in Opinion | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Art by Degrees

The making of the Modern Artist

in Opinion | 11 NOV 99

'A pedagogic vulgarization infects everything', Clement Greenberg complained in 1947. Worrying over the apparent reduction of art making and viewing to formulas taught in college courses has a long history. Lately, though, the grumbling has increased in volume and taken on a nasty populist tone. Targeted now are art students. As enumerated by Deborah Solomon in a New York Times Magazine article last summer, what recommends M.F.A. candidates as objects of resentment are their uppity youth, pretensions to High Culture and snob intellectualism - plus the perception that they're in it solely for the money. They're somehow utterly useless, overly professional, aloof and ingratiating all at the same time.

Granted, the M.F.A. does indeed function today much like other professional degrees, as the certification required to practice art, and the consequences of this are extensive. But those consequences are not to be found in some shared lesson plan that all student work, even after graduation, regurgitates. Rather than a neutral arena passing down knowledge free of bias, graduate school is a form, it structures practice. And the practice of university departments - how they identify themselves in competition with, other departments - is to organise knowledge into specialised, proprietary fields. It's this organising that gets taught to art students. They must learn how to produce what's recognisable as art, how to make unique contributions to their field - contributions whose uniqueness is readily apparent to fellow members of that field.

Regardless of how students might intend their work to effect some wider audience, it's this specialised knowledge that they're called upon to rehearse in school, in the long queue of office-hour meetings and classroom crits. Since it's taken for granted that both craft technique and inspired genius have no place in graduate curriculum, it's the performance of knowledge in the form of the work's defence that tends to get emphasised over the work itself. That defence, the justification students perfect during crits, must situate the work as arising from and expanding upon a discourse; it must accumulate around the work a set of related historical and contemporary practices, back it up with a list of reference points and a bibliography. Whether the discourse is about sensibility, ethnography, neurosis or identity politics; whether the bibliography is weighted with the latest in French theory or Fantagraphics comic books, matters little. What does matter is that the artwork be recognised and valued foremost as the production of professional knowledge, fresh research, something new for colleagues in the field to talk about. It must be 'delivered up as always already its own narrative', as 'work on and about the boundaries of the discipline itself'.

Those last quotes belong to Howard Singerman, from his new book Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Joining a discussion that has so far relied solely on gross generalisations (my comments above included), Singerman brings much needed relief - his thoughtful, patient analysis gives full credit to the perplexity of the university's involvement in contemporary art, and manages to level unblinking criticism without resorting to abuse or ivory-tower stereotypes. He parcels out plenty of historical data, but not in the form of a pat, objective account. Singerman weaves his argument between the lines of other arguments, relating the material practices of art education to certain aspects of Modernist art history that others have explained in more ahistorical ways (for example, he relates late Modernism's stress on opticality to the shift from 'fine art' to 'visual art' as the title - and corresponding scientistic philosophy - adopted by post-war university art departments, a shift precipitated by the Bauhaus and its importation to America). Singerman's aim is not to make all of Modern art out to be the brainchild of school administrators, but to at least impress how important the teaching of art has remained even after the demise of 19th-century academies. Hence it's not only Postmodernism that's shown to linger close to campus; early Modernists are also found building upon classroom lessons, specifically the mechanical drawing by which 19th-century schools versed students in the new ways of industry. And yet, as Singerman is careful to point out, such courses in design fundamentals - in circles, squares and triangles - were not considered a mere continuation or evolution of what had been taught before by the academy. Quite the opposite: transplanting artists from the academy to school was suppose to save them for society, to replace 'fancy' drawing and antiquated knowledge with more relevant, productive skills and a problem-solving approach to art. Schools, colleges and universities have all helped 'modernise' art and artists, and they still do.

Of course, if universities have succeeded in bringing artists back into the social fold, it's not in the guise many had hoped. Master's programs are not geared to pump out academicians or bohemians, but to produce what Allan Kaprow once called 'the artist as a man of the world'. In return, the university has hoped that the artists it trains would teach it to be more worldly too, or at least more humane and liberal. As Singerman quotes one administrator: 'By observing the ways in which the arts are transmitted, through the association of artists with artists, we are provided with a clue as to the whole of humane learning'. But the partitions erected by graduate departments haven't been mended through the artist's synthesising, comprehensive vision of culture, perhaps because schools have done too good a job at modernising artists, and perhaps because what makes art Modern is that it doesn't have a holistic view of society to offer. Whereas a certain, now-dated conception of Modernism provided alienated artists with a sense of place within their own separate history, the university now places artists - places them within a specialised field, one that encompasses not just the classroom but the entire network of magazines, galleries and museums, since the ability to produce professional knowledge is the key to performing successfully in both the crit and the marketplace. Professionalism replaces claims to autonomy, one form of separateness gets exchanged for another. That this is a lousy set of options may certainly justify lots of hand-wringing, but responding to the situation with the even lousier choice between beauty and theory just as certainly doesn't help.