Tag Archives: art

The No-Art Art History Textbook

In a story
helpfully marked “Not the Onion,” Gawker reports that Toronto’s Ontario College
of Art and Design is requiring students to purchase a $180 art history textbook
that has no images of art at all. The father of one student says the publisher
of the book, Global Visual and Material Culture: Prehistory to 1800, apparently
couldn’t get the copyright permissions settled in time for the print run. But
the school’s dean disputes that, saying the textbook was always intended to
have no pictures. “If we had opted for print clearance of all the Stokstad
and Drucker images,” the dean wrote in a letter to students,
“the text would have cost over $800.”

How Colleges Mangle Literature and Art

I am currently reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by the fabulous Ariel Levy. Her 2005 book chronicles the raunchy tendencies of modern self-described feminists (which I very much want to call “raunch dressing”). Levy is a fellow Wesleyan alum, and she uses some examples of her time in college to discuss the problems in academia that not only enable porn to exist on the same plane as Flaubert, but also to spread the Ivory Tower anti-art agenda.

The modish line of academic thinking was to do away with ‘works’ of literature or art and focus instead on ‘texts,’ which were always the products of the social conditions in which they were produced. We were trained to look at the supposedly all-powerful troika of race, class and gender and how they were dealt with in narrative–and that narrative could be anywhere, in Madame Bovary or Debbie Does Dallas–rather than to analyze the artistic quality, which we were told was really just code for the ideals of the dominant class.

This sums up every English class I took at the school. We were not allowed to have visceral reactions to literature–we were to see books as archeological evidence of oppression. And if one buys this rationale, there would be very little point in studying that which academia has deemed oppressive, as evidenced here:

I remember a meeting we once had, as members of the English majors committee, with the department of faculty: We are there to tell them about a survey we’d given out to English majors, the majority of whom said they wanted at least one classics course to be offered at our college…It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me. After I made my pitch for it, the woman who was the head of the department at that time looked at me icily and said, “I would never teach at a school that offered a course like that.”

This subject was taken up by Zadie Smith in the same year (2005). In her wonderful novel On Beauty, Smith has some fun at academia’s expense as she traces the moral, intellectual and personal failings of Howard–an art professor who hates art. In a short but moving passage in the book we see Howard’s class from the point of view of his most earnest student, a young woman who loves Rembrandt and is having a very difficult time not finding his work to be beautiful. Howard uses the language of academia (oh how I do not miss words with “ization” tacked on the end) to bully his class into his mode of thinking, and in many cases it works.

For anyone still in college reading this, you are allowed to love books and paintings and music–even ones created by white men! Yes, it is deeply important to understand how race class and gender work in art (Zadie Smith makes them the major themes in On BeautyMadame Bovary is all about the latter) but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand the meaning, soak in the context, AND love the work.

