Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 5, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

if you're a recent MFA or Ph.D. graduate




Dr. Jaclyn Meloche's book is titled What is our Role?: Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy, and was just published through YYZArtistBooks (Toronto). This book follows the theme of her symposium some years ago at the Lillian Smith Library, also sponsored by YYZ Artist's Outlet.

Meloche, reflecting on what she learned on her own journey through academia, said that artists today needs a Ph.D. to attain the high level of accomplishment that only advanced studies deliver. The symposium illustrated this with the work of four post-graduate students, all showing strong, interesting, even fascinating work when they started their doctorate. But the work got weaker as they progressed through the program; by graduation day their art looked like every postmodern clone, the ones that make us roll our eyes in despair. These students had been homogenized, the originality squeezed out of them, they learned to get with the program. This suggests that if it’s 2018 or later and you’re a recent graduate, you’re neither artist nor curator but an esoteric priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from true medicine. Remember that in 2008 bankers crashed the global economy, so an entire profession of artists can certainly go off the rails.

Came discussion period. This was structured to leave no room for opinions outside the theme, as though we were to be disciples of this specific academic creed. I raised the obvious question about aesthetics, as the work shown had denied a role to that algorithm we call a sense of beauty. Meloche came down like a ton of bricks, with severe disapproval at hearing the word beauty used in an art conversation. Was I ignoring the latest canonical assertions, did I know nothing of postmodernism? I replied a bit intimidated as I’m not used to people being openly rude or hostile. Later I surmised she was fiercely defending curatorial territory. Still, I nervously brought up the Dennis Dutton video on youtube called “The Art Instinct, a Darwinian Theory of Beauty.”

Aesthetic taste, argues Denis Dutton, is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection. It's not, as most contemporary art criticism and academic theory would have it, ‘socially constructed.’ The human appreciation for art is innate, and certain artistic values carry across cultures. It seems an aesthetic perception allowed situations that ensured the survival of the perceiver’s genes. If people from Africa to Alaska prefer images that would have appealed to our hominid ancestors, what does that mean for the entire discipline of art history? Dutton argues, with forceful logic and hard evidence, that art criticism needs to be premised on an understanding of evolution, not on abstract theory. Dutton’s point makes sense; blue skies linked to warm sunny days for millions of years associate positive feelings with blue; a non-verbal visual language had developed from life experience. I also pointed out the numerous scientists who established beauty as an algorithm vital for mental health, part of a language of aesthetics that functions in a liminal mode. Some in the audience murmured agreement but curator Meloche was not pleased.

Months pass. The YYZBOOKS ‘about’ page states they are an alternative Canadian press dedicated to critical writing on art and culture. Their mandate is to encourage ideas and critical thinking and to foster appreciation of contemporary Canadian art and culture by producing challenging yet accessible publications that reach diverse audiences. Their objective is to provide a discursive forum for artists and writers and to facilitate new avenues of discourse within Canadian publishing. YYZBOOKS is the publishing arm of YYZ Artists Outlet, a non-profit artist-run centre in Toronto, Canada.

After Meloche’s symposium at the Lillian Smith library, I got in touch with YYZ Artists’ Outlet director Ana Barajas, to meet, discuss and ask about working with YYZ to publish a book. She asked me to wait due to work pressures, and over a few more emails during the course of a year I got a similar brush-off. No direct rejection that contravene YYZ’s mandate, but clear signals similar to what the flat earth society would send to astronomer Carl Sagan.

