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?


Tamsin said...

Very interesting. I love your drawing attention to the discrepancy between what he says in his 'official' role, ie. when pontificating about things in general, and what he says about his own way of working. Is this kind of split common in academic art circles?

Perhaps these are just my own prejudices. I do find myself, though, asking what the POINT is of justifying creation intellectually... On the other hand, I'm reading Phillip Ball on the history of colour (as material) and he reminds me that all these distinctions are relatively recent. I suppose they're just another casualty of the Cartesian bifurcation (just trying to impress you with my complexity jargon here)...

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Tamsin,

I think this kind of split isn't only common in academic art circles but ALL circles. It's a form of naïveté made famous by Marree Antoinette, which everyone people in positions of power and influence should be - but rarely is - very wary of.

On your 'point' of the point of justification - I'm not sure there is one. Justifications are only needed if we are being judged, in which case we have to ask who's doing the judging and what are their criteria? But if the issue is why all the discussion? then I think we have something very different - no?

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