Monday, 23 August 2010

Prize Winners, Knights, Clones and Rejects

Yesterday I visited Martin Creed's exhibition, "Down Over Up", at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I'll refrain from discussing the Ins and Outs of the work here other than to say that it's worth seeing if you're in the vicinity.

At the entrance to the gallery is an introductory text intended to give some context and background to the exhibition. It has become something of a cliché to introduce such solo exhibitions by listing the various prizes awarded to the artist during their career. How should we interpret this emphasis and what might it tell us about the values of such art galleries? Perhaps it's assumed that the ‘doubting public’ will be persuaded by this conventionalised claim to authority and recognition. I’m reminded of Madonna's 2001 prize-giving speech when Creed won the Turner Prize:

The figure who introduces Madonna in the video and stands to her side is Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and chairman of the Turner Prize committee. In the book “Seven Days in the Art World”, Sarah Thornton describes an interview with “Sir Nick” in which they discuss his misgivings about the prize:

"Competition between artists is almost taboo in the art world, and Serota admitted that contests like the Turner Prize are “iniquitous in drawing distinctions between artists of very different kinds.” […] “Few artists enjoy direct competition,” said Serota. “Artists struggle to express themselves, and for that they need an inordinate amount of self-belief. In some circumstances that self-belief will shift into competitiveness, but it is rarely comfortable.”

Later in the essay Thornton catches up with Martin Creed at the 2006 Turner Prize awards ceremony:
"For Creed, no one is ever best in show. 'If the artists create artworks then the judges create a winner. Whoever they choose is a reflection of themselves.'"
It would be a mistake to think that this kind of situation is restricted only to the higher echelons of the art world. The process of moulding individuals in our own image is prevalent throughout society and academia is no exception:

“In describing the ideal we look for the impossible, and we begin at a point where we are looking for those who most closely match our desires and probably ourselves. These models are culturally loaded in favour of a constructed notion of the masculinist, unencumbered affluent individual. The ‘ideal student’ would demonstrate that they are ‘fit’ in a Darwinian way to take up the subject the minute they enter into the world of higher education. They would be highly motivated and as passionate about their subject as their tutors.” (Vaughan et al. 2008)

This has everything to do with the distorted logic of meritocracy and most especially the idea that we should reward people for their talents and abilities. (Achievement is it’s own reward and we’re in danger of creating complex problems when we create prizes to heap on the already fortunate - I’ll come back to this issue in a later post). The other problem with the idea of meritocracy is that it assumes that we’re ‘good’ at spotting - or agreeing on what constitutes - talent and ability in the first place. Consider for a moment the artist Susan Philipsz who applied, and was rejected, for a place at Glasgow School of Art in the late 80’s. Earlier this year Philipsz was nominated for the Turner Prize, but considering the ‘masculinist’ track record of the Turner Prize judges (3 female winners in a quarter of a century) she probably stands less chance than she did of getting into Glasgow School of Art.

“If there were any sense that someone was going to win because of his or her gender or ethnicity, then the prize would lose all credibility.” - Nicholas Serota

THORNTON, S. 2008. Seven Days in the Art World. Granta, London.
VAUGHAN, S. et al. (2008) Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: L. Drew ed. The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education : Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

"Balancing Craft with Thought"

The Loggia, Glasgow School of Art, Jim Hamlyn, 2010

I’ve just started reading ART SCHOOL (propositions for the 21st Century), a collection of essays edited by Steven Henry Madoff. There’s a rousing comment by Mark Dion on the back cover which ends:

“For those who dare to think and act in a utopian mode, this book is an invaluable instruction manual, manifesto, and blueprint. For entrenched entropic faculty and bureaucratic administrative hacks this book is a brick through their window.”

The first essay, by artist Ernesto Pujol, includes some excellent analysis of the current state of art education in the US, with clear echoes of the UK:

“Many schools are still struggling with artists who found a niche on their faculties during the 1970s and 80s and then stopped growing – an unexpected perversion of tenure, which was meant to secure and promote radical thinking.

