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From the tomb of Hafiz at Shiraz, Iran

Gurus and teachers. Having one is a given in most spiritual paths, common in many cultures and certain professions. But because I was never a good candidate for the disciple path (according to my mother, my resistance to authority was well developed at three years old), I never did the artist/mentor thing. It is probably the core reason why I have never wanted to teach and have kept my distance from any established spiritual tradition. What has worked so well for many just isn’t a fit for me.

But my library is full of advice, wisdom and insights from extraordinary minds. A book is the perfect delivery mechanism for those of us with power over issues: It neutralizes what would set us off in the flesh, and makes it easy for us to pick and choose at our own pace, on our own terms.

There are many artists in the Boston area who studied with Philip Guston while he was at Boston University. I have had extensive conversations about Guston the Teacher with Bruce Herman, chair of the Art Department at Gordon College, and more recently with David Goldman who teaches at North Shore Community College. When I hear their stories I am grateful that my exposure to Guston has been limited to his work and his writing. I am very sure I would not have fared well interacting with him directly. He was difficult. He was dogmatic. But he was also a gifted artist.

The book of his collected writings, lectures and conversations edited by Clark Coolidge is full of his koan-like art wisdom. I keep it close at hand and use it daily. This is my own version of the Persian tradition of consulting the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, a popular method of divination that consists of thinking of a question and then randomly opening up Hafiz’ book of poetry. The answer is believed to be there on the page.

I am not looking for divination so much as I am in search of an operating frame for my day in the studio. The Guston book delivers again and again.

Here’s a Gustonism from the catalog for a 1958 show at the Whitney called Nature in Abstraction:

I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.

I think the only pressing question in painting is: When are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve “come out the other side.” This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clocklike path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory: it is an ironic encounter and more of a mirror than a picture.


Philip Guston the teacher

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The BHQF, in Bushwick

A small article by Roberta Smith from the New York Times shed some light on the ongoing and ever morphing state of fine arts education. She begins her piece with the now famous quote from Barnett Newman—“Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds.” And given where things have gone since Newman made that comment so many years ago, Smith posits that now he might say, ‘An artist without a graduate degree is like a fish without a bicycle.’”

Here’s Smith’s overview of where things stand in the world of academic art in 2009:

The professionalization and academicization of the art world has been lamented for some years, but lately they have become epidemic. The recent inflated art market has created the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling. Meanwhile art schools and universities — which often provide tenure (safe haven) for artists who may be taken seriously nowhere else — expanded to accommodate the rising number of art students and are now thoroughly invested in keeping these numbers high.

In this context the growing interest among art schools and universities (mostly abroad so far) in offering a Ph.D. in art makes the blood run cold. It also seems like rank, even cynical commercial opportunism. It’s too soon to tell, but I’d like to think that the economic downturn is doing serious damage to this trend and maybe even put budding artists off graduate school entirely.

Her article goes on to highlight the work of a group called the Bruce High Quality Foundation. This unaccredited, free art school or collective (it isn’t clear exactly what it is) was started by “The Bruces,” a group that has chosen to remain unnamed and anonymous. The conventional wisdom is that they are a band of mostly male artists who studied together at Cooper Union with Hans Haacke.

The latest undertaking: The formation of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an entity being invented in real time, through collaboration and a “best idea wins” approach.

I loved the hearty hope I felt in the way Smith framed this undertaking: “Like any small group with a good idea, they benefit from the fact that the art world is in many ways one of the least regulated occupational spheres on the planet. As a result it is unusually susceptible, on a local level, to being altered and improved by the actions of a few good men or women.”

Here’s more of what the Bruces have to offer:

The Bruces’ new direction was indicated last July when four of the group’s members gave a lecture-performance…Although accompanied by a series of amusingly pertinent or impertinent slides, the lecture was entirely serious. It diagrammed the links among contemporary art, the market and the art schools producing M.F.A.’s who are burdened by debt but largely naïve about the workings of the art world. It ended with the question: “How can we imagine a sustainable alternative to professionalized art education?”

Bruce High Quality Foundation University is one such imagining. Whether it becomes “the thing itself” remains to be seen, but even as “the idea of the thing” it strikes a blow where one is seriously needed, against the big business of art schools. The university’s first course, which is meeting weekly, is titled Bring Your Own University (B.Y.O.U.). In other words, all those present will “design and implement the administrative policy and curriculum.” Whatever happens, this latest move by the Bruce High Quality Foundation adds inspirational heft to its motto: “Professional problems. Amateur solutions.”

