Are we training artists or publicists?

Disclaimer: This post briefly discusses the work of an artist that some may find offensive.

Rembrant Self-portrait

Rembrant, Self portrait in his studio (1629)

The recent, morally-objectionable work of a Yale University student has some questioning the current state of art education in this and other US universities. It makes me wonder if schools are training artists or public relations experts.

The student, Aliza Shvarts, “preformed repeated self-induced miscarriages” after inseminating herself with sperm from volunteers. The “performance” was part of an undergraduate art project meant to raise questions about abortion, society, and the female body.

The Yale Daily News interviewed Shvart in an article titled “For senior, abortion a medium for art, political discourse.” (Side note: If abortion is considered a “medium,” what else can be considered part of an artist’s toolkit? Car wrecks? Assault? Suicide?) From the article:

The display of Schvarts’ project will feature a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Green Hall. Schvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Schvarts’ self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.

Schvarts will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub, she said. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.

Shvarts is quoted as saying: “I think I am creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be.” She also stated, “I hope it inspires some sort of discourse.”

“It inadvertently raises an entirely different set of questions: How exactly is Yale teaching its undergraduates to make art? Is her project a bizarre aberration or is it within the range of typical student work? wrote Michael Lewis in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, discussing Shvarts’ work.
Lewis, a Professor of Art at Williams College, goes on to explore a series of issues central to how anyone begins to assess art:

It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. And such seems to be the case with Ms. Shvarts.

Amen. Futher on, he writes:

Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.

Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect — and perhaps only in this respect — Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.

Double Amen.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had dinner with a professor of art at a top-25 ranked US university. I am not a professor of art nor an artist. I am an art historian accustomed to studying artist studios and schools a hundred years old or older where artists used to train. I wanted to find the answer to a seeming contradiction: how can universities teach art in an climate where anything seems permissible? What standards are used by educators to determine whether or not a student is making progress or if he or she is even good?

In answering my questions, the professor stayed away from terms like “good” and “bad,” preferring to refer to students as being “unique” and “individually inspired.” He summed up the teaching method as making sure students “hit what they are aiming at.” The professor was repulsed by my ideas regarding classical training as being necessary for artistic excellence. He believed such training was optional. In some cases, he considered training as intolerant of and damaging to nascent artistic talent. In other words, unhindered artistic talent is the goal. Consequently, untrained immaturity is confused with unsullied innocence. Not only should artists not be taught, but teaching can be damaging and morally repugnant.

I wondered what Yo-Yo Ma, who is currently part of a large, non-classical orchestra project, would say about squashing his capacity or freedom through rigorous training.

As William F. Buckley, Jr. once said referring to a similarly confusing turn of logic, I wanted to “knock something off the table to make sure that gravity still functioned.”

A culture where standards are absent leads to what I call “the artistic arms race.” When there are no standards for judging what is good or bad (or skilled versus unskilled), art is judged by the attention it receives. Courting controversy becomes the standard method for success. Controversy then equals quality. The skills necessary for creating art are more aligned with Public Relations than with trained artistic talent.

I am not saying that there are no standards in all or even most universities. Dr. Lewis, who wrote the Wall Street Journal article, teaches art at a US university. He obviously has standards.

I know living artists who are extremely gifted and work hard to develop those gifts. I like some of their art and I don’t like others’. This is not a question of producing art that the majority of people like–though that would be nice too. It is not about dumbing down art or lowering standards.

For me, this is about progress. Can art progress without rigor or discipline? Science is progressing, answering questions that it was asking in decades past and coming up with new questions. Is art progressing or is it rotting?

