As I struggle with papers at the end of the semester, I feel tempted to bemoan the futility of writing about art. I want to reassure myself that my problems come from the impossibility of my task, not from my scholarly inadequacies. In this rationalizing process, words often serve as a useful scapegoat. “Words get in the way,” as Gloria Estefan so trenchantly put it. We might reason that in matters of love and art alike, language doesn’t suffice.
If an early 90s pop ballad doesn’t carry enough gravitas, I could marshal plenty of academic machinery in support of a comparable claim about the insufficiency of language. The incommensurability of words and images, or the structuralist critique of the illusory nature of textual description…these words come all too easily. Deploying them might provide a boost to my intellectual ego at moments when I would otherwise feel helpless at expressing myself, but that defense seems like a cop-out. Plenty of writers whom I admire have done just fine with words, without recourse to qualifications about the impossibility of expression.
At the recent Fictions of Art History conference, organized by Mark Ledbury and Michael Hatt at the Clark Art Institute, a collection of speakers convincingly opened up the poetic possibilities of writing about art. For a full rehearsal of their arguments, we will have to wait for the planned book version of the conference. In the meantime, I thought I would highlight one moment that particularly caught my attention.
Over the past few decades, “interdisciplinary” has emerged as a popular designation in academic culture, particularly in the arts and humanities. Both as an undergraduate in studio art and as a graduate student in art history, I have felt the lure of this word, which packages a spirit of emancipation inside of institutionally sanctioned language. At the same time, I have always felt uncomfortable with the term since so many divergent activities seem to take place under its name. In an effort to work through some of these concerns, I spoke with Jesse Aron Green, an artist whose practice we might place under the interdisciplinary banner.
Green was born in 1979 in Boston, MA. He received his MFA from UCLA and his BA from Harvard University. His recent exhibitions include: a solo show at Halle14, Leipzig; a solo project in the Oil Tanks at Tate Modern, London; the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum, NY; MOVE, Hayward Gallery, London; CCA Kitakyushu, Japan; and various other gallery and museum exhibitions. His upcoming exhibitions include solo shows at the CCA Ujazdowksi, Warsaw, and the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown. He was a Henry Luce Scholar for 2008/09, a Trust for Mutual Understanding/Location One Fellow for 2009/10, and is the Arthur Leavitt Fellow at Williams College for 2010/11.
Oliver Wunsch: Can you talk about what it means for you to have an “interdisciplinary” approach to making art (if you accept this characterization)?
Jesse Aron Green: Interdisciplinarity is claimed for many practices and across many fields, which speaks to both the aspirational aspect of working across normative disciplinary boundaries, and the very vagueness of this kind of action or movement. I imagine the term is used liberally in the academy due to the influence of Cultural Studies as it is descends from both post-structuralist theory and post-Marxian critiques of ideology, with their emphasis on understanding social and historical phenomena in relation to both the objects of cultural production and their related subjects (and subjectivities).
However, we’re concerned with the field of art, within which the usage of the term “interdisciplinary” is a bit clearer (i.e. its lineage is clear, if not necessarily its current usage). Modernist practices from the middle of the last century claimed a kind of interdisciplinarity in their production across or between media. One thinks of everything from Black Mountain and the Situationist International to conceptual practices, performance, and so on (including all of preceding practices from earlier in the century to which these later ones claimed lineage, but which may have not made similar claims themselves); that is, all the practices that occupied the space of that which falls between [Michael] Fried’s refined, self-specific arts.
Moving forward, one can point to a range of factors that expanded interdisciplinary practice: technology’s erosion of medium-specificity; the dynamics of cultural stratification; and social movements that critiqued political and cultural institutions (Feminism, Civil Rights, and so on). It’s their legacy, and that of post-structuralism, that leads to a greater critique of forms and frames within the field of art, as well as the eventual theorization of post-modernism and the political imperatives of post-colonialism. It’s at this point, in the 1990s, that interdisciplinary practices are understood as those that borrow processes from other discursive fields: one thinks of both the “semiotic” and the “ethnographic turn,” as they have been called.
