others work rapidly, incorporating speed into their practice.10 The intentional thoughtlessness of production defines the work. In one research site this casual aesthetic production was labeled “slacker minimalism.”11 These artists transform materials, but with less precision and, perhaps, more intuition. I have watched sculptors scavenge cardboard and other detritus from public streets and vacant lots, incorporating these found objects into seemingly casual assemblages.
But whether the process is deliberate or intuitive, one feature of graduate art education is the luxury of time. Time is what MFA students buy with their tuition and their commitment.12 While the effort of students varies, a widely held belief is that the constant making of art is essential. The studio becomes both a home and a workplace: the site of creativity. The critique room is the discursive action space, but the studio is the production action space, less a public performance than the development of an artistic self. The work ethic enshrines busyness as morality. One art student, Terri, explained, “You work in your studio. You spend all of your time in your studio. You live in your studio and you work, work, work, and then if you work, work, work, you are going to make good work” (Interview). Still, she contrasts her ethic of production with those of some colleagues: “A lot of people sit at home and think, think, think, until they get that one idea that they really want to invest in and then they execute. And that is a very different model. My practice is not that way. My practice is try, try, try. Fail, fail, fail. Boom, find something new and exciting” (Interview). A senior faculty member explains similarly, “I would go over to the grad studios at ten o’clock in the morning. Nobody is there, and they come into critique with a flimsy drawing or they roll a marble on the floor. . . . Annoys me no end. When I went to graduate school, I was there seven days a week. I worked all the time and I loved every minute of it. . . . I tell the graduate students, look, this is like boot camp. It starts at 5:00 in the morning and it goes to 3:00 the next morning. This is your chance” (Interview). Another faculty member says, “You show up preferably everyday if you can. And you make stuff. That is your job” (Interview).
Despite its moral claim, this stance can produce anxiety, since it suggests that one should be working even if one doesn’t feel creative.13 Esau McGhee suggests that it is not that one has time, but rather one is doing time.14 Time can be demanding as well as luxurious.15 As one student explained, reflecting the concern of faculty: “I don’t have a schedule. I come to the studio whether I’m working or not, listen to music. It’s 8:00 and I’ve done nothing with the day. Most of the time I do nothing. I don’t know why, but I’ve been avoiding the work. Last minute I make work, and it’s done with a feeling of relief. Maybe it’s a type of depression the way that I’m working, because I should come to my studio with full energy and work” (Interview). One faculty member commented, “I have seen grad students get really lazy. I have seen them not do anything for ten weeks, and then throw something together for the critique at the end, and I feel like what a waste of resources. . . . In these economic times what a luxury to be able to step out and be given all the resources” (Interview). Student work is pressured by the institution’s full schedule of courses, workshops, lectures, studio visits, critiques, and the final thesis show. Perhaps we still hold to the belief in genius—a lightning bolt to the brain—but the mundane reality is that if the artist continues to produce, good stuff will emerge. This pedagogy makes a virtue of busyness.

Meaning and Material

Although contemporary art is swaddled in talk and in ideas, most projects have a physical reality, shaped by tools that transform raw material into intentional form. To understand art is to appreciate its materiality, the limits placed by objects, and the meanings that result. However, perhaps elite materials provide less status than they once did. Marble, steel, and canvas have been replaced by cardboard, plastic, and soil. Casual materials challenge traditional forms of good work. Based on their abilities, their desires, and their local cultures, students select equipment for making: brushes, cameras, chisels, or pencils. Too often ignored, tools—the infrastructure of art—affect the look and longevity of the work.
While some tools are mundane objects, others are technological innovations, and institutions must keep pace. What an artist cannot afford, the organization should provide. As Steven Lavine, president of the elite CalArts, reported about the demand for equipment: “The ante keeps getting upped. . . . You don’t have to have state-of-the-art technology, but it needs to be close enough.”16 In deciding on purchases, programs must balance desire for the cutting edge and recognition of rapid obsolescence, always determined in light of budgets, particularly challenging for public universities or those with tight budgets. How art is made is always in flux.17 Today few artists require darkrooms, other than to make an aesthetic or political statement. At Northwestern, equipment for high-quality printmaking is no longer available, even though this was once what the department was known for. Debates about what equipment is necessary for film, video, or the always evolving new media reveal similar choices. These decisions are connected to institutional economies, program specialization, faculty interest, and the perceived direction of contemporary art. As a result, some programs deliberately ignore equipment necessary for certain forms of artistic production (ceramics, glass, or video). This limits the aesthetic choices of students. Large private programs, such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, can afford the latest equipment, while a public university with a small program cannot. As one student who relies on video equipment pointed out, comparing the wealthy, private SAIC with his own public school: “Literally at one of SAIC’s fire sales you could buy equipment for like $100, the same ones we have that are our good ones. . . . I think it can be positive in that people should be scrappy and not relying on institutions, but I see how that would be frustrating” (Interview). The availability of equipment shapes the art that students produce, and perhaps work-arounds are a goad to the creative mind.
Small programs, such as those I observed, face challenging decisions. One purchase means missing out on something else. With new technology, older techniques are forgotten and untaught. One faculty member explained that digital photography marginalized black-and-white photography as a “teachable technique.” Something similar might be said of marble as a sculptural form. Faculties decide what equipment is essential, and these choices set the terms for instruction. While responsive to broader trends, programs have local cultures. A program with a faculty member who bases her career on wet (darkroom) photography may maintain that equipment, while a nearby s...