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Elephants in the Room

Elephants in the Room

Picture, if you will, a dark and half-empty conference room lightly sprinkled with people pretending to be listening to papers read in an indecipherable monotone while discreetly checking their email or pondering where the nearest bar is located. The topics of discussion are, as you might guess, less than compelling: “catchy” titles invented by middle-aged academics vainly attempting to be hip, along with 20 hard minutes of soul-crushing minutiae about…minutiae. In a word: underwhelming. So I must say that I was shocked—no, outraged!—that someone from the Society for Multidisciplinary Art Research and Teaching (SMART) Annual Speakers Series (ASS) came knocking on my door to suggest that I was the perfect person (“just the right personality”) to organize a conference on art schools. But he bought me drinks and gave me carte blanche on my choice of “catchy” topics, so I decided to say yes and simply acknowledge that I am a thoroughly unhip, middle-aged artist-academic with a certain attraction to minutiae…

Well, okay…I said yes for another reason: I was promised that the conference— unlike most conferences on art education, which are a veritable cornucopia of bullshit and institutional self-aggrandizing—would provide a novel framework for some straight talk on the widening chasm between perception and reality when it comes to the education of artists. I countered that however noble this desire, the venture was not without challenges. Honesty, for example. Institutions are by nature designed to compete—for students, for resources, for reputations. This turns every public conversation about the education of the artist in Canada into an opportunity for marketing or a plea for greater government support. Not surprisingly, schools are invested in what gets money in their pockets and bums in their seats. And success, under this model of marketing and market relevancy, has the nasty habit of breeding clones. So it is little wonder that there is such a significant degree of uniformity in the post-secondary system—be it in curriculum or in opinions coming from the conference hall.

This “all for one and one for all” mentality leads to another challenge for a conference organizer: few souls within the institution will go on record as being even the slightest bit skeptical about the current enterprise, although most of us are. Truth be told, very few can describe with any degree of authority what a contemporary artist is any more, let alone claim any rigidly held view about how to train such an animal—at least until we are asked to publicly declare our position; then it gets scary. Responses usually involve a) the rolling of eyes, followed by b) the inevitable and condescending “everyone knows that art is essential, we are the experts, the great unwashed have no idea how important we are” and end with c) a rather pathetic plea for love and support (the so-called “Sally Field manoeuvre”).

Art education is more schizoid than most disciplinary units in the post-secondary system, in part because we have made a lifestyle out of believing ourselves both massively important and terminally misunderstood, undernourished and under siege. The result is a mind-bending feat of rhetorical gymnastics in which the ingratiating language of academic and governmental appeasement coalesces with an attitude of art-world “fuck you” to create a discourse about studio education that is replete with self-importance and finger pointing, but short on actual proof. Instead, a new language of relevancy and applicability (the “every artist is a businessman, every businessman is an artist” argument) has somehow managed to graft itself to the once healthy parlance of studio pedagogy to create a miraculous, if somewhat slippery, new institutional doublespeak.

Nevertheless, I am emboldened by the insights of my distinguished team of conference advisers. They include a mid-career painter, an artist who also writes art criticism, a university administrator, a father of two children and finally a guy who shoots right (okay, they all happen to be named Kissick. So what). Together, we have assembled a short list of topics culled from a formidable list of gripes. They are: “Portfolios, or how I made Mummy and Daddy proud,” “It’s the creative economy, stupid,” “You pump me up, or inflation by degrees” and my favourite, “Research, or she blinded me with science.”

Below, for your reading pleasure, are the abstracts.

