Making of the Artists in the American University- PART I
- Kvapil: Observations & Pleas /
Bonami: On Urgency
For a full transcript of the Symposium, klick here
Welcome by Ilee Kaplan, Associate Director of the University Art Museum ("UAM"):
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 we have Jay Kvapil, who is the Chair of the Arts Department here at Cal State Long Beach. Some of you are from the Art Department, so you know that it's one of the largest art departments in the area. And it's still growing. We're actually in the midst of a major construction, where when it's all finished, we'll have a brand new facility and seven new galleries for showing student work. So that's something to look forward to that keeps Jay busy these days.
Jay Kvapil: Good morning. Before I start with the body of this, I'd like to give a little bit of my background, because it has a lot to do with what the opinions are I'll put forth today. As an undergraduate, I studied literature and philosophy, but spent as much time in the ceramics lab as I did behind a typewriter. I studied in Japan and received my MFA from San Jose State, a school much like CSULB. I taught full time for ten years, becoming Department Chair here. Now I'm basically another boring administrator. The way I justify that existence to myself is to say that if artists don't administrate themselves, then someone else, a non-artist, will.
Let me give you a little bit of background about CSULB, too, where I spend my days. Most of what I say today will apply to the undergraduate as well as graduate programs because I think more and more it's difficult to separate the two, which is a whole other topic. At CSULB, there are 1,400-plus undergraduate majors in art and about a hundred graduate students. There are approximately 40 full-time faculty teaching and there are about 53 this semester part time faculty teaching in 31 degree programs and two certificates. There are more students majoring in art at CSULB, a university of 32,000, than any other major on campus. What does that tell us about the nature of art today? I'd also like to add that at CSULB the art department enjoys a wonderfully friendly and symbiotic relationship between studio art and art history. I might also add that as I talk about art schools, I'm primarily talking about American, and not European or non-Western institutions, that I'm primarily talking about universities. University art departments at private schools do have some differences. What I'm going to do with my ten minutes of fame here today, is to set down a series of observations, followed by several conclusions or pleas.
Observation No. 1. We cannot define art. This is central to my belief system, and central to the arguments I will make. I have yet to hear a conclusive definition of art. If we cannot define art, then we cannot conclude who an artist is, nor can we define the best or proper way to teach art or artists. As soon as someone defines art, someone else comes along and does something that we generally call art, yet does not meet the prior definition. We've seen that many times historically. Perhaps this alone is the best definition of art: Art is that which cannot be defined.
Observation 2. Today, anything and everything goes in the world of art. If one opened an Art in America or Artforum (you couldn't open Flash Art in the 50s and 60s), but these others, if you'd opened them in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, or perhaps even in the 80s, you could probably describe trends, styles, or isms. I challenge you to do that today. Perhaps the only ism that would apply is pluralism, which we've heard many times. Postmodernism either brought on this trend, or it is merely described as a trend that would happen anyway. It doesn't matter which came first. Does any teacher today propose to teach a generally agreed upon good art or right art, or correct art of the times?
Observation 3. Since World War II, large university art departments have taken over the role of the chief patron of the arts, much like the church did in the earlier centuries. Would the art that is being exhibited today look different if the university system had not risen as the centerpiece in training artists? Would there be as much non-salable art-that's not a derogatory term, it's a description-in the museums and galleries if there were not so many art professors receiving a monthly salary from universities? It is difficult to separate the changes in art being made and art world itself from the influences of art schools since the end of World War II.
Observation 4. Art schools, or at least many art schools, are engaged today in a postmodern attempt to give students a smattering of all viewpoints. Because there is no correct art, and all the art isms are to be treated with equal respect, art schools attempt to cover all the bases. Therefore, large art schools, like ours, select a broad range of faculty to cover as many eventualities as possible.
