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The Division of Art @ Meadows just finished the last of 4 presentations by candidates for the position of Chair (soon to be vacated by Jay Sullivan). I was somewhat surprised to see that all of these candidates were “conceptual” artists, specifically not concerned with visual form as much as they were engaged in explicit social critique. (Perhaps there was one exception). I recognize the tradition of self-reflexive practices (not concerned with aesthetics). However, these kinds of artists often consider visuality to be passé in some way.  These arguments REALLY come out when discussing what they think an Art education should be.  By dismissing classes that teach visual skill as "unnecessary," a position is taken. 

My brief interaction with these candidates has caused me to ask myself (and the artworld) a flood of questions. Collectively, these candidates represent a part of the artworld that I find confusing:

– Are making objects and exploring visual form considered retrograde? If so, why?

– How could a person with such a belief teach along side a visual artist (without undermining them)?
– If putting one word next to another is a valid form of thought, why isn’t putting one form against another?
– Why must artwork be talked about in terms of “narrative,” as if the artwork is about some outside topic? What is wrong with talking about the creation of content through aesthetic means?
– Why is formalism being incorrectly talked about as if it means “hand skill” or “manual labor”?
– What does the word “formalism” mean to the artworld today? What ever happened to Dave Hickey’s conversation about beauty?
– Why does an artwork gain value only when related to a textual idea? If words can supplant objects, why can’t objects supplant words?

– If “art” is considered to be any form of cultural production, why do the artists (who have no interest in visual form) demand to be part the traditional visual art institutions (art context)? Why not some other context?

I like many conceptual artists, like Damien Hirst, but I get worried when I hear a dismissal of "making" as somehow less important, like a laborer to an architect. In Art, design and implementation are often the same thing, or at least conflated in a symbiotic way. I worry when “skill” gets attacked in the name of “idea,” as if the situation is mutually exclusive.

Art has always been about “experience,” not knowledge. And the stuff that crafts experience is skill, visual skill.  So, what is wrong with teaching or talking about the nuts & bolts of physical/visual invention?

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1 Response

  1. titus_obrien

    writing from further afield, I’d say look at SMU in perspective. They are not particularly cutting edge – looking for a conceptually oriented dept head is very 1992. Hickey had a heyday since then, fell into some disfavor, and is ripe for a renaissance. His stock is rising…
    I agree with you 100% though – I use the term ‘visual intelligence’ a lot. Teaching, I see day in and day out that those faculties described by the phrase are barely functioning if not defunct in many ART students. And also that the best conceptual artists are usually really good at presentation in some way. But there’s a glut of those who think it somehow “regressive” to have something look good. Let’s see where there careers are in 30 years. But maybe some of them will have tenure, so it won’t matter.
    Richard Tuttle is speaking here in Chicago this week, and there’s a big buzz. A lot of people are looking hard at him these days – you see it all over. Abject beauty is all the rage.

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