The P word

The committee decided to start by going straight for the bullshit bull’s eye with “Portfolios, or how I made Mummy and Daddy proud.” The session posits an interesting but somewhat awkward question: why would anyone continue to privilege a portfolio as an art-school admissions requirement in an age where traditional hand skills are next to irrelevant in most contemporary art practices? Better yet, why, given this widely held opinion, do so many art schools still perpetuate the charade? This provocative session offers four possible answers to this perplexing question: a) because hand skills, as they are taught in the high schools, are still the best indicators of ability, even if we have no idea what that ability actually proves, b) because the simple act of putting together a portfolio shows that a kid is serious, even if the exercise is itself ridiculous, c) because oftentimes, Mummy and Daddy have paid good money for a special private arts school and/or portfolio-presentation class and want their pound of flesh and, finally, d) because institutions like to keep up the appearance that art is about talent and artists are special—at least in the eyes of the general public—and the exercise makes us look rigorous.

The portfolio issue involves a complicated web of public expectation, a deeply held desire for objective standards and perhaps an acknowledgement that even if kids with cool portfolios don’t necessarily make great art students, kids with great marks don’t necessarily make good artists either. It seems clear that many art colleges and universities ask for portfolios out of the simple fear of being perceived as inadequately rigorous if they don’t. In other words, it is theatre. If we were to be completely honest about the whole mess, we would also acknowledge a rather insidious class issue at stake. Portfolios reward first and foremost students with access to facilities and resources. Predictably, then, it is the private schools and arts high schools that breed portfolio advocates, in part because this justifies their existence. Anyone who doubts this need do little more than walk into his or her local high school and take a look at the typical conditions under which art is taught today for the vast majority of Canadian kids. Add to the mix the massive regional and cultural discrepancies that can and do determine the extent of one’s access to resources, and you very quickly realize that it isn’t a level playing field. Portfolios are dangerous in that they give the impression that talent trumps all, when in truth the process only perpetuates a system of winners and losers based on the flimsiest of standards. Either that or somehow most of the creative talent in this country is miraculously clustered among upper-middle-class urban kids.

It’s the creative economy, stupid

Following the stimulating morning session on portfolio ethics, the conference proceeds with the exciting world of artists as—wait for it—cultural employees. The committee envisions a multimedia extravaganza, with presenters flanked by glamorous models-slash-cultural ambassadors dressed in hemp evening wear (produced in a newly endowed creative research lab) and waving copies of the latest offerings from Richard Florida and Daniel Pink before an adoring audience. It’s all good! Art and business, business and art…together in productivity, social harmony and mutual profit. Of course, few things make government bean-counters, anxious parents or hungry university fundraisers happier than knowing that in our new cultural economy, even the kids with black clothes and multiple piercings can apparently get decent jobs and pay some serious taxes. According to the experts, artists, with their advanced visual literacy and creative drive, will lead the way toward innovative methods for tackling ancient problems (critical distance and skepticism be damned!).

Okay, let’s say this is happening (everyone I know in art administration says it is happening, so it must be, right?). But is the reality really any different than in the past, or are a few celebrated cases of corporate success, such as Rhode Island School of Design’s cozying up to the US Coast Guard, making it appear so? Truth be told, artists have always been entrepreneurs. Employment rates among graduating art students versus B.A. students in other fields have always been high (it has, however, been suggested that artists also have a more liberal approach to designating a job as “in their field” than, say, a philosopher or a historian). And it is somewhat odd that in our brave new world of art-tech start-ups and integrated studios, the most popular major in most art schools remains decidedly Old World: painting. (Yes, I know, we are now actually engaged in creative research and teaching visual literacy and critical acumen when we learn to mix alizarin crimson and phthalo green to make a rich black. The actual painting is apparently a quaint afterthought.)

No doubt the rhetoric of relevancy plays a huge part in keeping art-school doors open. And sure, for the majority of art majors (say the high percentage who will no longer be actively pursuing their art in ten years), the thought of an interesting job in the new economy, one that actually values their education, sounds perfect! But what about the other 10 to 15 per cent of art students—the ones supposedly at the core of what we do and who we train? What is the meaning of art in these new art schools? Or artists? Does the very nature of studio education miraculously create both dynamic new cultural workers/ visual intellectuals and the artist who critiques them? Perhaps. Or maybe it is one of those examples of superlative creative thinking on the part of art departments—making a Takashi Murakami purse out of van Gogh’s ear, if you will—as hands-on studio contact-hours for students (the undisputed reason a studio education succeeds) continue to erode in many programs. If true, the old B.F.A. and B.A. degrees in studio art appear to be undergoing a “repositioning exercise,” remarketed as today’s dynamic new visual-culture degree. Here, the training of the creative mind (or eye, or whatever else needs training) takes precedence over the antiquated notion of actual making, unless of course that messy act of making is understood as part of a larger research platform.