Great motto!

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Ganesha, festooned with the dried flowers of a Hawaiian lei, in my studio

Holland Cotter wrote a piece over the weekend in the New York Times on the state of the art world, The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art! This article was not unlike about 20 others on the same topic that I’ve read over the last few months, from UK publications like the Guardian to art rags like Art Forum. It is a major topic everywhere you turn these days, the overnight collapse of the world’s most overheated art market.

It is a peculiar place from which to watch this massive imploding, a vantage point that I share with a number of cohorts and friends as well: Artists who are basically DIY small business proprietors. We’re the ones who do it all, on our own. We do our own R&D as well as making, marketing, promoting, distributing, inventorying, funding and accounting. We’re the small subsistence farmers who watch while international commodity traders collude in the agribusiness of corporate-run mega farms.

It’s not as 19th century pastoral as that metaphor might suggest, just as the small organic specialty farm has found a new “heirloom” or “artisanal” cubby hole that makes their survival going forward viable. I have a few thousand clients who have purchased my paintings. Most of them have come back and purchased more than one piece. But my operation is definitely artisanal rather than streamlined, handmade versus production-savvy. And while business is slow for just about everyone and everything these days, my modus operandi hasn’t really been disrupted by an economy that went square wave up and then, in a free fall of staggering proportions, went square wave down. For me it is still chop wood, carry water.

Reinventing art education as Holland Cotter has proposed (see the excerpt below) is one of many ideas I’ve seen proposed. But I don’t think the problems we are facing in the visual arts world are rooted in failures of the art school continuum, nor can they be addressed by shifting the emphasis of pedagogy in the art profession. Just as there will always be very badly written books that sell well, there will always be a category of art that is promoted for no other reason than profitability and the lure of greed. Just as I need publishing (be it self-styled or institutionalized) to also bring out great books that leave me altered forever, I likewise need enough breathing room in this small corner of the art economy to make my work, find a receptive audience and keep on keepin’ on.

And on that prospect, anything is possible.

From Holland Cotter’s article:

Which brings us to the present decade, held aloft on a wealth-at-the-top balloon, threatening to end in a drawn-out collapse. Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

I’m back from a weekend in New York. Within a 48 hour period I wept with grief as we gathered on a pier jutting out into the Hudson River to to pay our last respects to Morris, then wept with joy at the wedding of my life long friend Melissa who, as one speaker noted, “has never given up on love.” Both the finality of death and the optimism of a mid-life marriage have left me feeling the deep and sobering expanse of what life serves up to us. We are all being asked to learn how to hold extremes in our consciousness. On every level.

From the interior landscape to the larger terrain: Another domain where extremes are being challenged is in the high stakes battle over art pedagogy. Miami Beach real estate developer Craig Robins announced plans to start a high profile “graduate program” to help Bilbao-ize Miami Beach into a major art center and destination site. Clearly a savvy businessman and marketer, Robins is approaching the creation of this program, called Art + Research, with the endorsing imprimatur of leading art world luminaries. His project, whether timely and appropriate for this 21st century or a vapid smoke screen for yet another money making venture, is as sophisticated as a mutli-million dollar corporate branding campaign. Art education as big business. Is the next step an IPO?

Here’s an excerpt from an article about his proposed initiative in New York Magazine:

The University of Miami–operated venture already has an impressive roster of New Yorkers onboard. Founding faculty include artists Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, both of whom teach in Columbia’s M.F.A. program; Yale instructor Steven Henry Madoff; and White Columns gallery director Matthew Higgs (they will all squeeze Miami tutorials into their current gigs). Former Columbia art-school dean Bruce Ferguson consulted on it. And for added star power, sitting on the board of Robins’s nonprofit Anaphiel organization to guide the school are former Whitney director (and Robins’s cousin) David Ross, John Baldessari, and ex–Art Basel director Sam Keller. Robins will kick in $2 million to help fund Art + Research for its first four years, and the University of Miami has promised to help raise another $2 million.

Unlike at Columbia and Yale, there won’t be any formal M.F.A. degrees awarded to those who complete the two-year program, which will revolve around a topical theme that changes with each entering biannual class. Accordingly, don’t expect to see the “resident artists” hunker down in front of easels and live models. “Most art is conceptually based now. It’s art based on an idea,” says Madoff. “It didn’t turn out that the twentieth century’s most influential artist was Picasso. It turned out it was Duchamp … We don’t need to do foundation courses, how to draw, how to sculpt … You don’t need three credits for American Art History From 1945 to the Present.”