As an alternative perspective the essay raises several provocative and much-needed observations and criticisms which would certainly benefit from wider distribution and discussion although, at times, Pujol’s suggestions are perhaps less persuasive than one might wish:

“Students should have to develop fully thought-out written proposals before, during, and after painting and sculpting. I don’t mean that they should do this simply to defend an image or object during individual and group critiques, as students have always done, but to learn how to justify that creation intellectually, beyond the subjective, in our visually dense and materially cluttered world. If they don’t want to do this, they have no business being professional contemporary artists.”

Whilst I’m somewhat sympathetic to this idea, I do think that it’s a little over prescriptive in that it clearly privileges the rational over the intuitive (a criticism recently leveled at me on this blog). However, if you visit Pujol’s own website he says:

“Due to the evolving nature of my art practice, which inhabits an intuitive not-knowing flow, the current working categories are only organizational tools, because the gestures deepen, and thus, interconnect over time.”

So, in the context of his own work, Pujol actually gives a clear acknowledgement to what we might call a ‘pre-critical’ stage in the working process: a not-knowing which, interestingly, is almost identical to Anish Kapoor in my previous post “The Threshold of Meaning”.

Earlier in the essay Pujol states:

“Students should receive training in the basic tools of conceptualism, such as scholarly research and literary writing, as applied to traditional painting, sculpture, printmaking, glass, ceramics, and photographic processes, making muscled and poetic gestures more conscious and articulate and balancing craft with thought, while also gazing selectively at other disciplines.”

Establishing exactly what the correct balance between craft and thought should be, is certainly an important issue. But I would question whether this necessarily demands such an explicit emphasis on scholarly research and literary writing in preference to wider forms of discourse – forms in particular which aren’t so readily co-opted by institutional conventions and control and which therefore encourage - or at least allow - students to construct, adapt, invent and negotiate their own more speculative discursive processes and domains.

So whilst Pujol’s description of the context of US art education is well informed and insightful, his understanding of the complexities, drives and potentials of art students seems a good deal more vague.

Having only read six of the essays in this book so far, I’m beginning to notice a common trend which combines clear insight into the machinations of art education with a comparatively narrow understanding of the varied backgrounds and perspectives of students and learning in general. In other words, interesting as these essays are - without a more robust conception and theorization of WHY people come to art school and especially HOW they learn and develop, what currency can these Propositions for the 21st Century really hope to have?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

School of Life

“Ultimately, teaching art means teaching life.” –Boris Groys “Education by Infection” in MADOFF, S.H., ed., 2009. ART SCHOOL (propositions for the 21st Century)

Room 42, Glasgow School of Art, © Lesley Punton & Jim Hamlyn, 2010

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Threshold of Meaning (a hermeneutic)

"Deluge", backlit photographic print. ©Jim Hamlyn 2010
“In the case of HE art and design courses, where students are often required to change their mode of operating and reconstruct their way of thinking, we often encounter the bewildered expression of those who no longer receive the accolades they have been used to receiving prior to their entrance to higher education.” (Vaughan et al. 2008)
I’d like to take an opportunity here to examine, a little more closely, a couple of issues which came up in a previous post about the common mismatch between the way the art is taught in schools as opposed to art schools and the role that 'meaning' plays in this troublesome transition.

Art classes in schools predominantly emphasize form, technique and imagination to the almost entire exclusion of interpretation and meaning. In this setting, art is perceived and promoted as a purely practical subject and its intellectual and discursive aspects - since they tend to resist quantification and assessment – are simply ignored by the curricula and are neglected by all but the most intrepid and determined of teachers. Many students arriving at art school are therefore surprised – daunted even - to find that the emphasis within many courses is significantly different. Suddenly a whole new edifice is confronting them which demands that they research, develop, consider, articulate, express and interpret meaning in the work they make and that of their peers and other artists. No longer are they expected simply to create imaginative, skillful, beautiful or original representations, but now they must become informed consumers of art and to understand what this stuff they're looking at actually means. Appreciation is no longer just about virtuosity, ingenuity, creativity, originality, beauty, skill, refinement or a litany of famous “Masters” but about ideas, concepts, issues, themes and content. No longer are they being assessed so much for their command of the medium, or even their hard work, but for the depth of their ideas and their articulacy in exploring and expressing them. Unsurprisingly many students begin to ask “why does art have to “mean” something, why can’t it just be beautiful?”