What interdisciplinarity means in the field of art at the current moment is unclear to me, except that those who make claims to it seem to do so out of an understanding of its relationship to critique, ideology, and histories of social change, especially as it also inheres a commitment or investment (or what have you) to other disciplinary or intellectual fields within or without the Academy. What the term signifies is even less clear when one tries to account for those who use it more generally: those who point in the direction of historical themes, or those who casually borrow the language of theory from one or another academic field.
None of this, of course, answers your question, which was about my practice.
I tried to write this blog post in the form of a story. The approach would have fit the topic: an upcoming conference at the Clark Art Institute on the relationship between fiction and art history. Somehow I couldn’t manage. Or maybe I wasn’t comfortable. I always feel uneasy about writing stories. They lack precision, thoroughness, and verifiability. Or am I reassuring myself here? Are these the self-justifying words of an art history student who doubts the rigorousness of his own methods? Am I nervously denying my propensity for narrative because it sounds unseemly? If we allow stories into the history of art, then what would that say about the people who want to make this “storytelling” their profession?
Fictions of Art History deals with these sorts of questions. At its most fundamental level, the conference asks what it is that art historians actually do. In order to examine fiction in relation to art history, we need to consider the origins of art history itself. Many of the early models of the discipline take narrative form. For instance, when Giorgio Vasari wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times (1550), he created a foundation for the history of art as biographical semi-fiction.
We now know enough to question the content of Vasari’s accounts, yet they continue to maintain a powerful grip on us. When Vasari tells us that Giotto fooled Cimabue by painting a perfectly realistic fly on one of the elder master’s works, I want to believe the legend. Or at least I want to find an excuse to retell it. Of course we can invoke such stories as meaningful evidence of the mythology surrounding an artist, providing the disclaimer that they offer little information about the reality of history. Yes, I can say to myself, I am not perpetuating the myth but interrogating it through my carefully honed skills of analytic fact checking.
I suspect most people today would agree that making art involves more than technical skill. By the seventeenth century, the intellectual and philosophical side of artistic expression had already been institutionalized in “academies,” which broke from the guild system of instruction. Even the word “academy” asserted that art was a serious mental pursuit that deserved schools like those of any other humanistic discipline.
Unlike other disciplines in the humanities, however, visual art has carried on without doctoral degrees, at least until recently. When George Smith founded the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) in 2007, the program had few peers. While the number of PhD programs in art has grown significantly since then, IDSVA remains unique for its emphasis on theory and philosophy. Notably, the program does not include any studio work. Instead, reading, writing, and on-site discussions in the world of art form the basis of the low-residency school, which convenes for intensive sessions in Europe and the United States. I recently met with Smith at his home in Portland, Maine to talk about IDSVA and the basic question of whether artists need PhDs.
Oliver Wunsch: I understand that IDSVA offers no studio instruction, but theory plays a major role in the program. As a way of beginning, could you talk about the reasoning behind this format?
George Smith: If the way an artist sees the world changes, if her range of perception broadens and deepens, then her artistic ability, her ability to represent history, human consciousness, the history of aesthetic discourse, this will change for the better because she will have changed for the better. In other words, the studio practice gets taken to the next level because the artist who goes into the studio has developed intellectually, spiritually, and as a citizen of the world. In my experience as a teacher of artists, the rigorous study of theory and philosophy can make that happen. But IDSVA is not just about making better studio artists; we’re trying to produce artist-philosophers.
OW: Does that experience need to be called a PhD? Why not just invite qualified people who want to do this sort of thinking, reading, and writing, without the doctoral degree?
GS: The PhD requires a measure of rigor that cannot be imposed upon people who are just stopping by for a conversation. For one thing, you have to write a dissertation and that dissertation has to be submitted to professional review. Writing to an audience of that kind is a tremendously important aspect of the experience. But more to the point, we want IDSVA graduates to go into universities and colleges and teach. We want them to lead the discussion that is shaping the future of American intellectual discourse, not just in visual arts, but in the humanities and in other disciplines as well. And to do that, they have to be credentialed.
What defines “the contemporary” as an area of study? How does it relate to the writing of history or other fields of inquiry? In this edition of Open Enrollment, Oliver Wunsch, a graduate student in history of art at Williams College, speaks about these questions and more with João Ribas, Curator at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. Ribas was previously Curator at The Drawing Center in New York, and has organized over thirty exhibitions in the US and abroad. He is the winner of two consecutive International Association of Art Critics Awards, and his writing appears in numerous publications.