Such an approach, loosely akin to the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, has its detractors. “I like Steven very much, but I think he’s dead wrong,” says Robert Storr, dean of Yale’s School of Art. “The idea that somebody who has read all the critical literature on art can suddenly have an idea and make it is just nuts.” In fact, Storr thinks knowledge of technique is central to an artist’s effectiveness. “Yes, you should teach ideas. But you shouldn’t teach theory and then send people off to subcontract the work to somebody else. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in situations curatorially where somebody’s had a great idea and an absolutely lousy work comes out of it because they don’t know how to talk to the people who are the superior technicians in their field.”

The thing is, the University of Miami already has a conventional M.F.A. program, and many of its professors wonder why Robins doesn’t just support them. “To have $2 million given to this rich man’s fantasy camp is more than annoying; it’s a complete kick in the teeth to the art department,” says UM painting professor Darby Bannard. “We are hurting so bad over here for basic facilities. I spent two years just trying to get the floor in the wood shop fixed—it was so rotted out you could put your foot through it.” Bannard’s own pedagogical style eschews theoretical discussions. “It’s very simple,” he cracks. “I teach people to paint. Inspiration is fine, but if you don’t have the skills, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Madoff groans out loud at that complaint. His role? “It’s not classes and it’s not teaching. It’s advising. The founding faculty will be hovering presences. We’re just going to give you a ton of information and allow you to live free in a place, have a free studio, and get to meet with other artists. Unless you’re a millionaire already, who wouldn’t want a two-year grant?” Indeed, Art + Research is so determined to be innovative that it’s amorphous. At a certain point, Robins waves off further questions on the details of its structure. “It’s not exactly clear how it’s all going to work,” he offers with a bright, knowing smile. “But everybody’s always happy to spend time in Miami.”

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I found a terrific article about painting and its complex relationship with the contemporary art scene. It is so provocative, and it reflects many of my own beliefs about the “state of the art” (so to speak) of painting that I posted most of it on my Slow Painting blog.

I don’t want to come across as a monomaniacal, logger headed defender of the ancient practice of painting, especially now when there are so many options for visual expression. While I am regularly delighted and provoked by art delivered in other media, there’s no other method that has ever captured for me the power, scope, reach, and depth of applying gooey stuff to a flat, receptive surface. And that connection happened even though I came of age as an artist during a time when painting was being vociferously declared (once more, with feeling) DEAD. As a result, I began my career as an artist on a definite back beat. Knowingly.

The story of how painting as survived successive waves of being disregarded is certainly more complex than a single newspaper article can cover, but Christopher Knight of the Los Angles Times pulls on a few of the key threads that feed into a knotty tapestry of influences and trends. He starts by sharing the dilemma of a young painter still in school (which is, uncannily, almost exactly the same sentiments I encountered when I was an art student years ago.) “They sneer and say I’m foolish because painting is obsolete, and I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.

Ah, that old chestnut—the belief that art is like science and technology and discussed in the context of progress. That means the old traditions, like painting, become obsolete, “like absolute monarchy or 8-track tapes.”

Knight’s advice to the young artist is clear and straightforward: Say thanks, and mean it.

The short explanation for expressing gratitude is that every young artist should take hostile groupthink — the promiscuous pressure to conform — as a cue that she’s on the right track. Those pressures can be especially acute at school. That’s one hazard of the current pervasiveness of academic training for artists.

Knight goes on to demonstrate that the shift in painting’s place within the au courant practices of fine arts has more to do with the decentralization of art (with New York no longer being an essential center of gravity) than a particular trend or movement. His final point is well taken:

Painting, unlike most image-making practices in industrial or post-industrial society, is already pretty much a solitary job. Rarely do production assistants, teams of fabricators and collaborators gather in a painter’s studio, as they do for movies at Paramount, TV shows at HBO and at the far-flung art factories established by video artist Bill Viola, sculptor Jeff Koons or installation artist Ann Hamilton. Usually it’s just one person in a room, with a flat plane and some colors, trying to juice the corpse and make it dance.

That’s the real legerdemain facing anyone determined to be a painter, whether the student who asked the original question gets the support of her teachers and peers or not. Painting isn’t dead — or, more precisely, it always has been and always will be. The perpetual trick is to give a painting life.

Yeah, baby.

On the topic of the current state of art education, here are a few highlights from School is Out: Rethinking Art Education Today, in Modern Painters magazine.