Social Justice Art and Liberal Democracy

imagesCAFBEVA41.JPGMichelle Kamhi is the co-editor of the online arts review Aristos, and a mild-mannered, well-spoken New Yorker with a love of art and intellectual integrity. She is also the cause of a heated controversy that has broken out in the world of art education. The source of this conflict is an op-ed Kamhi wrote in the Wall Street Journal last June entitled “The Political Assault on Art Education.” Presenting a condensed version of a longer piece she had written in Aristos in April (“The Hijacking of Art Education”), Kamhi took aim at a movement that merits heightened public scrutiny and discussion: “social justice art,” a branch of the broader “visual culture” movement in art education. By thrusting this issue onto the stage, Kamhi has provided us with information about a disturbing trend in art education, and with an opportunity to hold a needed public discussion about education and the arts in a democratic society.
Art education is part of the educational mission regarding the young, which unavoidably entails making normative (and perhaps political) choices about the types of citizens we want to shape. But because liberal democracies are dedicated first and foremost to individual freedom and conscience (Lincoln said we are “consecrated” in liberty), state power and politics are limited. This means that art education in a liberal democracy will eschew the politicization of art, freeing the individual student to learn art for its own sake in a manner that cannot be reduced to politics and the state. This model of art education differs from the art education espoused by such thinkers as Plato and Rousseau, and various activists whose vision of art education is political, not aesthetic and individual. The “social justice” art movement points us decidedly in the direction of Rousseau than James Madison.
Just what is social justice art? In terms of definition and purpose, it is art in the service of such socially “progressive” causes as identity politics (“recognition”); greater equality through redistribution of resources; the environment; and critiques of the present social, economic, and political arrangements in the United States. The movement is propelled by a partnership between “art activists” and education school faculty, and it draws its inspiration from such sources as “critical theory” and the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire. Freire’s classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written to address the severe repression of peasants in Brazil in the 1960s. Applying Freire’s logic to the United States, education activists have come up with such concoctions as “Radical Math,” which incorporates radical politics into, of all things, mathematics. (See Sol Stern’s “The Propaganda in Our Ed Schools”: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2010/10/the_propaganda_in_our_ed_schoo.html ) The list of potential subjects for radicalization is vast; so enter art education.

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Financial Pain on the Campuses

On February 11 art-lovers packed a meeting room at Brandeis University to protest Brandeis’s plans to shut down its on-campus art museum and auction off the museum’s entire 6,000-piece collection. The list of holdings at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum, most of them donated since the museum’s opening in 1961, reads like a Who’s Who of prominent twentieth-century American artists – works by Max Ernst, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, among others – and is valued at $350 million. Museum curators, especially those associated with university – owned art collections, greeted Brandeis’s decision with shocked intimations that selling the art might violate ethical obligations to donors. Elsewhere in the art world there was fear that the fire-sale prices that the Rauschenbergs and Warhols might command if dumped onto today’s anemic, recession – beset market for luxury goods could depress the value of other art collections less stellar than Brandeis’s.

One thing is certain, however: Administrators and trustees at Brandeis, a well-regarded but not overly rich liberal arts-focused research university of about 3,900 students in Waltham, Mass., saw a need to act quickly and decisively to cut costs and raise cash at a time when nearly every university in America, private and public, is being hit by the double whammy of shrunken endowments (thanks to the tanking of Wall Street) and sharp downturns in revenues from both private donors and financially strapped state governments. Brandeis, founded in 1948 and named after the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, had an endowment valued at $712 million as of last June – pocket change compared to its neighbor Harvard’s $37 billion endowment – but Brandeis’s endowment is now reportedly worth only $530 million because of the market meltdown, Furthermore, many of Brandeis’s chief donors had invested heavily with alleged Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, a guarantee of financial wipeout. Indeed, Brandeis’s very largest donor; the family foundation of the clothing manufacturer and philanthropist Carl Shapiro, who had several campus buildings named after him, reportedly lost $545 million, nearly all its assets, to Madoff’s alleged pyramid of fraud. Although Brandeis denies investing any of its endowment with Madoff, it has admitted to serious investment losses, and its chief operating officer, Peter French, told the online magazine The Daily Beast that the university faces an operating deficit of $79 million over the next six years together with “a tapped-out reserve fund,” as the Beast’s Judith Dobrzynski wrote, and seriously strapped donors. According to French, Brandeis faced three alternatives: sell the art, shut down 40 percent of its campus buildings, or choose between firing 30 percent of its administrative staff or 200 of its 360 faculty members. Since original works of art are inspirational but not exactly germane to a college education (Brandeis had no art museum for its first thirteen years of existence), the university axed its art, not its buildings or employees – “We’d rather use Rose” to cut costs, French said.

In fact Brandeis is actually lucky to have valuable hard assets on hand to liquidate for a desperately needed cash infusion, and even luckier to have had generous donors in the past whose gifts constitute those assets. The university does not have to decide – at least not right now – whether to shrink its faculty, trim its administrative staff, reduce undersubscribed academic offerings, or deal with the costly results of an overhead-hiking campus construction spree when times looked flush earlier in the decade. Mark Williams, a senior lecturer at Boston University specializing in risk-management told the Bloomberg news organization that one of Brandeis’s problems was that it “overbuilt at the peak of the market.” In fact, according to Inside Higher Education, the Brandeis faculty recently formed a committee to review the curriculum and review such revenue-boosting or cost-cutting options as adding business and engineering programs to the university’s traditional liberal-arts offerings and replacing its existing majors and minors with (apparently cheaper in terms of faculty deployment) interdisciplinary “meta-majors” whose vague parameters have alarmed some professors, not so much because they might dilute standards or jettison, say, Brandeis’s longstanding but low-attendance courses in ancient Greek, but because they might result in eliminating entire departments and professorial jobs.

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Brandeis: Still Abusing A Professor

By William Creeley & Harvey Silverglate
Reaction to Brandeis University’s plan to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its esteemed collection was swift—and scathing. Within the Brandeis community, President Jehuda Reinharz’s proposed fire sale provoked howls of betrayal from students, faculty, alumni, and donors. In the art world and news media, the move was met with blistering condemnation. Even the Massachusetts attorney general’s office launched an investigation.
The press reported that Michael Rush, the Rose’s director, expressed “shame and deep regret” at the university’s plan. (Adding insult to injury, Rush was notified of Reinharz’s plan just an hour before the press release was issued.) In Rush’s assessment, by shuttering the Rose, Brandeis would place its “intellectual capital and very credibility as an institution of higher learning on the auction block.” That the museum director was not involved in such a momentous decision is perhaps as revealing and important as the decision itself.
A strict adherent to the corporate model of university governance, Reinharz responded to the furor with an empty apology, expertly crafted by a public relations firm to sound palatable while leaving the decision largely intact. But the backlash against Reinharz’s announcement stems not only from its wrong-headedness, but also from the arrogance and lack of process with which the decision was made.

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Don’t Forget The Abortion Art Advisor

The one thing that can be said about Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art major who either did or did not give herself a series of artificial inseminations followed by abortions as part of her senior project, is that she is only about 22 years old. That might explain her apparent unawareness of the health hazards to herself and others inherent in repeatedly inducing miscarriages and using the blood from those miscarriages as a medium for an art installation – and also the incoherent but postmodernistically pretentious description of her proposed artwork, a plastic-sheeting cube displaying blood, Vaseline, and videotaped images of four supposed self-induced abortions: “[T]he piece exists only in its telling. This telling can take textual, visual, spatial, temporal and performative forms . copies of copies of which there is no original.” Come again? Shvarts may be crazy, silly, or in the grip of a late-stage feminist protest against all that is “patriarchal” and “heteronormative,” as she puts it, but she does have her youth and her obviously limited exposure to the real world outside Yale to excuse her.

The same can’t be said, however, for the other person involved in the creation of Shvarts’s project, which Yale has refused to install unless and until Schvarts admits (which she won’t) that it is a “creative fiction,” not a record of actual abortions, and that it doesn’t involve the use of human blood: That other person is Shvarts’s faculty adviser, Pia Lindman, a Finnish-born, New York-based self-styled performance artist who was hired as an art instructor at Yale in the fall of 2007 and has shepherded Shvarts’s project since the beginning of the school year. Born in 1965 and thus well into her 40s (old enough to know better, in short), Lindman had served as an art instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 2004-2005 academic year. You would think that as an experienced faculty member at a prestigious Ivy League university such as Yale, Lindman would have had the presence of mind to realize that the seeming trivialization of abortion would offend even the most staunchly pro-choice, and that blood is usually classified as biohazardous waste matter. Not to mention the artistic judgment to question whether plastic sheeting and videotapes of a naked undergraduate flaunting her presumed miscarriages add up to a work of art.

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