Oliver Wunsch: This Open Enrollment column deals with the questions and concerns of graduate students in the arts. In part, I was interested in speaking with you because you’re 31 years old and have a long professional record. During the years when many people pursuing a career in the arts would be in grad school, you were working as a writer and curator. To begin with beginnings, how did you start down this path?
João Ribas: I started through the practice of writing criticism — what I thought I’d be doing was focusing on post-war thought and contemporary art through academic work, though I became increasingly involved in the “contemporary art” part of the pairing, and so [became] an art critic and editor instead. Only later did I become involved with curatorial practice. That came with an interest in the discursive, narrative, and dramaturgical space of an exhibition, rather than the more analytical or reflective aspect of writing. What interested me at first was the production of a critical, judgment-based discourse, the kind of writing that exists before more sclerotic methodologies take over — maybe because of the aversion academic orthodoxy still maintains towards such belle-lettrist tendencies, like [Charles] Baudelaire writing on [Constantin] Guys.
OW: Do you see your time as a critic as part of your education?
JR: Clement Greenberg, for all the polemics he entrains, called it “learning in public” — this sense of writing as a heuristic to discover what you think, as well as the gnawing fear of having to repudiate one’s previous judgments. What interested me was the reflective judgment enacted in the act of writing, itself part of the process of constantly seeing art. In the process of writing, you are forced to come to terms with something — like [Paul] Valery turning the seashell in his hands — and the object of your criticism is either less or more favored than when you first started, sometimes for altogether different reasons.
Exhibition work attracts people from a range of backgrounds, but it now has its own institutionalized forms of training. As graduate schools increasingly offer specialized degrees in curatorial work, museum studies, and arts administration, we might ask what sort of knowledge goes into the creation of an exhibition. What skills are specific to gallery or museum jobs and what overlaps with other disciplines? This week, Open Enrollment looks at the subject of “the exhibition” from two adjacent fields: art history and business. Oliver Wunsch considers the role of exhibition work in an art historical education by looking at MASS MoCA’s current show InVisible, curated by one of his classmates. Mike Brenner discusses different cost structures of grassroots art exhibitions, and how changing economic times force artists to adapt to find space and funds.
by Oliver Wunsch
In my first few visits to MASS MoCA‘s current exhibition InVisible: Art at the Edge of Perception, I missed the first work of art. Katia Zavistovski, the exhibition’s curator, eventually corrected my obtuseness. She directed my attention back towards Karin Sander‘s Wallpiece (2010), a 60 x 36 inch section of polished paint on the far wall.
Katia is my classmate in Williams College’s History of Art graduate program and it is easy to put our academic minds to work as we stand in front of Sander’s piece. I began to pontificate. Does the subtle reflective quality of Sander’s square insist on the phenomenological nature of viewing? Or is it a semiotic critique of the codes and conventions that normally separate art from its context?
This language may sound more appropriate for an academic paper than a blog post and I promise to keep it under control. The bigger question I wanted to address with Katia was whether this type of discussion belongs in museums.
Graduate students at Williams have plenty of opportunities to get out of the library and go to work on exhibitions. The program itself is based in the Clark Art Institute, which combines a museum and research center in the same building. Students can also take work-study jobs at the Williams College Museum of Art and MASS MoCA, both of which provide the chance to curate shows.
Like Katia, I work at MASS MoCA and will organize an exhibition there next year. My time at the museum gives me a welcome break and sense of distance from my academic work. Still, this same feeling of separation makes me wonder how curatorial work fits into a graduate education in the history of art, if at all.
I never noticed much of a divide between these two worlds until coming to graduate school. Since then, I have heard a lot about the “two art histories,” one that exists in museums and the other in colleges and universities. In the most extreme version of this rift, academics see the museum as tainted by financial interests and associations with mass entertainment, while curators view the academy as blind to actual works of art.
This division creates some problems for a young student of art history. For instance, my classmates who hope to eventually work in a museum find that they need to carefully frame their professional ambitions when applying to PhD programs. Even those who hope to become professors have to figure out how to discuss previous curatorial work when crafting their intellectual biographies. If the boundary between the museum and the university is so professionally entrenched, then can a student productively move between them?