Making of the Artists in the American University- PART I
Bonami: On Urgency
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Welcome to our first Contemporary Discovery Symposium: Consequences of the New. (...) Contemporary Discovery is a new program for the UAM. It combines exhibitions bringing artists from all over the world, and from this country who have not really been exposed to Southern California and bring new ideas and new projects to us. In addition to that, we have started the symposium so that we can examine in context with our exhibitions some of the newest ideas and trends in the arts field. I'd now like to introduce the UAM Curator of Exhibitions, Mary-Kay Lombino, who will be our MC for the day. Mary-Kay has been with the Museum for a little over a year and has already introduced incredible artists and programs to our campus and to the Museum. With her experience at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum and the National Endowment for the Arts, she brings both a regional and a national perspective to the UAM. So join me in welcoming Mary-Kay. [applause]
Then Kurt Kauper is here. He's visiting here from the East Coast. Kurt is someone who graduated from UCLA. He got his MFA in 1995. And just within the last year, his work was involved in the Whitney Biennial. He was given his first one-person show in New York at Deitch Projects. He's also beginning as a faculty member in the Art Department at Yale University. And, he's showing here at ACME in Los Angeles.
This is a still life by Gerhardt Richter ... It's a painting by Tom Rudiman, ...This is a painting by Sue Williams...This is Kerry James Marshall,...This is Lari Pittman, who I'm sure everybody knows. Local California painter, whose work to no small extent was informed by a ten year career as a decorator. This is an artist named Toba Khedori ...This is an artist whom I love, Lisa Yuskavage...Matthew Ritchie, a British born painter working in New York. Laura Owens, who's a Los Angeles painter. Udomak Krisanamis is a painter...This is an artist named Shahzia Sikander...
This is a drawing by a local artisan, Tom Knechtel, and we've talked a little bit about . . . or part of the setup to our discussion was the criticism that art schools no longer teach technique. Instead, the training exists within the realms of language. And I would challenge that. And I would also suggest that Tom Knechtel went to Cal Arts in the mid-70s, which is when supposedly Cal Arts no longer offered technical instruction. And I would suggest that the artists who are working most successfully with traditional modes of representation are often artists who come out of programs that we would most completely describe as language-based programs. I think when an artist is forced to adopt traditional means of representation to fulfill conceptual gestures, I think that they are usually the ones who most successfully use those techniques.
But I just wanted to illustrate the diversity of practices available to graduate students today.
I started by challenging the idea that technical instruction has been replaced by theoretical language in contemporary graduate programs. At least those that I'm familiar with, which are Yale, UCLA, the Museum School in Boston. In spite of everything that has been said about UCLA in the articles, which were incredibly flawed, as far as I'm concerned.
Graduate art programs, of course, have to teach in a way that's responsive to conditions and intellectual developments in the professional world. Technical instruction, which is part of graduate art education, has to change as contemporary conditions change. As I tried to emphasize in the slides just projected, there is incredible formal and conceptual diversity in contemporary painting. This formal conceptual diversity characterize the professional world which graduate students will soon enter if they haven't already. A technical training, if it is to be worthwhile, has to take into account this wide range of formal, conceptual choices. A technical training valid for all conceptual approaches to painting probably hasn't existed since the beginning of the 20th Century, when Bucoro and Gauguin were both working and using to a large extent the common set of underlying visual forms. It seems to me that visual modes introduced by such artists as Malevich and Puchov changed that, although it would be many years before the academy came to the same conclusion. It's often stated that even the most progressive modernists had Beaux Arts training. Look at Pollock's students' student drawings, we are told, and you'll see the traditional training that provided a foundation for his mature work. But in fact, had the training not been Pollock's and the drawings he produced in his studio, they would have been unrecognizable to the Beaux Arts traditionalists. Their drawing is strongly influenced by modernist ideas. Benton offered Pollock a training modified by the cultural and social conditions of the first half of the 20th Century. Which brings me back to the conditions which existed at the turn of our century. What technical training could exist which would be relevant to the variety of cultural and historical sources informing young artists' work? A good graduate training offers technical information in response to different students' particular conceptual objective, which is what should at advanced levels determine technique. And I guess on that point I do draw a distinction between undergraduate training and graduate training. And I find nothing to criticize in the graduate model in which a graduate student is working in an individual studio, producing individually directed work. I see no point in criticizing that. Technical advice and training was certainly part of my education at UCLA, offered by artists as diverse as Lari Pittman, Tom Knechtel, Paul McCarthy, and Charles Ray, in spite of the quote that they've become somewhat famous from the Artforum article.
Yearning for the unified technical training that once existed in graduate programs seems to me to be nostalgic at best and reactionary at worst. It also seems to me that if we're going to talk about a unified technical training or yearn for some kind of technical training that still exists in a graduate school, there's a kind of underlying Puritanism in that, or a belief that there still exists some common set of forms that are relevant for everybody. And we talked a little bit about professionalism and the word "professional" is a potentially disparaging remark. And it seems related to that sort of Puritan idea, where there's a kind of pure art that we can try to attain, which is then polluted by art's existence as a commodity in the marketplace, or by art's existence out there in the real world, which is another suggestion that I would challenge. For me, my graduate education offered me an attitude and an approach to professionalism which has been very beneficial for me. For I no longer thought of it as that sort of thing that was different from Dr. Dutch in my studio. It was, instead, a way of making my work part of a much broader public discourse, making my work exist out there, in the public, instead of just in the confines of my own studio, which I think is really where art goes dead for the most part.
When we talk about theoretical language, which is supposed to replace technical training, what precisely do we mean? Do we mean discussions derived from specific works of critical theory? Do we mean intellectual discussions not backed up by practice? Do we mean interpretations of student work, peppered by references to Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin? In reference to the visual arts, the word "theory" is quite often bantered about without meaning. Last night, I attended a panel organized by Cal Arts entitled something like "Art and Theory." It was intended to investigate the relationship between theoretical texts and art production. Yet speaker after speaker concentrated on theory and its values to education, in a sense reinforcing the academic theory that is offered at art schools. And none of the speakers clearly defined what they meant by theory. I think though, that when artists and art educators refer to theory, they're in fact talking about a relatively limited set of texts that appear over and over again in graduate art school syllabi. Texts I think of such artists as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, etc. The graduate seminar at the Museum School is called "The mind's eye," and students read these authors as well as contemporary writers whose work derives from them. At UCLA, I was able to take seminars on Leotard, Foucault, Marx, and Freud. While the word "theory," it seems to me, should refer to an unlimited set of texts, and a wide range of possible source materials of contemporary artists-for example, Kent Henry James and Elizabeth Bishop, and Dominic Donflat Mahler are the theory that informs artists' work-in actuality, it is severely proscribed by the contemporary academy, or graduate program. And this proscription is detrimental to graduate art students, and is far removed from the realities that inform the work of contemporary artists as any unified traditional or technical training. So, again, I just go back to my problem with the suggestion that technical training has been replaced by theoretical language. I think that an over-emphasis on either one of those two things is harmful to a graduate art education. But I think that what makes some of these graduate art educations very strong which . . . the graduate art educations which have been disparaged in a lot of recent articles . . . is that in fact they make an artist's role as a professional contributing to the discussion out in public-they make that role a reality for graduate students. And the strongest programs I think avoid too heavy an emphasis on academic technique, or academic emphasis on theory that's removed from reality. So I don't have a problem with contemporary graduate programs. In fact, I loved mine. Thank you. [applause]
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