At this point in the discussion, the committee plans for a plant in the audience to burst forth from between the hemp-clad beanpoles to ask another awkward question: “If this somewhat specious argument is indeed true, we should be able to see a decline over the past few decades in the number of studio contact-hours allocated to students over the course of their degrees. The standard used to be six contact-hours per week per studio class. What is it now?” After a series of gasps and much rustling of conference papers, the moderator will suggest that participants look closely at the courses of study advertised on various art schools’ websites, at which point everyone will return to their CrackBerries, get caught up in those groovy graphics and splashy home pages the art schools pump out…and ignore the rest of the session.

She blinded me with (social) science

The plenary conference session combines two increasingly fashionable topics in academia: “You pump me up, or inflation by degrees” and “Research, or she blinded me with science.” The first half of the session will deal with the development of the newest university degree in the visual arts, the Ph.D., which is currently being offered by a handful of schools in Canada and becoming increasingly popular abroad. It is the current darling of the art conference circuit, with administrators and academics lining up to shower praise on this new and very important development in the maturing of art as a research discipline. Aah…the sweet smell of credentialization! Not so long ago, the accepted terminal degree in the visual arts was the Master of Fine Arts or M.F.A.—it remains the terminal studio degree in the field. But recently, a variety of critical, political and (of course) tactical considerations have conspired to make the case for the Ph.D. as a necessary and timely development in the education of artist/academics. It is in many ways a logical extension of the current visual-culture creep, as the field becomes increasingly preoccupied with the concept of research and the boundaries of art, critical theory and sociology blend into an intoxicating and potentially lucrative (well okay, somewhat lucrative…or at least more lucrative than the activities of a crotchety old artist sitting alone in his studio throwing paint around) brew of interdisciplinary expertise. Artists are now curators, curators are installation artists and art critics are everything else, and with the new Ph.D.s in hand, perhaps everyone will be able to get the respect they deserve.

And make no mistake about it, the Ph.D. is a research degree. It also happens to be the cultural moniker of import in the university world, denoting rigour and intellectual authority. (Even Maclean’s, in its notorious university rankings, up until two years ago counted the number of a given school’s faculty holding Ph.D.s—as opposed to terminal degrees—as a critical indicator of quality.) The M.F.A., on the other hand, is a terminal, professional degree that does not involve the multi-year travails of a major research project. It emerged in the United States in the mid-1920s, became widely available by the 1960s and by the 1980s was considered by many institutions to be the minimum academic requirement for a job in the university sector. The Canadian university system was somewhat slower in embracing this process of credentialization, in part because of the dearth of M.F.A. programs in this country, but also because of the crazy notion that artists (you know, those folks who have actually done the art thing for years, have actual shows, get reviewed by credible periodicals) might be at least as well equipped as someone with a terminal degree to teach what it means to be an artist. Nevertheless, slowly and incontrovertibly, the demand for greater academic credibility among artist-teachers has changed the face of Canadian art academia. Today’s young faculty member is now expected to bridge these sometimes conflicting realities by possessing both academic credentials and art-world credibility. Happily, the M.F.A. (as understood by quality graduate programs in Canada) has developed into an extremely valuable and effective training ground, providing sustained critical and intellectual content within the context of a studio education. The result is a generation of informed and intellectually nimble practitioners who for the most part can walk the walk and talk the talk.

