You Know It When You See It.

I recently received notice of an upcoming exhibition of which the following was part of the explanatory descriptive statement positioning the exhibition and I assume written to perk my interest in visiting the event;

“Curated by Bill Platz and Kellie O’Dempsey, this exhibition brings together a collection of contemporary artists that have chosen to interrogate pedagogies of drawing. Deploying collaboration, lens-based practices, time-based practices, performance drawing, automatic processes, experimental materials and other critical and expanded drawing methods, these artists are actively writing, reforming and subverting the disciplinary limitations and expectations of university drawing.”

As a just in case pedagogy is – ‘study of teaching methods, including the aims of education and the ways in which such goals may be achieved. The field relies heavily on educational psychology, or theories about the way in which learning takes place’

Now I’m all for a bit of subversion, but apart from seeming to be a bit of art bureaucracy gobble de gook the statement appears to be self defeating, after all ‘time-based practices’ and ‘other critical and expanded drawing practices’ hardly sounds subversive or reforming, and when it is apparently aimed at the disciplinary limitations of university drawing, which one must assume are intended to secure some sort of degree or qualification that recognises your status as an ‘artist’ or similar pigeon holed person one has to ask the question why bother in the first place. After all the best form of subversion is to not recognise ‘their’ (whoever they are) authority to pass judgement in the first place as to whether or not you are an artist or whatever.

Now a friend of mind is currently working her way through a masters degree in art practices and I get to read some of the ‘stuff’ she gets sent to brief the modules and projects that are part of the process of nurturing and expanding and educating etc., etc., and when I read the above statement, the use of language and approach seemed to bear similarities to the ‘course speak’ that I read in the briefs from the university she is studying with.

Ok, so where am I going with this ? Well, Robert Hughes and something he wrote 24 years ago which to some extent has always left me with a questioning attitude to any so called authority within the field of art and art teaching. You could almost say you where warned, the particular piece was the introduction to his collected essays on art and artists published as ‘Nothing if not Critical’ by Harper Collins. You can find and read the whole introduction under the title ‘the decline of the city of mahogany’ with a quick ‘google’ but here’s a little extract that to me illustrates why we should be wary of ‘art speak’ and anyone who makes claims or professes authority on art, but just beforehand here’s a description of ‘Painting’ from Art Collectors Modern Lexicon, by Andrew Frost – Painting, like democracy or comedy – is a cultural practice that is widely accepted and easily recognised in its most traditional forms, yet it is difficult to define beyond the most basic description, that is, the action or skill of using paint, either in a picture or as decoration, typically applied to a surface such as paper, canvas or plaster. The contemporary use of the term painting thus refers to a panoply of familiar styles, genres and modes, and is often spoken of in semi-mystical terms as the practice of painting is said to evoke conditions of beauty, tragedy, irony and redundancy. Since painting also commands upwards of 90 per cent of the art market, the definition of painting is not something that is widely considered or deemed even necessary, relying instead on the adage – ‘you know it when you see it’.

Robert Hughes

‘For nearly a quarter century, late-modernist art teaching (especially in America) has increasingly succumbed to the fiction that the values of the so-called academy—meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif—were hostile to “creativity.” This fiction enabled Americans to ignore the inconvenient fact that virtually all the artists who created and extended the modernist enterprise between 1890 and 1950, Beckmann no less than Picasso, Miró and de Kooning as well as Degas or Matisse, were formed by the atelier system, and could no more have done without the particular skill it inculcated than an aircraft can fly without a runway.

The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees. Whereas, thanks to its tedious obsession with the therapeutic, America’s art schools in the 1960s and 1970s tended to become crèches, whose aim was less to transmit the difficult skills of painting and sculpture than to produce “fulfilled” personalities. At this, no one could fail. Besides, it was easier on the teachers if they left their students to do their own thing. It meant they could do their own thing, and not teach; and many of them could not draw either. A few schools, such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, held out, and tried to give their students a solid grounding. They were very few.

Other factors contributed to the decay of the fine-arts tradition in American schools in the 1960s and 1970s. One was the increased attachment of art teaching to universities, which meant that theory tended to be raised above practice. Thinking deep thoughts about histories and strategies was more noble than handwork, and it produced an exaggerated drift toward the conceptual. And this interlocked in a damaging way with the reliance on reproduction of works of art, instead of direct contact with the originals.

Few people now remember a time when the thirty-five-millimeter color slide was not the main fodder of art teaching, for artists and for art historians. For the last quarter century, the major source of most students’ contact with art has been slides, not originals, and this has relentlessly nudged their experience toward the disembodied, the conceptual, the not there. The size and the number of art classes have made the didactic museum visit obsolete, and most art schools are out of convenient reach of great museums. As Cleve Gray recently pointed out, slides and reproductions have reduced, and for some all but destroyed, the sense of uniqueness of works of art, the physical presence that Walter Benjamin called their “aura.”

In the slide or reproduction, no work of art appears in its true size, or with its vital qualities of texture, colour, and the recorded movement of the shaping hand intact. A Klee, a Pollock, or a lunette of the Sistine Chapel—all undergo the same abstraction, the same loss of presence. Impartially, they lose one of the essential factors of aesthetic experience, the size of the artwork relative to our sense of our own bodies: its scale. There were reasons why Picasso painted Three Women (1908) on a canvas six-and-a-half by six feet, and Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) on a surface one-fortieth that size. He meant the former to stand up before the eye sculpturally, like the Michelangelo Slaves, which are its distant ancestors, figures locked sleepily in their red stony space, their slow torsion speaking kinaesthetically to one’s own sense of bodily weight and size; the latter accepts one’s gaze more intimately, like a view through a little window. When both come out the same apparent size in a plate or a slide, the penumbra of meaning inherent in their actual scale as paintings cannot survive. Does this lie behind the peculiar confusion of size with scale that afflicted so much American painting in the 1980s—the inflation of the artwork in its pursuit of a factitious “importance”?

A slide gives you the subject, the nominal image of the work, without conveying a true idea of its pictorial essence. You cannot, by looking at a slide, think and feel your way back into the manner in which something was made; only by studying the real thing. And no tradition of making can be transmitted without such empathy. Did this help to foster the dull blatancy of so much recent American painting, all impact and no resonance? Have the falsifications of the reproduced image fed back into the new originals, cutting out those very qualities that cannot survive reproduction—subtleties of drawing, touch, and brushwork, of colour and tone, that slow up the eye and, beyond the quick look, encourage a slow absorption?’

Take of it what you will.