Eight months after my first approach YYZ announced the publication of Jaclyn Meloche’s book, while my recent emails were still being ignored. I sent Ana and Jaclyn a first draft of this article suggesting a discussion. I was hoping they’d invite me to YYZ to talk ideas over Glenlivet and Dufflet’s pastries but no such luck. When there was no reply I had the impression they pulled up the drawbridge and barred the gate instead; perhaps they were not fully committed to encouraging scholarly critical writing, or providing discursive forums that don't support their own interests. There's precedents like H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World on the papacy of Innocent III (1160-1216). “And it was just because many of them probably doubted secretly of the entire soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it. They were intolerant of questions or dissent, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were not.” Possibly YYZArtistBooks only encourages critical thinking by their close friends, otherwise showing a haughty disdain even at science, if it contradicts their Logos. Danielle S. McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that when we can no longer explore and discuss ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets.

Worrisome at best, this Canadian failure of logic and scholarship, this refusal to engage in discussion for fear that it might shake the tree and teach us a lesson. It’s as if unconscious of a purpose other than the trashing of art, academia will roll on that path to see where it leads. It doesn’t take a visionary to guess where destruction leads, and they likely will reap the whirlwind someday . . . but not today; right now they’re apex predators. Perhaps it’s about gatekeepers directing the flow of money and resources to friends rather than strangers. This mercenary undercoating to Canadian art could explain what looks like insider-trading, the curse of genuine scholarship. Insider-trading degrades art with Stalinist precision.

Basically I disagree with Meloche’s faith in academia as a site to shape artists. One jumps through hoops and gets with the program, learns to be an artist like all the other artists in one’s cohort, but alas, the homogeneity. Unavoidably, since academia is the information network par excellence, when a bad idea enters the system it spread like a virus, and when bad ideas take root they are tenaciously hard to uproot. New information is available that contradicts the foundations of postmodernism yet no one is willing to face the reality check and rock that boat. There is no place for dissent when a curator has spoken. Consequently the art system is too rigid to correct itself, it's drowning trying to save the status quo, while immutable laws say the good must make way for the better.

Cultural workers, students, teachers, curators, have generally accepted the notion that pretence is art. The term pretence itself is loaded but generally it means we’re being deceived. In 1617, Sir Dudley Carleton, for instance, protested to Rubens that paintings offered to him as by the hand of the artist himself were in fact largely the work of his studio. Rubens was quick to replace them with works he could vouch for as being entirely his own -- it would not do to acquire a reputation for passing off inferior work as original. In 1652, Peter van Halen, painter and Master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp purchased Brueghel’s painting “Cattle Market” for 204 guilders. On closer examination, Van Halen decided it was not an original but a copy. After three years of lawsuits, van Halen managed to establish that the painting was indeed a studio copy made by Brueghel’s assistants and was awarded damages.

Of course any philosophy of art today looks at the full picture; the theatre and its double, the balance of opposites, the Yin in the Yang of the Tao. A true definition of art includes real and false art, good and bad art, meaningful and meaningless art, and so through the entire pantheon of dualities. Within this higher philosophy, pretence and bad art and other negatives on the list are also art, as they exists within the definition. Which, from a conceptual point of view, means that bad art is just as valid as the good. In fact since bad art is easier to produce than good, we have a surfeit of it.

Most artists do not have sufficient time for studio practice, so if they must make art they have to go for the shocking, fast and nasty, which is bad art rebranded as conceptual. We know Duchamp stopped making art after he made art intellectual.

Thankfully academia denies there is such a thing as bad art, there’s no inferior work, holding that it’s simply a failure to understand on the viewer’s part. Others object that if such is the case one’s integrity and the dignity of personal experience are degraded.

In Ontario another artist observed that “When the art changed around the parallel, later artist-run, gallery scene, it was late 90s, the Harris years, and suddenly everybody just needed to work a lot more in order to get by. Fewer hours spent on the work & the stuff in the galleries started looking shoddy, which was embarrassing, but then the traditional materials were abandoned in favour of technology (video, photography, projection, text as image etc.). Why? Because you can get experts to do the hard parts, & tech doesn't get tired and totally screw that part up.”

Strangely enough, the intelligentsia among us, the professors, the artists, curators and writers suffer a surfeit of integrity and yet nobody objects when Sol Lewitt writes that a conceptual artist is a mystic who overleaps logic. Lewitt has accredited status, from which we learn that status trumps integrity. Professional integrity now means to follow the party line else you’re barred from the banquet of teaching jobs, exhibitions, grants, and that pat on the back.

Carl Jung points out that those who suffer a surfeit are overcompensating; they are troubled by conflicts they close their eye to. Science says it’s easy to know what art is since Homo Sapiens have been making it since the dawn of time. Art is specific and functions as the semiotic language of sensory cognition (I’ll just let that sit there like a stick of dynamite with a sizzling fuse). Academic art on the other hand is more intellectual, standardized, as it must pass peer review. Homogeneity increases with each generation; errors get embedded so as not to ruffle colleagues, mistakes accrue incrementally inside the cultural canon. Because academic art is so self-referential, contemporary art turns into an illustration or documentation of systemic academic beliefs. Worse, today’s art deconstructs the very rules of art, making ‘no rules, no art’ a perfectly legitimate art strategy. Few noticed that with ‘no art’ we have no art.

Instead of transcendent images like “Grand Central Station, 1929” by Hal Morley, today’s photography shows a badly lit table with 20 socks worn by by Hispanic refugees. Journalism used to be the role of journalists, not artists. Postmodernism is academia’s vision of the future of art; it means empty paintings in art galleries, it means beds, and desks, and chairs in art galleries, metal fences and sticks and stones and cement and such, all piled, twisted, dispersed or scattered in art galleries. Jerry Saltz calls it Anarchy Lite, the product of derivative thinking intimidated by art history, while Barbara Rose decries superficial artists whose very thinking stops with the thought of putting a found object in an a gallery space.

If the very concept of art can be negated, inverted, or contradicted as an art strategy, there’s a name for that: it’s nihilism. The postmodern denies beauty, dispenses with form or skill; it’s the no of art, the counter aesthetic. Who can ever forget the only musician who ruined John Cage’s 4’33”, when due to his nervousness his finger accidently touched a piano key? When it’s all negative a therapist would say that person’s unhealthy; the academic art mind is sick. Since archaeology insists the art instinct is biology and since psychology says art is crucial for mental health, we need wake up to the fact that art is no longer anything you can get away with. When denial is a popular trope we’d say the culture is setting up a nasty neurosis. Another possibility gaining traction is that art is the canary in the mine. With all it’s negativity, it’s rejection of quality, aesthetics, and sensibility, it’s embrace of the lackluster and mind numbing, today’s art may be picturing the downward spiral and breakdown of contemporary civilization. Will you sit back and let that happen?

Rob Storr of MOMA tells us that in the 1960s, the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Dance went unscathed; you could not hire Karen Kain to dance a ballet in your name then credit yourself the world’s greatest dancer, just as in literature you cannot escape charges of plagiarism. But in art you can pay others to think for you and produce those ideas; it is legitimate to hire someone else to do your homework. This is when art is degraded, a reduction Susan Sontag described in her seminal Against Interpretation as the revenge of the intellectual on the artist.

We are raising a crop of curators and students who have no idea what art is. We’re offered blank canvasses in colors straight from the can, pictures cut from art books, empty rooms filled with detritus; are these brilliant heights or what? The cerebral emptiness is underwhelming in this vacuous future for Canadian art. It’s a never ending praise of idiocracy, but sooner or later the emperor’s new clothes must go to the cleaners.

Science documents art having a biological role, and there are consequences when it no longer fills that function. Most of what we call art today are actually cult objects based on historical illiteracy; for example Duchamp said found objects were never art. It’s a special kind of cultural illiteracy though, an ignorance chewing holes in the cultural fabric. And that is why in 2018 if you’re a recent graduate you’re neither artist nor a curator, but a high priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine. It's time for one more thesis nailed to the church door.



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also by Miklos Legrady:
Destabilizing Marcel Duchamp










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