I spent today in a university classroom. This is not my natural habitat. In fact, I was so out of place I might as well have been a rattlesnake on a New York City sidewalk. I was doing a friend a favor by serving as part of a professional “panel” chosen to help students defend their propositions on “Talking About Art Now.”
The class, from what I could tell, had focused on art criticism but had covered a lot of ground. The student propositions were wide and varied, ranging from critique being the most important validation of art to the role China is playing in shaping the art market.
I was my usual self – opinionated and passionate. I do not really belong in the quiet halls of academia where objectivity, analysis, and intellect reign supreme. No, I belong in the gutters of chaotic materials, memories and dreams. I live in the mud-pie magic of childhood jubilance, the anguished mayhem of decision making in an atmosphere bereft of rules, and the always yearning for something true. In my studio, or in front of a blank screen on my computer, there is seldom solid ground.
I remember a literature class I once took where the professor led our class through an analytical dissection of a work by some well known poet. I followed her lecture and participated in the discussion on rhythm, use of metaphor and simile, and the context of time and place, but in my head I was screaming, “It’s a poem! Just feel it! Let it be!” Listening to the dissection of that poem was like watching an autopsy of a living thing, a puppy under a knife. No, I do not belong in classrooms.
Today was a little different. I wasn’t there as a student, though I learned some things. I didn’t really care what people thought of my opinions, and I was enchanted by the young women in the class. Some were savvy and articulate. Some were passionate and committed. One seemed to have recently climbed out of bed. They had pushed themselves for this assignment and their frustration and excitement were contagious. My friend, the adjunct for whom I had come, appeared to have been an excellent teacher.
Yet at the end, on this last day of what must have been an intense and heated semester, there was no consensus, no qualifying absolute about how to talk about art now. In this post modern world, where truth doesn’t exist, concept is more important than perception, and form has transcended line and plane, the traditional vocabulary for determining artistic merit is seemingly obsolete.
Everyone in the class had their own opinion. There was no text book conclusion. I silently applauded my friend for teaching her students that the questions are always more important then the answers. Still, I found it ironic that “talking about art now” seems more subjective than it has ever been. Is this a good thing? Or are we collectively “dumbing down?” Are independent authors and artists the barbarians at the gate, or are we righteously revolting against oppressive tyranny? How do we set the bar, or should there be one? I welcome your thoughts.