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  1. iliana

    this is an excellent comment – one that certainly would spark “discourse,” far more than the Yale student’s “art” ever could. what troubled me, in addition to her conception (no pun intended) and execution (truly, no pun intended) of this project, in addition to the support she clearly received from her mentor(s) and the school to construct and exhibit, is how she responded to the inquiry: “I hope it inspires some sort of discourse.” How wonderful. “Some sort” of discourse? like, people retching? or people brimming with glowing reviews? clearly, this piece held deep meaning and covered a subject deeply significant to the artist, as she found such eloquence when discussing her work with the press. i feel as much as art can be nothing more or less than a “thing” we behold, but cannot discuss or explain why it moves us, or fails to, it can paradoxically, simultaneously, be something that sends our minds racing with endless responses. there are some paintings that are on the surface, very nice, and can’t put your finger on it appealing. there are some that clearly demonstrate a mind-staggering amount of talent, skill, craftsmanship – artistry in its purest sense (such as Jacob’s work, that you featured). the former may vaguely remind you of colors and dreams and memories – impressions of things that you enjoy or once enjoyed, whilst the latter may inspire and edify you simply by its existence, by the fact it was created out of nothing by one person working with a brush. there are times when i prefer the “nice, i like it, it’s personal to me” artwork and times when i long for the Met; however, there is never a time when i wish to be confronted by work that is on all sides meaningless. regardless of this artists’ claim of wishing for “some sort of discourse,” i do not believe there was any great thought put into this piece at all, beyond it’s original concept and then how to construct it. art moves beyond those elements, beyond the conception, beyond the construction, and beyond it’s own demise – we race against time to restore crumbling art, are willing to spend money and put in great amounts of time. who would race to restore or preserve this? how long could a discussion go on about the piece? is anyone actually engaged in a discourse about whatever it is (she clearly didn’t know) the work is supposed to be “about” or is the discourse only about the scandal and the societal response to the bizarreness and whether it is in fact art? and when the piece comes down, how will the discourse have contributed to the “progress,” as you noted, if at all? if for the sake of argument, this IS art, could there be any discussion that would be useful for a future artist to examine and take insight from? for all the clamor over this useless piece of garbage (yes, i said it), there is really hardly anything to be said. hundreds of years later,people still travel to italy to see the sistine chapel. this exhibit at yale would not even be worth the train fare to new haven, for me, and it certainly isn’t worth the exorbitant tuition fee her mother and father paid for her to become an “artist.”

    sorry to hijack your thread. i could respond endlessly on this. it probably would have been better suited to an email. as a side note, while your essay did provoke thought, i couldn’t even finish the article in the times, or wherever it was, about this girl and her nonsense – it actually bored me. so much for artistic provocation. next time, dear, stick with the trend of the minute – last year it was birds on a wire and little deer, i think this year is twee sea creatures.

  2. 5/3/2008

    I agree that art should affect some kind of reaction in the viewer, and that Shvarts misses the point.

    My Father has two sayings that I think apply: 1) “Art is personal.” In other words, it will not cause the same effect in everyone or even any effect in some people. Some art simply doesn’t interest me, but that doesn’t necessarily diminish its quality. Shvarts was clearly attempting to do something controversial which is a lame substitute for substance.

    2) My Father also says “Art should have an address.” Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay titled “What is Art?” In it, he suggests that painting, music, poetry, literature and other fine arts can do something that nothing else can do: communicate emotion. His argument was that if the viewer of an artwork cannot discern the emotion that the artist is attempting to communicate, then the artist has failed in the basic premise of his or her work.

    This is for me why so many paintings fail, contemporary or old. I stand in front of them and say “interesting,” which is a substitute for feeling anything about the painting. If I say something is “interesting,” it means that it doesn’t have an address. I don’t know where it is coming from or going. It has failed–or I have failed–in meeting its end goals. Controversial art like Shvarts doesn’t have an address.

    If I were to inject myself with HIV and, then, say “This is a statement about the AIDS epidemic in Africa,” it wouldn’t make you think deeply or substantively about Africans. Rather, it would cause you to focus on the wasteful, idiotic act of injecting myself with a deadly virus.

    Tatiana (My wife, for those of you who don’t know her.) studied classical theater at NYU. One of her teachers said that nudity doesn’t work on stage because people forget about the substance of the scene and instead think “Look, a naked person!”

    The issue Shvarts was attempting to address was hijacked by her method of discussing it.

  3. BTCarolus

    There is an Ayn Rand quote (perhaps the only wise thing she ever said) that goes something like “To destroy theater, elevate babble.” In other words, if you make actors onstage babbling the height of theatrical achievement, then Shakespeare no longer can command his obvious reputation as a great playwright. In the same way, then: to destroy art, elevate scribbling.

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