Steven Henry Madoff:

In recent years the role of the art school has moved to a position of prominence, pushed there by the encroachments of an aggressive marketplace and the professionalization of every aspect of the artworld, from the dominance of gallery and museum brands, to the cultural tourism of art fairs and biennials, to today’s art itself now so often created precisely for the scale, spectacle, and capitalization of these events.

To whom should the academy be responsible?…Should the art school be a research center that enlightens conceptual practices while de-emphasizing skills, or a course of study in entrepreneurship, presentation, strategic thinking, and other matters to prepare young artists for the ruthlessness of the market? Or is art school in the 21st century simply the physical surrogate of MySpace and YouTube–the spawning ground as social network?

Michael Craig-Martin:

It seems to me the most important thing about art school is the creation of a sympathetic ambiance, in which people feel comfortable and free to act according to their own instincts. You have to make a place where people feel at ease to be who they are, and bring what they have naturally in themselves to bear.

*

You can’t have a proper curriculum. There are no basic things. What’s basic for one artist is not basic for another. The amazing thing about young people is that they can jump in at a very sophisticated level, without actually understanding what they’re dong. Somehow that innocence also allows them access to something. And so a part of teaching is helping them to realize what it is that they’ve stumbled on.

*

We used to think in terms of “radical” or “not radical.” This is an irrelevant issue now. The question is: How do you come up with something that is identifiable as yours? It’s a logo-ing. It’s branding.

But one of the things that’s interesting about art is that it doesn’t necessarily follow the obvious, endless trajectory in one straight path. Some kid finds a way o refusing that is so interesting that it undermines all of this other thing.

John Baldessari:

You can’t teach art. That’s my premise.

More on this topic to come, like the rise of DIY schools and the art/literary/philosophical/educational gatherings.

DM, one of my favorite blogging buddies, is the voice behind the always thoughtful and provocative blog, Joe Felso:Ruminations. In a posting a few weeks back, he wrote about a book by Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. I ordered a copy without hesitating, after reading his inspiring riff about Hugo.

Now it comes with me everywhere. Biking to and from my studio, it is nestled in my backpack. I read it waiting in line at the bank and the last thing before falling asleep. I love this book.

There is something grabbing my collar and asking me to pay attention, and this book is at the heart of that pull. What that is, I’m not really sure. And to be frank, I don’t necessarily need to know, not now anyway. But a vague directional sense of where the fragrance is coming from might lead to something meaningful. Follow your nose.

For years I have found books about writing poetry more inspirational and insightful in my art practice than books written about making visual art. When younger artists have asked me for reading recommendations, my list is almost always in the literary/poetic/wisdom tradition rather than art history/theory/criticism. I am not and never have been a teacher of visual arts, so my thoughts about the state of art pedagogy are the views of a practitioner, not as a member of the “academy” (in its most catholic of meanings). But Hugo’s book is chock full of advice that is as apropos to a visual artist as it is to a poet. His approach walks between the need to be open, teachable and impressionable and having the “arrogance” (in its non-pejorative usage) to pay attention to and honor what your inner knowing is saying.

The latest issue of Modern Painters (great mag BTW) has a cover story featuring a dialogue between John Baldessari and Michael Craig-Martin called Class Dismissed: What’s gone wrong with art education. I haven’t read it yet (it’s right on the top of that tormenting and tyrannical Stack) but I will. The topic is snagging my attention in a way that I don’t think it would have six months ago. I have a vague sense that it would be useful to probe a bit further into the phenom of art education currently being carried out through an international nexus of art schools and institutions. Where does the search for wisdom fit into a contemporary art curriculum? Is that an inappropriate question to be asking?

I’m just beginning this line of thinking. More later.

I’ll end with an excerpt from another Joe Felso: Ruminations posting exploring ways of learning how to make (and/or teach) art. It seems apropos.

Bly prefers, however, the model of Ch’an Buddhism. “Their method doesn’t resemble a workshop,” Bly says, “They didn’t teach politeness or the smooth surface . . . [The teacher’s] plan would involve something entirely outside the building.” Bly imagines a teacher who rebuffs questions and sends students off to work for a few months to build something or go on a pilgrimage for a few years. When the pupil returns, the teacher’s job would be to be rebuff him or her again.

“One might tell a student,” says Bly, “After you have built your hut, translate twenty-five poems from a Rumanian Poet.”

“But I don’t know Rumanian.”

“Well then, that’s your first job. You learn Rumanian, translate the twenty-five poems, and then come back to see me, and I’ll tell you what I think about ‘the deep image.’”