Art is a product of human action - some might call this free will, human ingenuity or creative purpose. However you view it, art is an experience produced by human intention and it’s the results of this intention which many other humans (artists, critics, historians and art lovers etc) wish to contemplate and understand. If there were no intention, then there’d be little point in trying to understand something, but then again, if there were no intention, there probably wouldn't be much to understand in the first place – certainly nothing in terms of ideas.

If we’re simply seeking beauty, we can gaze at the sheer wonder of the world and art simply pales by comparison, but if we want to know how we or other people view and interpret the world, then contemplating, discussing and making art are some of the best ways we can go about this.

"The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed. No weight, nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought.” –John Ruskin

It would seem then, that more than 150 years ago, people were already championing the notion that meaning is something to be strived for and valued in art. But what implications might this have for us artists? Are we expected to conjure up profundity from the ether and transform it into works of majesty and greatness? And if this is the case, wouldn’t the most intelligent artists be, without exception, the best? Fortunately this isn’t the case. Artworks which attempt to communicate an idea are often pedantic dismal failures doomed by a lack of awareness of the creative process as a whole. If making great art was simply a case of coming up with great ideas, then who’d actually need to make anything? - we could just explain the ideas. Skipping the fact that this strategy is sometimes advocated by artists, we can say that the constantly interweaving processes of making and thinking are a vital part of the ‘act’ of creating meaning, and as such, meaning doesn’t have to exist from the outset in the mind of the artist. Meaning can come into being through a gradual and accumulative but considered process of engaging with materials and processes: of making.

British Sculptor Anish Kapoor is often quoted thus:

“I have often said that I have nothing to say as an artist. Having something to say implies that one is struggling with meaning. The role of the artist is in fact that we don’t know what to say, and it is that not knowing that leads to the work.”

Unfortunately such statements can easily be misconstrued. The lack of clarity can be demonstrated by considering the following three examples:
1: Artworks which are made to communicate an idea.
2: Artworks which result from a speculative but informed process of experimentation.
3: Artworks which are the result of a inexpressible outpouring of creative genius.
The problem with Kapoor’s statement is that it suggests that art is formed through the kind of shrouded process as outlined in example 3, whereas the truth is almost certainly much closer to example 2. He might not be “struggling with meaning” as such, but his work is undoubtedly the result of a process and that process isn’t one of “not knowing” but of an evolution out of not knowing; of a gradual accumulation of certainties and the abandonment of error.

Finally then, let’s return the discussion to the plight of the student (to quote John Berger’s provocative essay). Sadly, a number of fine art courses (especially in more traditional subjects like painting or printmaking) continue to pay very little attention to discussing the meaning of the work that students produce. Instead they emphasise a mélange of techniques and a hotchpotch of styles and, if the students are lucky, there may be some discussion of more nebulous qualities of mood and feeling. Students on such courses might experience a smoother transition from school to higher education and may even continue to receive the accolades they have been used to. In a sense they’ll be fortunate to avoid the troublesome threshold of “Meaning”, but they’ll also be much less likely to experience the pleasures and insights of informed interpretation. This is one of the most lamentable consequences of the neglect of Meaning. The other, is the fact that some of these graduates will go on to become school teachers where – due to pitifully impoverished curricula - they’ll have no alternative but to promote the craft of art at the expense of its most profound, if not its most important aspect.

BARRETT, T. (1988) Studies in Art Education, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 22-27 Available from:
BERGER, J. (1960). The Plight of the Student. In: Permanent Red. London: Methuen. 51-53. Available online from:
VAUGHAN, S. et al. (2008) Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: L. Drew ed. The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education : Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.