Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dave Hickey on teaching art

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


Quilt or Dye said...

Hmmm... he has some interesting opinions. I have hesitated for years to call myself an artist. I just never felt I had reached that point in my development. Now I use the term with the hope that I will grow into it. I certainly don't think I am there yet.

Bring back some good stuff to share!

Jackie said...

Goodness, what a lot to think about! Certainly the title 'artist.' I am called an artist by some because, I think, I am making images that are new--to them, at least. And I am learning about critiquing, that it's my opinion that matters about my work. As I am working, my unease about any part of it is my critic evaluating. The realization of what the problem is takes time but I finally figure it out and improve the piece. Sometimes others offer a suggestion that either helps the piece or I've already discarded but I am now strong enough to re-evaluate on my own terms and incorporate the modification or not. That's been a long time coming. Other times I seek advice, particularly when I can't figure out a bit, tricky--who to ask. I want my work to be wholly mine.

About teaching, Elizabeth, I appreciated your Asilomar class very much, in large part because you gave us tools to create our own work, not to reproduce yours or anyone else's. Drawings, value studies, assessing, examining-- real tools to learn about our own work and grow. Teaching is about helping students to access what's within them. I used to teach special ed kids to read and that certainly cannot be imposed or handed to them, it must come from within. All the teacher can do is try to match tools to the learner and enable. But I'm going on and on. Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Wish you were here to talk with, I'd give you tea!
Thank you.

Vicki W said...

That's a very interesting post and give me lots to ponder. It must have been great to be there!

Kay said...

Thank you so much for passing these ideas along. There's so much to consider here.

Nellie's Needles said...

...mmmmmm...He does present food for thought. At an earlier time in my life I felt starved for information and input of other opinions about "being an artist". It felt as though it took forever for me to "feel" that I'm an artist. I've traveled a long road and done the work to reach this point of confidence. The statements by one man/person won't dash that. What I make/create has to excite me. If it doesn't, then I know it's not worthy of being "out there".

My take from reading the thoughts you put forth on your blog is that you're the best kind of "teacher".

Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

I have a problem with art not being art until it is viewed by someone other than you. You ask your peers and they declare it art? It sort of reminds me of the old question of "if you scream in the woods and there is no one to hear it does it make noise?"
What if when viewed by your peers one judges it to be bad art and the other finds it compelling and definitely art. Is Bad art still art? And who then is qualified to declare it art if not yourself.

magsramsay said...

Definately food for thought! Does the artist label matter more if you're trying to make a living from it? Not something I need to worry about as my income comes from my day job as a scientist.
I would say that I'm a 'maker' of textiles or a painter and stitcher and I make to please/express myself so maybe by his standards it's self-indulgent.
Where does a professional attitude fit in apart from hard work?
Critiques are Curates Eggs - it depends on whether you trust others judgement.

Marti Plager said...

Elizabeth, you commented on critiques at the end of a workshop and wanted to leave them out but the students wanted them in. I'm with the students. For me, what happens in the workshop, I get so busy doing I never look around to see what others are doing. It's one way for me to avoid being influenced by what others are doing. So by the ending critique it is a chance to see what others have done as well as yourself. I often make silent judgments on my own but still it is a chance to observe and learn. Maybe a better way is to call it a wrap up.
Marti Plager

Kay said...

I wanted to add one more comment. I taught writing workshops to young students for a number of years, and I think my experience there is relevant. Critiques are important to students because they need to know that SOMEONE is seeing their work, and to see what others are doing. And as others here have commented it is possible to learn from a critique. Whether you as the teacher learn from the experience is irrelevant, although since you do control the critiques, it ought to be possible to make them meaningful to everyone.

Jackie said...

Hello, again! I forgot to comment on the 'critique' at the end of classes. I agree that we don't often follow what others are doing and it is informative and helpful to learn what they tried and changed, how the piece evolved as well as where they're planning to take it. Agreeing with Kay and Marti, I can learn a lot via others' work. In addition, we can learn through your example how to assess our own work. You're very good at using the language of the lessons to comment and guide in making decisions about our work. Thank you for this provocative post!

Elsie Montgomery said...

Hi Elizabeth.
I took your class on design at Canmore, Alberta in January 2008, and just discovered your blog. I have to tell you that your class filled me with more confidence and ideas for my work than anything I've ever done. In fact, I've not felt the need since to take another class, at least until I get out of me what your comments stirred loose. Also thank you again for helping me work with my attention deficit problems instead of fighting them. You are a gem!

As for this post, interesting ideas. Have you read Francis Schaeffer's definitions of art? I will be back and hope to read prior posts to catch up!