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narrative, artspeak, academic language, etc.

updated wed 31 dec 03


Vince Pitelka on tue 30 dec 03

Janet -
You make so many good points, and your post was as spirited and lively as
ever. As you so appropriately state, there is little point in trying to go
tit-for-tat on each issue. I cannot speak about what is happening in
university art departments in the UK, but I am very familiar with what is
happening in this country. For the past century, there has been a
fluctuation of emphasis on craftsmanship and technique, dependent on what
the current avant garde trend might be. Certainly right now, with so much
recent focus on conceptual art and installation pieces, it may seem like the
issues of craftsmanship and broad based technical fluency have been
marginalized. But I do not see that happening as a predominant trend in
academia. The nature of much contemporary work might make it seem that way,
but I think that the best educators are still ensuring that their students
really learn their chops. It would be so foolish to do otherwise, because
the student would be unable to survive professionally outside of academia.
As you know, in evaluating contemporary academia, matriculation is not
enough. We are looking at what the student does with their degree.

There is still a popular notion circulating that assumes successive
generations of academically trained artist/educators who can teach but not
do, fostering more and more of the same. This is an outdated notion, and is
true only rarely today. Certainly there are still some teachers who have
never known survival outside of academia, and therefore have a hard time
teaching real-world professional skills, but that doesn't mean that they
neglect to teach solid craftsmanship and technique, and it certainly doesn't
mean that they are not inspiring teachers. And today it is very rare for a
teacher to get hired into an academic position straight out of grad school.
The ones who get the jobs today are usually the ones who have been out there
surviving in the real world, doing exhibitions, making and selling their
work, earning professional experience, respect, and kudos. They know how to
teach the survival skills.

There are a lot of young academic faculty today in painting and sculpture
who are part of a rebound from the trend to intellectualize and
conceptualize everything in art. Instead, they are placing appropriate
emphasis on process, technique, and craftsmanship. They are joining forces
with large numbers of faculty who never abandoned this focus, and they are
the reason why I am still very optimistic about the function and future of
academic art education. I just do not see the problems you identify. I may
be idealistic, but I am not blind, and I watch the academic art world pretty
closely. My opinions are well considered.

And just to set things straight in a small way, you said "The silly bit of
paper stuck on the wall instructing and defining the work of art becomes
superfluous at best and a downright insult to the intellectual and sensory
powers of each and every viewer in much the same way you try to instruct,
Vince." This doesn't qualify as a blanket condemnation of artist's
statements? And you don't think I should be at all bothered by your
implications here?

Janet, when the general public is confronted with good, bad, or indifferent
work, they need not pay a bit of attention to either artspeak or academic
language in artist's statements, reviews, whatever. I wish they had more
confidence in that regard. They need only observe and interpret the art for
themselves. But for anyone interested, it really is not hard at all to
learn enough of the academic language to allow one to easily differentiate
between the valid discourse and the artspeak b.s. I guess I just don't see
the problem there.

Part of my optimism about the future of art is also fueled by the backlash
materializing among people like you and me and so many others. We want to
see works of art that mean something substantial and enduring. As I see it,
conceptual immediacy is certainly one valid choice for artists, if they are
willing to accept the financial and cultural concequences. History will
mark and record plenty of important contemporary artists and artworks that
emphasize the intellectual concept over all else. But their work and the
predominant contemporary focus on it simply makes valid comments upon the
realities of our world, and that is important.

Everything goes in cycles, and a backlash against careless, vapid conceptual
art is well-justified and overdue. I'm all for it. Let's bring it on.
Make all artists take full responsibility for their work, and that includes
explaining themselves in reasonable terms.

Wow, I didn't use "narrative" or "signifier" once in this post either. Well
pat me on the back. Maybe we've talked this out enough.
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft
Tennessee Technological University
1560 Craft Center Drive, Smithville TN 37166
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615/597-6801 x111, FAX 615/597-6803