Observation 5. Because most faculty and administrators in universities don't understand studio art (we're talking about the non-art people, mostly), and may be horrified that it got to the university in the first place, in some cases, there has been a demand to meet certain criteria to justify its position in the university. Art faculty have, as well, been guilty of playing the step-child, trying to demonstrate their values to the family by blending in. We artists have always been on thin ice in the universities and are received by some in the university as infiltrators.
Observation 6. Universities seek accreditation, especially public universities, because of the need to justify their existence to the public, and even more importantly to justify their existence and their beings to legislators and other politicians. Does accreditation demand standardizations? There is a danger that accreditation may create the "one size fits all" approach in art schools.
Observation 7. Language-verbal language, that is-has become as important as visual language or object making in the art talk today. In some arenas, if a student can talk good art, that is good enough. Never mind that the object being talked of is a dismal failure in communicating visually. If one speaks in favor of visual language over the verbal, he or she is labeled as anti-intellectual. I would argue that it is the artists who are often the predictors of the theories that come later. Just as there are multiple intelligences, there are multiple languages. What if a graduate student is brilliant in their use of visual language, but cannot achieve a suitable score on the graduate record exam-the GRE-or the writing proficiency exam-the WPE? Should they never receive an MFA? Do we not grant it because we are saying that they are not licensed to teach? Should we never accept foreign students whose English is poor?
Observation 8. Universities like to hire people with credentials, and the Master of Fine Arts has become the credential of choice for artists to be hired by universities. What does having an MFA guarantee? Is the MFA degree a kind of license? Is it a license to teach? I would argue that it guarantees nothing other than in most cases the person holding the MFA has been in school longer than those without the degree. This does not say that the degree is not valuable.
Observation 9. Universities by their very nature have a tendency to round off the edge of artists. And if I'm not living proof of that principle, then nobody is. Today, in the quest for democratic principles of treating all equally and fairly, faculty have to justify themselves, their teaching methods, and now the outcomes of their teaching methods, almost daily. These are difficult constraints for all scholars, but even more so for artists. If I sound like I'm complaining, sorry-I'm not. If one believes in democratic ways as I do, then one must accept that all bureaucracy and sloppiness that comes along with that fairness.
These are some observations about where we are now, and how we got here, and where we've ended up. So, what do we do about it now? Here comes the pleas that I'm going to give.
Plea No. 1. We must be ever vigilant against discouraging and disallowing eccentricity among art faculty and art students. Eccentricity is one of the birth places of art. Having said that, we also must be careful not to confuse eccentricity with irresponsibility. They are not the same thing. A faculty member can be a wonderfully eccentric person and amazingly good teacher without creating problems for everyone else along the way. Those from Cal State Long Beach who knew Dick Oden know of what I am speaking.
Plea No. 2. Bring artists into the university whose viewpoints are opposite of our own. Howard Singerman in his book, refers to them as excessive figures. Certainly not all artists can fit into the university teacher mold. Visiting artists and part time faculty are important to enrich the educational institute that is an art department art school. What could be more important for the regular faculty at the university than to go out and find artists whose viewpoint and methods are wildly different than our own and bring them into the mix? What is a stew without spikes?
Plea No. 3. Just because universities have more rules and policies than even the federal government, that is not to assume that there are not always ways to go about the teaching of art that don't fit the typical mold. Despite what we're lulled into believing, we don't have to teach the same pattern day in and day out. There are ways to use the system to our advantage. Don't accept that all curricular rules are written in stone. They're not.
Plea No. 4. We must find ways to insure that there is great diversity among art schools, and how art is taught from school to school, and even within individual schools, as well. The bureaucracy brought on by public funding threatens to make the playing field so flat that we art schools, especially public universities, will be clones of one another.
Plea No. 5. Never allow anyone to convince you that verbal language is better, more important, or supercedes visual language. [applause] When was the last time a school hiring studio artists read the master's thesis or project report of a candidate? Just like in real estate, where the three most important things are location, location, location, in studio art it's visuals, visuals, visuals. That is not to say that verbal language is not important for some artists. My plea is that we not make it a threshold over which all MFA candidates must pass. [applause]
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