So if the M.F.A. ain’t broke, why invent something new, you ask? Because (remember?) a) there is a wondrous new creative economy going on, b) apparently nobody in academia or the big granting agencies respects creativity for creativity’s sake and, finally, c) the world is so much more complicated than it was, say, twenty years ago, and the time has come for the nurturing of über-artist academics (UAAs) who are equipped with the research pedigree necessary for the teaching of visual culture to younger UAAs. To be fair, advocates of the Ph.D. argue that the intention of the advanced program is not to replace the M.F.A., but to give certain practitioners the option of pursuing a more conventional kind of research within the context of contemporary art practice. But the cold hard truth is that with the coming into existence of the Ph.D. in visual whatever, university art programs will be hard-pressed to suggest that the Ph.D. isn’t the new terminal degree in the field, as it is with most other university disciplines.

After all, university art departments have been arguing for years (albeit somewhat pathetically) that art faculty are engaging in research when they are making paintings for a private gallery or completing a commission for a public sculpture. Fair enough. If you really are visual researchers and a true research degree now exists in the form of the Ph.D., it seems only fair that artists look like every other researcher in the institution and possess the doctorate to teach at the university level. “Wait!” proclaims the formerly strident art administrator in the corner of the room. “We really didn’t mean that. You simply don’t understand. We are a special kind of researcher and you still don’t understand us, etc., etc.” (For a further discussion of being special, please see session one.)

This scenario might appear far-fetched, but recent events in the development of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) fine-arts grants suggest that we are already heading into this twilight zone of artist-researchers. A few years back (around the same time people started getting all aquiver about the Ph.D.), a heavy lobbying campaign began in university circles to convince SSHRC to include professor-artists as part of the overall funding mix at the federally funded agency. After all, university artists are (you will remember) researchers too! Of course, a few adjustments were necessary to jam that round peg into what is a very square hole. You see, fuzzy words like art and creativity tend to make publicly funded research agencies with more, shall we say, empirical tendencies nervous. So a compromise was struck whereby artists could apply for research grants as long as they stayed away from mentioning anything explicitly messy or indulgent or art-like, such as, say, creativity (after all, these are research grants). The result has been, on the one hand, the awarding of a number of very generous grants to many extremely deserving artists to pursue legitimate research. On the other hand, it has also subtly changed the university sector’s perception of artists and art-making. SSHRC grants are currently the currency of choice among university humanities and social-sciences faculties, so the inclusion of highly prized fine arts grants in the overall mix has been viewed as a victory of sorts for artists in the institution. But for the majority of art faculty in this country—those whose work cannot seriously be reconfigured as research no matter how hard they may try or how many meetings with the university research officer they may have—the situation seems more ominous.

At this point in the discussion, those left in the audience will form breakout groups to consider the potential research opportunities afforded by this development. The sessions are facilitated by new doctoral students in the hopes of keeping the discourse rigorous.

Postscript: more elephants

After assembling this smash list of session topics, all that was left to do was pick a date for the conference. As luck would have it, the committee’s choice proved unfortunate. The weekend of our critical, eye-opening, no-holds-barred conference coincided with a massive national portfolio day and the deadline for the SSHRC fine-arts research-grant applications. Making matters worse, Richard Florida was having a book launch just down the street from our hotel. The result was a mostly empty hotel conference room sprinkled with a few administrators and Ph.D. students. It was…well…underwhelming.

John Kissick is an artist and Director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.

John Kissick’s revealing essay on the looming, unspoken issues in art education needed illustrating, and the solution required no more than a phone call to the artist Kristan Horton, who is represented by Jessica Bradley Art + Projects. Two years ago, Horton created Walnut Nuclear Power Station, a project consisting of a series of storyboards about a fictitious power plant located on the site of his downtown Toronto studio. More underground terrorist plot than public-utility celebration, the images carried a taut, ironic edginess. Over the phone, Kristan was asked, “How would you like to make an art school?” This is his answer. (Editor)

Why would anyone continue to privilege a portfolio as an art-school admissions requirement in an age where traditional hand skills are next to irrelevant in most contemporary art practices?

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