I’ve never felt quite comfortable calling myself an “artist” – for who is to judge that? I know I like to make things…and have always considered myself to be a “maker”…but this label “artist” - what enables you to say that? So I was very interested to hear Dave Hickey (critic, writer, curator)last night in a talk to the University of Georgia art school address this point.
He disliked people calling themselves artists .. “you make stuff and your peers will judge if it’s art..the same is true of architects and writers – they make things or write things that later are discovered to be architecture or great literature”. Instead: “You’re auditioning to make art…your job is to change the status quo to make things interesting/ appealing/ exciting/ scary/ something that’s not nothing.”
“Ever walk into a bad museum?… the one where you feel “oh there’s nothing here” where the experience is like listening to AM radio…just cold play…” (like cold pizza – flat and tasteless!). (Not that there aren’t people who like both cold pizza and Cold Play!). Dave Hickey stated that bad art is that which gives you “Nothing to look at, or think about - that’s bad art, doesn’t wake you up, or piss you off or excite you…”. It’s just blah, just bland.
The main topic of his talk, however, was about teaching art. Most art teachers, he felt, aren’t actually teachers but “failed artists” and therefore he didn’t really recommend going off to graduate school unless the teacher was one who would leave you alone to make work. He did say, however, that when he was a professor (10 years at the University of Nevada, LV) he soon kicked out anyone who didn’t work. He felt his job was to see if the student was “on track or repeating old stuff”. He emphasized that there was no place for art to come from but from the past. “Art practice is an activity in which one adapts 3 or 4 things that happened in the past into a response to the present. The present is new. You might have to go back to the 18th or 19th century to solve the problems of the present.” It was very important that the students be made totally aware of what was happening in the art world everywhere. You need to know if you’re just repeating something.
“Art doesn’t improve it reacts. What is fashionable is replaced by what is unfashionable. The art world runs from ennui, so don’t be boring - dammit!”
Hickey was very against art being used as a kind of therapy to work out one’s own problems, or to “find oneself”….the purpose of art was to affect the viewer. Art school should not be a “self awareness clinic”:
“you don’t matter, it is not about you, never, you don’t have anything to do with that work of art, it’s an orphan you put up for adoption”.
He stated that he never discouraged and was very active in changing practices so that students weren’t discouraged or humiliated. . So he had abandoned group critiques completely, except those with no teachers present. “All that happens is that the little suck ups to shoot off their mouths, and those artists with least talent get talked about the most. Anything good strikes you dumb, [all you can say is] that’s great do 10 more. [Whereas] the bad stuff…e.g. a piece of plywood with the word boogie printed on it small somewhere ..”
At which point he rhapsodized on all the things you could do or make with that plywood and that word! All of which we have seen in those “bad museums” – the tampon art. He continued: “you sit there two freekin hours talking about it..”
I felt that I had definitely sat through such critiques myself!! In an organization to which I belong we have spent ages discussing how bad work might be changed or improved, or presented, and just been so in awe of the really good work that we’ve said nothing. And so “the bad artist wins” – at least in terms of the amount of attention they would receive in a critique situation. Interestingly, as a workshop leader, I’ve twice tried to omit the group critique from the end of the workshop and both times the students protested mightily!! I don’t know whether it’s because they feel like the need the “end of the workshop” closure, or they want just a few more words of ‘wisdom” (well, one hopes!) to take home with them..or what. But I have never felt I got anything from it either as teacher or student.
Another interesting point that Hickey raised was that 98% of the art he saw had been worked on too long.. “it’s supposed to be easy and quick…I don’t want to see the gospel of Luke printed neatly all across your canvas - that’s what methamphetamine does!” So much for “obsessive” art! It was important to help students to see when a piece was finished. But the most important thing was kindness and he quoted Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
It’s not the opinion of the elders that matters, he felt but rather the opinion of one’s peers: “art is a sibling practice…make art that your peers say is totally excellent, that’s winning! And shun complete dorks!If any of the faculty are doing good shit steal it quick – they’ll be gone soon! They’ll be maggots and worms.” Like Picasso, he was all for stealing good ideas, for this led to experimentation and growth. “But you can’t teach what you do. If you teach students to do what you do that won’t help them, they need to improve on that. To really teach art let everybody alone!”
Food for thought! So now, I must prepare for my workshop in Arizona… and I’m looking for good s**t to steal! Back next week! So, if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth