A UTOPIAN AND HOPEFUL PROPOSAL FOR AN INTENSIVE, LOW COST BFA (WITH THE HOPE OF RETURNING HUMANITY, ETHICS AND SANITY TO ART EDUCATION)

What follows is a shortened version of a proposal for curricular overhaul submitted at Pacific Northwest College of Art when I was assistant professor. The proposal resulted in a very successful one-month pilot (see Whole Live Animal, “Notes on an Experiment”). I post this on the occasion of an action by my former colleagues in response to the further devaluation of faculty labor by the board of the college. I also post this as a gift to anyone who might be looking to create a new educational space. Use what you can, retool or rewrite. This was meant to be a provocation for rethinking the value structure of higher education.

 

A corporate and utilitarian discourse now dominates higher education. We are told that the only way forward is to treat students as customers and faculty as interchangeable servers. This utilitarian approach maintains that education should only function as a gateway to employment. This is of course, a hare-brained and dangerous path. If we want to transform the art world we need to start with how we train artists. If we chase the mirage of unfettered growth and exterior relevancy the horizon will always be just beyond the hill. We’ll die of thirst in the meantime. The questions we should ask do not involve comparisons with other institutions. We should ask ourselves what our strengths are. How do we bring the world to us on our terms? We shouldn’t stand and itch in someone else’s ill-fitting clothes. Let us truly innovate. Let us be truly bold.

My program would do away completely with the 16 week, four class a semester model. This would be a year round, three-year curriculum. Students would pay significantly less tuition for this program but it would be highly competitive. It is small-scaled, hands-on, nature-based and humane. This program is designed to give space for the student to truly learn. Process is the goal, not the closed loop of a finished product. It is designed to introduce a new student to a vast field of ideas laying a lifelong foundation as an intellectual and artistic leader.

As a first task, students build their own studio spaces. The studio is the space through which the student thinks and learns. In place of a menu of classes, there would be monthly symposia giving an intensive three-day burst of lectures and discussion with faculty from liberal arts. Symposia faculty would assign readings beforehand so that students come in prepared. There would be biweekly intensive two-day workshops with studio faculty that cover specific studio techniques. The focus in the symposium will be on primary texts. One can’t understand a Marxist reading of Milton if you don’t understand Milton and Marx on their own terms first.

First year students would only use rudimentary materials. We often forget that digital technologies are simply one kind of technology. As a program leader I would maintain a studio practice with the students. We all work together. Again the studio is the hub around which all activities revolve. Each week the program leader would deliver a prepared lecture. Everyday in the studio we would make and eat lunch together and have discussions as a part of our practice. As a group we will engage all the arts in our city. We will regularly attend galleries, plays, concerts, films, lectures, dance, readings etc. Studio practice is an extended conversation through material. What do other disciplines have to teach us?

The first summer of the program, students would apprentice and intern with a working artist. The chosen artists would teach the student about their particular media and studio practice. Second year students would help develop the symposia and act as secondary mentors for first years. The second summer students would be required to study abroad or somewhere distant in the U.S. as a group. The final year students develop a body of work and a line of intellectual inquiry. Students are then responsible for mounting their own exhibitions, publications etc.

If we are in the business of training artists it begs the question, “what is an artist?” Instead of looking elsewhere for validation to that question, we can shape it ourselves. This program embraces the ethos that permeates the city. Rooted in direct experience and apprenticeship this BFA goes beyond manual skills. This program, steeped in the humanities helps mold the intellectual life of the student as well. It allows the student to get an education in an intensive manner. The bond between student, faculty and mentor creates a rich homegrown art ecology.

What I am proposing is in fact a very old model whose time I believe has returned. The answer to defining success is in our hands, through connections that already exist using resources we already have. Instead of chasing a mercurial path set by someone else, we can set our own and become leaders.

My sense of our current students is that they are already exposed in their day-to-day to copious amounts of digital technology. They have so many choices as it is. What they are looking for is a focused program, one that is affordable and gives them experiences they can’t necessarily have on their own. This program gives a student a very rigorous and meaningful experience– an experience closer to the truth of being a practicing artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. This also allows students to get the education done intensively and finishing earlier.

The secret to the success of this as a program is to flip the current relationship of high tuition for students and low pay for a large faculty. The tuition should be significantly lower and the support and pay for the fewer faculty higher. Fewer choices reduce cost. There are no surprises in terms of offerings since students are going through the same symposia together.

What I have listed below is an ideal for the whole program.

I. SCHEDULE OF PROGRAM

 

A.    Year one

1.     Students build their own studio spaces

2.     Weekly lectures by lead studio faculty

3.     Monthly 3 day symposia (see details below)

4.     Ongoing studio projects based on readings and prompts

5.     Weekly communal lunches with students take turns cooking (this goes through all years)

6.     Weekly cultural excursions (gallery openings, theater, dance, concerts, lectures etc.)

7.     Bi-weekly intensive studio workshops

8.     End of year evaluation

9.     Application to summer internship

10.  Summer of 1st year is spent in apprenticeship with working artist

 

B.    Year two

1.     Mentorship role for first years

2.     Assist in planning symposia

3.     Take on studio tech role

4.     Language courses for summer trip

5.     Weekly cultural excursions (gallery openings, theater, dance, concerts etc.)

6.     Evaluation to continue

7.     Summer group trip abroad

 

C.    Year three

1.     Students propose individual course of study

2.     Student teachers and assistants at symposia

3.     Choose mentor for final project

4.     Invite curators and critics for studio visits

5.     Design and create individual exhibitions/publications

6.     Apply for residencies, grants, commissions etc.

7.     Final oral defense of project

 

II. SYMPOSIA

Symposia deliver the intellectual and conceptual groundwork of a liberal arts education in an intensive, cross-disciplinary manner. Symposia subjects would include lectures and workshops with cross-disciplinary scholars. All assigned readings would be done before the start of the symposia. Symposia act as a philosophical and theoretical engine for the studio work.

 

 

III. FACULTY POSITIONS

All faculty are full time with full benefits. Faculty have full governance over curricular affairs.

 

Lead studio faculty:

The lead studio faculty maintains a studio practice in the same space as the students. Lead faculty must deliver a weekly lecture, plan excursions, coordinate symposia, coordinate workshops and oversee end of year evaluation. In addition the lead faculty oversees group activities for first years (such as lunches and cultural excursions). Lead faculty does not teach during the summer. Lead faculty is expected to maintain an active studio, publishing and research practice. Time off will be given for lead faculty to maintain this practice. The faculty is expected to bring those contacts and connections back to the students.

 

Master faculty:

Master faculty oversees a specific area (welding, printmaking, painting etc.). The role of master faculty is to maintain a working studio. Master faculty will deliver intensive workshops based in technique. Master faculty will maintain studio facilities and manage studio techs. Master faculty assist students on technical issues with projects. Master faculty must maintain a studio practice within the facility.

 

Liberal Arts:

Liberal arts faculty delivers symposia lectures. Like studio faculty, liberal arts must maintain an active publishing and research practice. Regular attendance of conferences is mandatory.

 

Lead curator:

The lead curator works with faculty to bring in dynamic exhibitions linked to curricula. The lead curator’s role links the position of the college within the city as a whole and the wider world of visual art. The lead curator must also work with students on their final exhibitions. Like studio faculty and liberal arts, the curator must maintain an active publishing and research practice. Regular attendance of conferences is mandatory. The goal is to connect to artists and thinkers globally.

 

 

 

The ignominious closing of Museum of Contemporary Craft

I have tried to write this many times. Every attempt to stave off the rage and sadness I feel about the ransacking and dissolution of the Museum of Contemporary Craft by Pacific Northwest College of Art leaks back into the writing. So I will leave the floodgates ajar. On Wednesday February 3, 2016 a letter came from interim president Casey Mills that the building on Davis Street where MoCC is currently housed will be sold for condos and the collection absorbed into the amorphously named “Center for Contemporary Art and Culture”. Craft apparently is a dirty word. The letter contained the usual sad shoulder shrug of “nothing more could be done but we will respect the history”. There’s a lot of thuggery behind that letter. I’ve never seen a similar statement from CEOs in hostile takeovers that didn’t result in exactly disrespect for the history of an institution.

 

I am sad and angry because I had my first big show at the then Contemporary Crafts Gallery and wrote many essays for exhibitions at the museum. It was not always the place for the cool kids, but it was a place with deep rich roots and a venerable history. For years under the dynamic hand of Namita Wiggers and then Sarah Margolis-Pineo, MoCC had some of the only shows in town that seemed to have a reach beyond the city limits. In fact the influence extends over the years into international territory. And the shows were smart. For all the academic patois and MFA art speak around “radicality” and “criticality” it is in craft where the voices of women, indigenous cultures and working people are first heard. And they are heard respectfully often on their own terms. The current interest in ceramics (see the NY Times Style section) practices an unforgivable amnesia. Decades of scholarship and education are glossed over by callow “makers”. MoCC always struggled in its history but it managed to be a site for hundreds of craftspeople and preserved their history.

The current board of PNCA has been on a campaign like many other art institutions to build monuments with no regard to the life inside them. The move to the new 511 building and the acquisition and dissolution of MoCC are part of a campaign to use the school (one of the oldest art schools on the west coast) as a prop for real estate values. The board is full of people whose professions are union busting, bankruptcy and development. I taught at PNCA for 14 years. In the last several years the board and former president Tom Manley have systematically eroded the labor rights of faculty and increasingly marginalize students. At this point it is not clear that PNCA’s priorities are that of a site for art education. In fact the new building where MoCC’s collection will supposedly be housed prioritizes rented corporate parties over student work. It is difficult to believe that such a body that so devalues the labor of its own faculty could be trusted with a collection that is itself a celebration of human labor.

Further there is the erasing of the word “craft”. Many who imagine themselves progessives and stalwarts of the contemporary think of craft as some limited, regional and bygone category. Craft is much more expansive in its confidence to claim a certain territory. It is through ceramics that I began to consider brick making in Tunisia, Quebec bread ovens, tile making and dinner plates in the same spectrum as Robert Smithson, Francisco Goya and Ingres. In fact the very spinelessness of “Center for Contemporary Art and Culture” displays a complete disdain for art in general. PNCA is now an institution that is in fact embarrassed by and shies away from directly talking about “art”. That is because it is run by people who see the only value of art as a backdrop for cocktail parties and fundraisers. Craft claims something human. I believe it is less conservative than most contemporary art being produced today because despite contemporary art’s claims to the contrary it relies so heavily on the mechanizations of new capital.

I know that cities are dynamic and change. Things grow. Things die. The cycle of life, the daily excursions and celebrations of a human body exist in the objects in the permanent collection at MoCC. They can be deeply unfashionable. The responsibility of an institution housing a museum is to protect the objects and history from the vagaries of a vain and fickle fashion. PNCA has failed spectacularly in its role as a steward. There are objects in that collection that don’t immediately seem important. I am reminded of a Glen Lukens bowl. Small, crackled, uncool. Lukens was an important west coast teacher and the bowl has a quiet power. It has a lot to tell us if we only close our mouths and listen.

 

Notes on an experiment

This past summer I ran a pilot for a program that I hope will change the way art is taught in American art schools. I know that first sentence sounds grandiose and maybe reveals a deluded sense of self-importance. Allow me to explain the premise of the program. My view of our current students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art where I currently teach is that they are saturated with copious amounts of digital technology. Choices abound. I sense they crave a truly focused program– one that is affordable and gives them experiences they can’t necessarily have on their own. This program gives a student a rigorous experience through an apprenticeship style modeling of studio work. Practice and theory are seamlessly integrated. In short, an experience modeled on the truth of life as a working artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. This allows students to get the education done intensively and finish early. The program as I conceive it in its final form flips the current relationship of high tuition for students and low pay for a large disenfranchised faculty. The tuition should be significantly lower and the support and pay for the smaller faculty higher. Fewer choices reduce cost. Out with the 16 week, four class a semester model. This would be a year round, three-year curriculum. It is small-scaled, hands-on, nature-based and humane. The studio is the space through which the student thinks and learns. In place of a menu of classes, there would be regular symposia giving intensive three-day bursts of lectures. Studio and liberal arts faculty would maintain workspaces on campus modeling through their own work. The college would become a true institution of art production. This pilot was the truncated version of the fuller utopian vision.

From July 21st-August 15th 2014 we ran The Ground Beneath Us at PNCA. The college had recently created something called The Ideas Initiative. A pool of money is set aside to run labs and experiments ostensibly to innovate the culture and curriculum of the college. At the moment higher education boards and administrations chant the mantra of “disruption” which generally means devaluing labor and replacing everything with new Silicon Valley gadgets. My proposal grew out of frustration. I have been at PNCA for 13 years and teaching at the college level for 15. I’m at the end of my rope with higher education in general and in particular the misshapen evolution of art schools. In the past five years tuition has gone up 50% while faculty pay has stagnated from an already low plateau. Administrations grow exponentially both in size and salary. Money seems to be present for new buildings and computer equipment but not for shop techs, kilns or any other analog but nonetheless useful equipment that lacks the whiz-bang appeal of the new. I threw down the proposal as a gauntlet. Either I needed to affect some change or return to bartending (which would be an ignominious move but one about as profitable as teaching). To my surprise, the proposal was the first of the batch to pass.

Having leaped over the first hurdle of getting the proposal passed I had a bruising journey through the rancorous labyrinth of academic administration. I chose art historian Joan Handwerg, my colleague, as a partner to deliver the liberal arts component of the pilot. We were tasked with compressing into a month what would eventually be a three-year program. Joan and I went from committee to committee trying to get all the necessaries aligned. We discovered accreditation hinders most innovation. I couldn’t help but note that colleagues who agreed with our premise privately would become academic apparatchiks on committees. One thing the experiment revealed is the prevailing sense of powerlessness that courses through academic institutions. Having secured a space (the sculpture building with individual studios and an extra classroom for our makeshift kitchen) shop techs (I decided to forgo a TA and hired our out-of-work for the summer techs) and the final six students who could commit to the rigorous month we commenced.

The title The Ground Beneath Us gave us a subject to hang on the experimental structure of the class. Both Joan and I share a love of American art. The focus on American art also gave us an excuse to center the bare bones pilot on what can be achieved locally. This local focus contextualized art made in Portland within a larger national and international framework. The class by its nature was media blind. Among our six students we had a woodworker, 3 printmakers (one of whom is branching out into performance), an animator/painter and an animator/zine maker/searcher. If such a class were centered on a single medium such as ceramics cohesion would be easier. I can imagine a classroom situation with this kind of intensity focused on one discipline. The depth of inquiry would be substantial. However, the richest outcomes emerged from cross-pollination of ideas (not to mention openness to experimentation).

The heart of the class came during lunches. I bought local produce from farmer Lacey Riddle who runs a small farm near Portland called Small Heart Farm. With a crockpot and a hot plate we cooked together everyday. Someone would start cooking around 11:30. Sit down was generally 12:30. Each lunch was proceeded by the reading of a poem. Everyone was responsible for cooking and cleaning including Joan and I. We generally broke up and took a break around two o’clock. The lunches leveled the relationship between professor and student. Our conversations had a richness that is rarely achieved in a typical classroom. We also had lunch guests including the novelist Jon Raymond (we all read his novel The Half-Life) and visiting New York artist Marina Zurkow. We did a lunchtime sewing circle at the SE Portland studio of artist Marie Watt.

Each student was given a studio. I also kept a studio next to them. We had the run of the 3D building. The 3D building is the scrappiest of PNCA’s studios. It lacks the sheen and gleam of the design studios. No up-to-date computers, melamine tables or Design Within Reach chairs. Its provisional nature suited us perfectly. The individual studios are back behind the metal shop. Joan delivered her lectures in the air-conditioned classrooms upstairs (the studios in the summer are sweltering). The woodshop, metal and ceramic techs kept hours for tutorials and technical assistance. This insistence on having a studio space is central to my philosophy for the larger program. If students have to wait to earn a studio in the junior and senior years, they miss out on building good studio habits. Plus, how can we expect ambitious work if they have to cart their materials all over the place? The studio is a place to think through a material. Having one’s own space in proximity of others builds camaraderie, competition and osmotic learning. You get skin in the game right off the bat.

Despite the rigor of the 40-hour plus workweeks Joan and I had a hard time getting everything done we wanted to. I needed to balance open studio time with research and reading. The first few days were awkward as we fidgeted to get our stride. The first day I had the students do a site-specific piece in their studios. They literally marked their territory. I had planned to do smaller prompts each day for studio projects, but found the days disappearing fast. As we eased into the second week with feedback from the students I recalibrated the structure a bit. This was an experiment after all and we needed to test as much as we could. We opted for week-long projects with smaller individual critiques. Even then I needed to pull back to give uninterrupted work time.

There is very little day-to-day flow in the current structure of art school.  Each week is like an interrupted anthology, picking up last week’s fragment from among the other ongoing narratives. I can’t help but notice how the affect of accreditation pressures shape class time. We often don’t give art students time to just work. Work time is expected in out of class homework but the bulk of time in a studio course is often taken up with things other than making. Now don’t mistake that last sentiment as an anti-intellectual dig at theory and the humanities. Reading, looking and making are central to the ethos of the pilot.

I would like to see a learning situation closer to the way we learn outside these structures– intensity and immersion followed by reflection. John Cage’s eighth rule for students and teachers is don’t try to analyze and create at the same time. But that’s exactly how art schools are structured. We ask for analysis before an artwork is even made. This structure comes from assessment requirements for accreditation. It has nothing to do with how we really learn. The result is what one of our students called “homework art”.

I should say here that while this was happening, my mother was dying. I found out the diagnosis the Saturday before the start of the program. During the first week I was glued to my phone as reports came in from my brothers in New Hampshire. Each night I spoke with my Mom and heard her voice fading. I thought I might have a couple weeks to get back to New Hampshire to see her. Then in a matter of a day I was to fly east at the end of the week. She died on Friday. She had passed into the final stages the day I was meant to leave. I had just been on the East Coast visiting my parents two weeks before. She had her bladder removed with the idea that would stall the cancer invisibly creeping through her body. The rest of the month was colored by this sadness. That first two weeks I went about as if I had a fish-bowlful of water over my eyes and ears. But working helped me keep even. I had planned a series of work to make alongside my students. I ended up making my mother’s urn for the memorial that would take place the week after the pilot ended. With the death of my mother and the intensity of getting the pilot off the ground, what is and isn’t important sharpened into focus. The urn was no theoretical problem to solve. It was a fact. I was making an object  of great significance for a very real purpose.

Joan and I decided early on that product was less important than process. When I would talk to administration or colleagues about the pilot as it was happening the inevitable question was, “are they making good stuff?” I realized that I didn’t give a fig about “stuff.” But “stuff” would be the only mark of success or failure. A month turns out to be quite short. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of engaged experimentation with the need for “homework art”. The final project was a photocopy exhibition of an art historical theme presented by Joan in her lectures. Students had to create a line of inquiry, an annotated bibliography and choose a series of images that support the idea. This was all preliminary research. Sketches for a bigger endeavor. The same was true of their studio work. I pushed them to try mediums they hadn’t used before. Things could fall apart and fail. By the end all six students were ready to take all this rich compost and turn it into their studio work. Normally it takes us a full semester of a pre-thesis class to accomplish the same thing.

I sat in on Joan’s lectures. It was so illuminating to sit in a colleague’s class as a student and learn new ways of teaching. Of course Joan would include me in the presentations but I got so much from someone else’s expertise. In a larger program I can see the usefulness of colleagues being each other’s students as well. A college at its best is a brain trust, but because of disciplinary silos and distrust caused by scarce resources faculty rarely get to learn from one another.

Joan and I found that the more agency the students possessed, the more they could be trusted. In a small intimate setting students pushed each other. I also think having no grades and assignments actually motivated them more. Often in my regular classes I feel like a parent. I have to keep reiterating the most basic classroom behavior. There is a sense of entitlement but no agency. In the pilot, we were all in it together. If we had more time, we could have really deepened the connections between each other and our immediate environment. Through the specificity and lack of distraction the students in The Ground Beneath Us gained more openness and freedom than in the usual structure. I think this is the way art should be taught.

My big question underlying this experiment goes beyond art school to the art world. What should an artist know and how should that artist be part of the larger society? The manner in which most art schools teach art is increasingly corporate. Our schools are producing very competent mediocre professionals. There’s no mess and no grit. I took a good deal of my thinking about the program from my background in ceramics. I think of the many craft schools that were started in the mid twentieth century that had very similar goals. All the once radical conceptual art schools now look more like less marketable Silicon Valley startups. What is a student to do?

The question of a client based curriculum versus a studio curriculum dogs many art schools. Because of astronomical tuition, utility rules the day. Whenever I bring up this model as a school wide solution to these questions I am told that accreditation makes it impossible. This answer of “well it’s the system. What can you do?” is unacceptable. Systems are not handed down from deities they represent very human power structures. Those who stand to gain from social inertia and exhausted resignation don’t want to hear about alternatives.

Here’s what I learned this summer– making is thinking. Manipulating materials within an intellectual framework is one of the most complex activities one can do. It cannot always be assessed through rigid metrics. Perhaps it is time to challenge accreditation boards on the delivery of curriculum. It is also time to stop apologizing about the artist’s vocation as something frivolous. If anything at this time in history, we need thinking makers who can reflect on the culture as a whole. Entrepreneurs aren’t really visionary. They’re mercenary and following those corporate pied pipers seems to me be the most frivolous thing we can do. I’ll stake my claim with the slow burn, the reflective and the deep seeking artists of tomorrow any day.  

 

Dispatch #7

Art school is generally regarded as a frivolous choice for a college degree. Art school is often seen as a luxury for the entitled and undisciplined. To counter this perception art schools over the past two decades have become increasingly corporate minded. Using euphemisms like “creatives”, “entrepreneurs” and almost anything but “artist” most art schools pose as liberal arts research institutions or business schools with better graphics. In the rush for market respectability art schools have forgotten their main function: teaching art. Now, I understand that the current field of art requires more diverse skills than those of the 19th century atelier. But even the most avant-garde artist requires training for the alchemy of skillfully manipulated materials in the service of contemplation. Even though art and the artists that make it are considered non-essential to the economy, it is worth noting that the art market is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Art is essential to the culture, which is a living thing that can’t be reduced to pie charts. I would argue that the ability to engage in critical thought through the making of things has value through the whole culture. The two questions at hand then are what does an artist need from a school and how should that training be delivered?

I am an adjunct professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon. I have been teaching at the college level for 15 years. I regularly make, exhibit and write about art. I am no celebrity. I am one of the many workaday artists that make up the art world. Artists like myself little receive little attention in the press because I am part of a working class of artists not one the of blue chip stars patronized by the 1%. I represent the space most working artists in the U.S. occupy. As in the larger economy the loss of a vibrant middle class, the loss of a thriving artistic middle starves the culture and ultimately kills the economy. Unfortunately most colleges inadequately train for the working life. Students need to be trained for that middle way of the vocation. “Vocational” schools connote slackers who can’t hack real college instead of the truer sense of the word vocation. A vocation is a calling more than a career. In a career you stack up resume hits. A vocation is a life-long devotion. As art schools (like most higher education institutions) mimic corporate structures they treat students as consumers and faculty as low wage unskilled labor. While slashing faculty pay, senior administrators lavish money on outside consultants and branding firms. Boards push the institution into the purchase of extravagant real estate. Cooper Union for the first time in its history is charging tuition because of such shenanigans. So what exactly are art schools preparing students for? Academic life? Corporate minded college boards devalue faculty labor to save their own bottom lines. There are very few avenues for full time teaching (and these opportunities dwindle by the day). Art celebrity? Look at professional sports and you’ll see the distance between the farm league and the majors. Since the recession the market shake out has left little in-between Art Superstardom at galleries like Gagosian and DIY self-marketing on Etsy.

It is increasingly untenable to support our current higher education models. The Harvard model of ever increasing expansion is not a realistic approach for more than a handful of institutions. At this point, I must be clear that I am speaking to the education of visual artists. I can’t speak to other disciplines but I suspect that there are corollary concerns in other fields. I also understand that many readers will have little sympathy for a professor, let alone an art professor and working artist. But I warn those readers to consider that the disregard for another worker’s plight only leads to a devaluing of one’s own labor. For, despite the popular image of the artist as a flighty and silly provocateur the artist is a worker. A maker of culture. Whether or not you like or “get” the work art plays an integral part in the ecology and economy of the culture. When a school tries to ape the market values of a corporation it misses the most essential part of its mission: education. The process of a true education is messy, contradictory and inherently not efficient. Because, let’s face it the efficiency of major corporations is itself a fiction concocted out of myopic number crunching.

This summer my colleague, art historian Joan Handwerg and I will be piloting what we hope is an equitable and ethical model for an art school. Through a small fund provided by PNCA to test new models we will pilot an apprenticeship-based curriculum. This willingness to take a risk and seek a way out of the current educational bind demonstrates foresight on the part of the college. The model is actually based on older modes of teaching art. It has antecedents in the Art Student’s League and Black Mountain College. The liberal arts and the studio component are fully integrated. Students cook and eat together creating an atmosphere of conviviality and camaraderie. The students each have small studios and I work alongside them. Our curriculum includes symposium style delivery of art history and field trips all going right back into studio work. The classes take advantage of the physical experience of the place and the proximity of studio mates. Portland is outside of the power centers of the art world. The locality offers up the opportunity to model after artists who work outside the margins. We believe the most radical and fruitful thinking for an artist’s education occurs through person-to-person transmission, direct physical experience on site and intensive and rigorous twining of theory and practice.

The pilot tests the ability to flip our existing power structures.  Currently students pay large tuitions and faculty see more pay cuts and disenfranchisement. In the existing semester system, students are offered a menu of courses from which they construct a patchwork semester. They have three hours here, six hours there and then the inevitable part time job to try and pay for school. In order to maintain the menu an increasing host of part time faculty wait with baited breath to see if their class will go. The experience is disjointed for both student and faculty. Most high paid “disruption consultants” hired by colleges suck on the ether of new technology– massive online courses, unskilled staff members teaching instead of experienced artists, iPads instead of physical books. We disagree with this assessment. Those approaches only serve bottom lines and further disenfranchisement. Digital technology is a useful tool but only one among many. And this generation of students has plenty of choice through those digital technologies. I believe many are hungry for an immersive, physical learning experience. It is an experience closer to the truth of being a practicing artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. The student doesn’t experience the false separation between “real life” and school. The ultimate vision (this is not shared by all parties who benefit from the current system) is an art school that is affordable to a wide range of students, honors experienced working artist/teachers both in title and remuneration and becomes a generative institution that is training, supporting and creating art.

Is it possible to reroute the institution away from its current destructive path that can only lead to a pyrrhic victory? We hope that this small experiment will help turn art schools towards something much more sustainable and ethical. There are a growing number of working artists frustrated by the toxic conditions of colleges and universities and starting their own schools. I applaud that impulse. But wouldn’t it be better to overhaul our existing schools? Our current art institutions are akin to a cocoon that believes it is the star of the show not the metamorphosing caterpillar it was meant to protect. The road we’re on is leading to a world of very big cocoons without much life inside them. Because here’s the truth, even if artists and art schools are considered as something frivolous, they are necessary to the health of our culture and economy. Popular economists tend to essentialize what is and what is not important to the economy missing the larger messier truth. I don’t subscribe to the “art saves lives” line. (Too prescriptive and utilitarian). Speaking of utilitarian, the reason that art is often sidelined as a losing proposition or the bauble of the wealthy has more to do with reductive market metrics than the actual function of art in our lives. I believe our culture puts too much stress on the quantifiable and efficient. Business ethos can’t and shouldn’t apply to every facet of life. Art and artists teach us to embrace the contradictory, to value the seemingly useless and find meaning in the cracks between calcified belief systems. Shouldn’t we teach the future’s artists in an atmosphere that fosters broad thinking instead of rote professionalism? I hope that this summer’s experiment is one small ripple among the many around the country that joins the great tide sweeping away corporate education and returns learning to a humane and place based endeavor.

 

 

 

Dispatch # 6

Snow is falling in Portland, Oregon. Thick, white fluffy snow– the snow of childhood sense memory. Good sticky snow is a rare occurrence in the Rose City. Rain dominates. Reputation aside, this year has been one of the driest on record. Whole autumn weeks felt more like my native New England than the damp Pacific Northwest. Clear skies and crisp cold air dominated the holiday season. In 1996, my first year in Portland there were ninety days straight of rain. Now drought looms. The snow is in Portland but I am not. I am in Scottsdale, Arizona looking at Facebook posts of winter revelry from our neighborhood while the desert sun hides behind clouds. Between the overcast sky above my body, my heart longing to be in the snowstorm at home and this little smartphone in my hands I am nowhere. Simultaneously three landscapes I have intimately known beckon. I look at my six year old daughter Devlin (sad she is missing the snow) and wonder if nature is disappearing.

 When the Arizona sun finally emerges to raise the temperature enough to remove my sweater I am in the Heard Museum looking at small landscape paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. I am having a moment that only comes when looking at art but expecting nothing from it in return. Normally O’Keeffe is an artist whose ubiquity in reproduction drains the painting’s vitality. I’m not a huge fan. This visit began in a perfunctory fashion– something to do with your in-laws to pass the time.  My wife Tracy and I were visiting her parents in Scottsdale with the very innocent assumption that we would be getting a few days worth of sunlight before we return to the long gray slog of a Portland Spring. Growing up in Connecticut may have shaped my body and early memories but I came of age in the Southwest. Tracy and I met when I was 22 years old. I had just recently busted out of New England for adventure in Albuquerque. Being in your twenties is not unlike being six in that you are a raw nerve and the world is full of possibility. Place imprints itself powerfully on your psyche when you go through the landscape with your soul opened at full throttle– so with the Rio Grande Valley and me. That vibrational oneness with the vitality of life rang me as I looked at one of O’Keeffe’s small paintings from near her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I am reminded of the many times I experienced that same earth with my own body. Suddenly I am in my twenties again and I remember so much that I’d forgotten– a desire to caress the world before me, to be unencumbered by the weight of bureaucratic blinders. I am reminded that my memories of pace were formed before the internet. Outside of the museum, even though Phoenix is a non- city, the O’Keeffe paintings put a powerful lens before my eyes. I can now see the desert behind the crushing banality of four lane roads and low-slung corporate mini-malls.

 Now, I’m not supposed to be speaking like this. I am a professor at an art college and I know as well as you might that to be taken in by a painting (particularly one by such a middle-brow painter) is the height of foolishness. In contemporary art theory it is assumed that painting is a dying proposition and that landscape paintings are full of hidden signifiers about gender, colonialism and class. All true to an extent. Once you’ve cleansed with the bracing sandpapered soap of contemporary art theory it’s hard to enjoy much. We are also told that late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists engaged in landscape painting cannot be taken at face value. From the enlightened perspective of the present where we are lucky to know so much more than our ancestors those painters appear to be unwittingly naïve saps. They had lots of romantic notions about transcendence and the beknighted place of art in the modern world. Bourgeois chumps. I began my artistic life believing those chumps. Before I was a professor I was a romantic sap that read poetry and thought art was transcendent. Then I got straight. But I also forgot to listen to songbirds or stop in the cool of the evening while the wind blew the treetops. I bracketed everything with ironic asides and agitated my direct experiences with theoretical overlay. I have no business swooning over a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Nor paying frequent visits to another painting at The Portland Art Museum called The Ice Cutters.

 I frequently take my Theory and Practice class at Pacific Northwest College of Art to the Portland Art Museum to look at art. It sounds strange to say but art students now spend so much time on screens that they have forgotten how to look at physical things. (I should really say that they never learned how to look at art objects). PAM has a middling collection of American art. It’s better to see a small Bierstadt in person than none at all.  Students march glassy eyed through the gallery and dutifully look at late nineteenth century landscape paintings. Certainly this era and genre of art is about as boring as it gets. It suggests fusty drawing rooms and dandified bourgeois painters. As an avid practitioner, consumer and lover of contemporary art I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed by my embrace of this conservative tradition.

 There is a small genre painting by Julian Alden Weir called The Ice Cutters tucked in the corner of the American art gallery. While I send my students– journals in their hands– to go look at works that pertain to the week’s readings I dash away to visit The Ice Cutters. It is an unassuming and frankly minor genre landscape painting. The titular figures are rendered with thick brush strokes. The foreground dominates the bottom third of the canvas. The ice and snow is a fugue of close-valued whites– creams, bones and slate. This section of the painting just sends me. I can’t get enough of the thick meringues of brushstrokes next to varnished glassy flats. On a purely physical level the creaminess of the thing is satisfying like pudding. The whites against the barely delineated mass of brown trees and the peek of slate blue sky are all consistent with any other impressionist genre painting of the era. There is no revolution at work here. In fact I know nostalgia is part of what tugs at me. The painting exactly mimics the winters I remember from growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

 Weir worked during the late-nineteenth century in my home state of Connecticut. He probably painted The Ice Cutters around his farm in Windham north of Bridgeport.  As a child I spent many of my days poking around The Pond. The Pond was a small muddy body of water fed by a couple of tiny brooks. It stood like a crater between three different neighborhoods. The area must have been part of some development dispute because it cut off what would otherwise have been continuously connected streets. One side was Remington Arms the gun maker. They owned a large tract of wooded land guarded by cyclone fencing. I saw the biggest painter turtle of my life just on the other side of that fence. Otherwise it was where the burnouts smoked dope and lit fires and during the winter we would go ice skating. I remember the scrubby brambles and bare deciduous trees against the slate colored frozen sky. The dark ice that grew brittle where the brook entered and made muffled murmurs as cracks shifted underfoot. The Pond is gone now. It has been paved over and developed with houses and condos. It exists vividly in my dreams and comes back every time I look at The Ice Cutters.

 Devlin doesn’t have a Pond. We live next to a terrific public park. There are big oaks throughout the park and our yard is full of birds and other urban wildlife. She doesn’t wander around in nature as unfettered as I remember doing as a child. It is this reason I have begun to suspect that nature is disappearing and Devlin won’t have the same sense of wonder I had. That we were looking at our hometown covered in snow on our smartphones while trying to connect to a desert landscape through the willfully commercial structures of Phoenix only accentuated the feeling of disconnected mediation. Even one day in the snow like that could give her the embodied memory that The Ice Cutters recalled for me. That same Sunday in The New York Times Porter Fox wrote an op-ed piece called “The End of Snow” about the rapidly decreasing snowline of the planet. Fox writes, “I was floored by how much snow had already disappeared from the planet, not to mention how much was predicted to melt in my lifetime.” Despite the sleet and dripping icicles outside my window the sense of regret and loss pulsed like background radiation.

 My daughter Devlin has only known a few good snows– the last a few years ago when she was three. Just the week before we left she was wistfully conjuring a snow day in her imagination. For Devlin’s sake alone I wish we were back home. We will make it back in time for some of the snow just before it transforms into freezing rain. Devlin will get a chance at 8:30 on the Sunday morning when we return to sled down the icy hills of Irving Park. She will have missed the previous two days when a wintry scene worthy of a Breughel painting had hundreds of kids sledding in the thick snow. The near miss of a meteorological event irritated the nagging feeling that my daughter doesn’t play outside as much as I did. I’m trying to sort out if this anxiety arises because I am middle aged with a degrading body whose receptors dull my perception. Such distillation of childhood memory however is a tenuous hook on which to hang a hat. Nonetheless I get the sinking feeling that the natural world is disappearing before my eyes.

 Forgive my droopy carping on about loss and regret. If I’m so worried about my daughter’s lack of nature why don’t I stop looking at paintings and go hiking? That is a very good point. I am a townie by nature despite my frequent readings of intrepid naturalists. The Pond was a dumpy vernacular water hole accessible through a cut in the fence behind the field of Thomas Hooker School. Hardly a teeming wilderness. But some of my most illuminating moments of connection to the natural world occurred in neighborhoods. Last November on the way home from Concord after visiting my parents we stopped at Walden Pond. We went into a replica of Thoreau’s cabin (which Devlin found creepy and full of ghosts). We walked around the manicured shore of Walden Pond before heading back to Boston to fly home. Whenever I get sulky about my recalcitrant towniness I remember that Thoreau rooted his sense of travel and adventure in local soil. I can give that to her. The vividness of embodied experience is something one must will into being. Or just stop moping around about the end of nature.

 Both the painting by Weir and O’Keeffe’s late oeuvre are deeply twined with a specific landscape. Weir was profoundly engaged in the land around his Connecticut farm. The main difference between the two is that Weir really was a painter for the drawing room. He typified the gentleman artist of the late nineteenth century. Frankly I find most of his other paintings dreadfully dull. I just happen to have a relationship with this particular picture. There is something inherently parochial about that era of American Impressionism. In its assertive middle class good taste it leaves little for the viewer to do. Landscape painting can be quite impotent in the face of experience. It tends to be too neat and tidy. Landscape painting particularly from this era is all about the eye as removed from the bodily senses. And yet that little painting provokes me. I think that the painting does something that paintings do quite well. It marshals the inchoate mess that is memory and longing. Art serves to organize experience. Some might say art tames and interferes with experience serving to delude us. I must disagree with that last sentiment. Art can connect a whole disparate series of thoughts, beliefs and emotions instantaneously. The Ice Cutters makes me think of other artists and writers recording the American landscape as the century turned over. Writers like Sherwood Anderson who had childhoods burrowed in a wilder century and watched with hope, resignation and fear as modernism took over town after town. Loss haunts these works. These painters are markers of time– pulses sent from another era when the air was sweeter.

 O’Keeffe was a committed modernist. She was of the transcendental wing of modernism that sought release through primitivism. Fellow travelers like Mabel Dodge Luhan and Marsden Hartley were looking for primitive “authenticity”. Liberation through the purity of wild landscape and non-western cultures propelled these thinkers. Like Weir on his Connecticut farm, the Taos group still relied to some measure on validation from New York markets. That being said, O’Keeffe did create a language so iconic that we forget it is one artist’s distilled vision. The landscape I was looking at in the Heard contained the expected O’Keeffe monumental planes of color and shape to delineate hills and buttes. The blue of the sky was dead on. A good painting is an experience. When the image, scale, materials and signifiers align, the thing itself can yield electricity. Memory, desire, experience and longing united that day in the Heard Museum. The painting needed me to complete the circuit.

 The limitations of a picture of the landscape are in the looking. Looking can be a meditation. Looking needn’t be passive. Unfortunately, looking often is a passive activity. I’ve looked and now I shall move along. I’ve seen nothing. Landscape painting has its origins in the capitalist middle class. Pictures of well-framed views are as much about owning as any aesthetic experience. Even when a painter tries to shake those market roots in exchange for transcendent ecstasy markets slap it down. That is because paintings may elicit altered states of consciousness but more often than not the stretched and framed canvas wants a wall in a parlor. It calls for provenance and class signifiers.

 Sometimes as I am teaching art or making art embroiled in this or that academic debate I pause and feel powerless. Who needs this stuff? The world is dying, my daughter won’t know snow the way I did. Why make art? Then, if I wait a beat before I sink into narcissistic despair I see those thoughts for what they are– self-important hogwash. Georgia O’Keeffe for all intents and purposes lived a life of consciousness guided by internal constellations. She may be seen as an interloper but she became a local. Art does not save lives. That’s not its job. But art illuminates life and gives us a narrative through which to navigate the world. It reminds us that we are human for it is the most human thing we can participate in. It needn’t be only uplifting. Sentimentality is the other side of the coin of base materialism (most landscape painting collapses under the weight of icky sentimentalism). The participation is not the same as domination. When art is called upon to simply be a status object or whittled down to the barest of utility it ceases to be art. The best of it is an experience between viewer object and artist. It doesn’t always make logical sense and it wears many masks. So in the end art teaches me about presence. It teaches me to be present in the world, to be me at 6 and 22 and 45 all at once. Art must court the numinous. I can’t think of any other reason for making or looking at art. 

Landscape pictures have traveled hand in hand with the staunchest of environmental conservationists and activists. This is all admirable. O’Keeffe’s paintings make me more aware of the desert environment but if they become illustrations for a cause, no matter how noble it becomes a dead thing. My guts contort as I swing from my love of an impotent art form to belief in its power to the gravity of natural loss outside the museum. So am I saying that art is a lost cause? Not even close. There is still a meditation present in these paintings that call for me to go do the same in the live world. Ultimately those paintings aren’t just records of a lost time but a mantra for this moment right here. A living world needs a living art. Snow and desert sun are corporeal conditions linked through image and memory to human life in this complex world.

 

 

The Whole Live Animal Dispatch #5

Today is Earth Day. Today we plants trees and remind ourselves to take care of the planet. It is a wonderful thought. Unfortunately it is too little too late. Global warming is upon us. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. In 1970 Senator Gaylord Nelson created the idea of a national teach-in on environmental issues. The environmental movement as we know it today coalesced in the early seventies. Lately I have begun to think that what might be called mainstream environmentalism contributes to our lack of action. That seems counter-intuitive. Haven’t the efforts of the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy made us more aware and fought the good fight? Doesn’t Earth Day wake people up to the need to take care of Mother Earth? The reality is that Earth Day is treated a bit like Easter for Catholics or Black History Month for everyone in America. Something you show up for once a year to express platitudes and go back to business as usual the next day.

In my twenties I was an avid reader of naturalist writing. I absorbed Barry Lopez, Henry David Thoreau, Terry Tempest Williams et al. Their writing still forms the bulwarks of my intellectual architecture. Yet there was a limit I sensed in the antagonism between “civilization” and “nature”. If you swallow whole the assumptions of the environmental movement you come to a couple of irreducible conclusions. The first is that human beings are inherently bad for the planet. The second is that the works of humanity and this other thing called “nature” are forever at odds. There is a belief that if we can just “get back to the garden” and reject the industrialized world everything will return to equilibrium. This is where the environmental movement fails. When the doomsday predictions of environmental writers overwhelm the individual’s capacity to action or that the hope of an Edenic return remains out of reach, despair and ennui set in. Belief in “Nature” as something to be saved puts one in the position of Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show. At some point he will sail into the wall of the stage set and discover that the construction was not in fact the world, but a container. The building had been passing itself off as the whole world. 

I just read a trio of books that helped me to crack open the thin shell of inherited belief and articulate my doubts. This is not a jeremiad against environmentalism. Quite the opposite. It’s the next evolution. The books– The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen created an unexpected potion for my cramped psyche. The Ecological Thought is a companion to Morton’s book Ecology without Nature. The book refers to the ecological thought not an ecological thought. Morton explains that once you truly accept ecological thinking you can’t believe in something called “Nature” that exists outside of us. If nature is something “over there” and we are not part of it, it means there is no ecology. The more we look at interconnectedness we realize this “me” is really a “we”. We are floating islands of microflora and tiny insects. Our genes share DNA with just about every other living thing on the planet. We are made up of carbon that matches the carbon in stars. Consciousness is not a special human trait. Morton says that the ecological thought means that we must accept the mesh. The mesh is the situation we’re in, not in a “we’re all one, everything is beautiful” manner but in a “complete loss of self, we’re woven into the entire universe” way. We are not top dog. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly the scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has inadvertently spliced his genes with a housefly. During his slow transformation he says to his old lover played by Geena Davis, “I am an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it. Now the dream is over and the insect is awake.” Morton suggests we all wake up to our insect and our amoeba and so on. The more we know about the ecological mesh the stranger the world looks, the more alien. Morton points out that mainstream environmentalism is a product of capitalism. Capitalism weaves a constant narrative of its own inevitability. For capitalism everything is a dead resource. It relies on vivisection both physical and spiritual and then sells us back the frozen parts. For Morton even transcendent, romantic attitudes lead to either fascism or laissez faire complicity. The first thing in accepting the mesh for Morton is to abandon thinking about making everything “back to normal” or finding an equilibrium based on shaky values. We must accept that we have already irrevocably altered the planet. We must make a space for a different kind of cooperation with everything around us. We must learn to live in the world that is here.

Charles Darwin is a guiding spirit in both The Ecological Thought and Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent new book The Sixth Extinction. Both authors correct the erroneous popular interpretation of Darwin’s theories pointing out that cooperation, weakness and dumb luck more often than not saved a species. Kolbert chronicles the species disappearing before our eyes. It is a heartbreaking and hard thing to read. She points out that what may have served a species for millennia could suddenly become a hindrance. This is just the kind of thing that a business leader or entrepreneur might claim as proof for the need to “evolve or die”. What the business world doesn’t understand is that business itself is a maladaptation that needs to change.

There have been five previous major extinctions. This is the first caused by one single organism. Kolbert’s approach simultaneously tracks current extinctions and the history of the idea of extinction. Not that long ago the Earth and life forms on it were thought to be immutable (except to myriad mystic traditions and early mythology). Science comes out of the Enlightenment tradition in which something called “Nature” hovers outside of humanhood. Since Nature is inert material it is there for us to exploit. The closer science looked into the fossil and geologic record the more belief systems had to be calibrated. We now know that landmasses float and buckle and sink, that species die off and that we are a very recent and it turns out catastrophic species. All the other major extinctions had to do with climate shifts because of larger forces. But this might leave us at the same place most environmentalism leaves us- humans are just bad for the earth. What both Kolbert and Morton tell us is that the change is afoot. Once a species is gone it’s gone. We have terraformed the whole planet.

After Peter Mathiessen’s death earlier this month I decided to listen to an audiobook of The Snow Leopard. I found a copy that he himself read a couple of years ago. I got the book so that I could listen to it while I did oil paintings of neighborhood trees– a strange, somewhat furtive impulse on my part. I’ll write more on that later. Mathiessen’s gruff worn voice is so full of warmth that the listening is infectious. Snow Leopard chronicles the events shortly after the death of his wife. Mathiessen agreed to join his friend George Schaller, a biologist, on a trek to the Himalayas. Mathiessen was a practicing Buddhist so he tells the story unsentimentally and full of grace. Normally this kind of story would focus on macho intrepid explorers bringing wisdom from a primitive land. Mathiessen turns the story into a humbling letting go of self. With clarity he brings the reader into his own shaky understanding of perception. At one point he equates the frightened clinging to a narrow mountain path to the clinging we do with our desires and sense of self. The ego as a bully. In his ragged voice he quotes his Roshi telling him before the trip, “Expect nothing!”

In some ways, all three writers are telling us to expect nothing. They are telling us that clinging to false hope or “returns” to something pristine only result in suffering and despair. Expecting nothing is not the same as capitulation. There are many Buddhist prayers that go out to all sentient beings. Those beings are inside of us, under us above us in other universes. They are part of the mesh. There is no nature to save. Don’t despair or accuse me of raining on the celebration of the Earth. It is not just one day but the rest of your life. Liberate yourself from a belief in a stranger called nature. You are looking at yourself. Knowing we are part of the mesh awakens us to a life in which we are fully participatory. I call for compassion for all sentient beings. I request we stop believing in capitalist fantasies about our dominance. I add that business is not an inevitability, but a construct to be redesigned. We need a mass shift in consciousness. I ask that all of us in the mesh wake up to interdependence. The question on this Earth Day is how will we live a truly ethical life, one that is in full cooperation with the world? 

The Whole Live Animal Dispatch # 4

What is the relationship between theory and practice? The idea of theory and practice certainly dominates art education and criticism. In common parlance one can say, “In theory that should work…” Meaning that the thing may or may not work theoretically. Live circumstances could muck up what looked solid on paper. When someone says, “In practice that works…” it holds a kind of testable solidity. In our Cartesian binary-obsessed culture, the two get set against each other like pit bulls in a back alley. Theory and practice need each other. You can’t have one without the other. As words– and words are slippery indicators of ideas –they both are freighted with a lot of baggage. Much of that baggage comes from the pretentiousness of academic one-upmanship. Theory involves talking about doing. Practice is doing.

I teach two classes that are called Theory and Practice. One uses mythology as a controlling metaphor to explore all kinds of ideas floating around in the tides of culture. The other is called Homeland: The American Landscape created just after 9/11. Ostensibly it concerns itself with landscape theory and environmentalism, but it is really about the stories we tell around place and cultural identity. When I started these classes I took it on face value what theory and practice mean in theory. After teaching the classes for 12 years I now have a much clearer sense of the whole enterprise in practice.

Practice is a sticky word. In 2007 in The New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote a terrific piece called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art” riffing off of the Raymond Carver short story. Smith says, “Finally, practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.” It is true that the way it’s thrown about like the feces of angry chimps in grad programs drains the word “practice” of meaning. Contemporary art writers and academics could really trounce perfectly innocent words. (“notion” is currently being crushed under academic boot heels). In a “post-studio” or “deskilled” atmosphere the actual bone knowledge of manipulating material is seen as suspiciously anti-intellectual. Practice often gets confused with “bad habit” or “thing I’m doing until I get a clue”. The word practice whitewashes over an anxiety that the artist has no idea what the hell he’s up to and he’s a millimeter away from being exposed as a sham. Practice dignifies such shenanigans. I agree with Smith that the misuse of the word is in part the taming and professionalism of art making. I disagree that the word itself should be chucked.

In Peter Korn’s excellent new book Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman he describes the intellectual and physical intelligence that arises from creative practice. He says, “There is a deep centeredness in trusting one’s hands, mind and imagination to work a single, well-tuned instrument.” This comes from years and years of practice in the truest sense. Experimenting with forms and materials, learning the tools and histories of a medium until you get to the point where your consciousness is attuned to the present. Of course, Korn’s craft of furniture making is based in a very material utilitarianism. It anchors him to the contingencies of wood and practicality. It doesn’t mean that any other artistic endeavor such as performance art, site-specific sculpture or video can’t have a similar sense of practice– one steeped in the hard work of manipulating material in response to a set of formal considerations, histories and physical skill.

Theory it seems has become practice in many quarters of the art world. Theory is often seen as an ultimate authority. If one more grad student casually quotes Barthes’s idea of punctum there will be some puncturing you can bet on it. Theory is a matrix of ideas that bolster a structure of belief. It creates a set of philosophical questions grounding a particular aesthetic stance. Theory, especially French theory, is treated as unassailable scripture. In order for theory to be truly viable, it must be tested and used. Like Peter Korn’s knowledge of the various species and states of wood, theory is something to mold but also understand its breaking points, its plastic ability and its native beauty.

Concept or “conceptual” is often used as a replacement for theory. This is wrongheaded. Conceptualism, a movement started in the sixties by practitioners such as Lawrence Weiner and Daniel Buren operates with a set of theories about art. Conceptualism has offshoots that include Social Practice and Institutional Critique. A “concept” is simply an idea. Everything has an idea. A potter making simple tea bowls is full of ideas. That potter may also be working in a particular theory field. But the potter is not engaged in Conceptualism. Fear drives the academic gobbledygook that passes for writing and criticism in contemporary art. I think there’s an inferiority complex sometimes stated, often submerged, that art just isn’t up to intellectual snuff. So the theory gets plastered on thick. This doesn’t recognize the true intelligence of art making and art looking. Not all conceptual art is smart and not all object based art dumb. Camps emerge with recalcitrant makers of objects thumbing their noses at anything smacking of concept and on the other side effetes who pity the poor backward sculptors and painters for their backwoods lack.

Let me get back to the relationship between theory and practice. Karen Armstrong in her 2009 book The Case for God speaks to an ancient relationship between myth and ritual. She says human beings would more rightly be called “homo religiousus” instead of “homo sapien” (the man who believes vs. the man who knows). Religiosity, myth and art­– all the trappings of a rich symbolic life– seem to be the qualities that separated us from the doomed Neanderthal.  Our current dichotomy of fundamentalist/atheist would be foreign to our prehistoric ancestors. They were able to understand that the seeming absurdity of myth was not a mandate from a rigid god (those atrocity plagued blooms blossomed throughout the human narrative but seem more the norm in recent memory) but a set of images through which to see the unseeable. Myth was kept alive through ritual. Ritual gave a physical manifestation to the myth and the myth gave relevancy to the ritual. Unlike fundamentalists who cling to absolutist readings of their scriptures our ancestors practiced religion to interrogate and renew the scripture. Contradiction is embraced.

The current bifurcation of theory and practice arises out of the same historical soil that sprouted the Enlightenment and the attendant religious wars, global capitalism and colonialism. In all cases the hard line drawn between mind and body, individual and state, god and human leads to cultural schizophrenia. The material world becomes a dead zone occupied by lesser beings. The life of the mind is exalted over all others. These assumptions guide everything from economics to politics to religion. I am aware that many artists would be uncomfortable with any comparison of contemporary art to religion but I think it is apt. For one thing art until recently was almost exclusively associated with spiritual belief.  For another art as an ironist’s endless echo chamber is doomed to die of malnourishment.

The mistrust of art as religion is well founded. Religions in historic memory do not have a good track record. Religions serve the purpose of propagating the beliefs and regulating the rituals of the culture. Like all institutions, religious institutions over time become petri dishes of political corruption. The structure begins to protect itself and build its own bulwarks in opposition to the good health of the beliefs it was meant to maintain. Priests, popes, imams, rabbis etc. have a tendency to follow power for its own sake. When this happens the internal rot eventually collapses the structure allowing space for either renewal or extinction. So with the art world. Art cannot, indeed human life cannot continue with such top-heavy structures cleaving our minds and bodies. I have no problem thinking of art as an experience that can lead to transcendence. In fact it’s why I keep doing it– the pay being what it is.

Like myth and ritual, theory and practice is the dance between mind and body. The two push and prod against each other, sometimes conjoined sometimes in antagonism. Structural integrity is constantly tested. Bones learn stories through repetition producing objects of transcendence. True belief is shot through with doubt. Doubt keeps us from blind acquiescence. When the scripture or theory becomes calcified it will die. It requires practice for its living breath. The breath– so necessary for life– requires the physical organ for its manifestation in the world.

The Whole Live Animal dispatch # 3

When I made the decision to go to art school in 1986 I was only the fourth person in my family to go to college. Three of my older brothers went to a much more affordable state university. I insisted on art school. I was going to be a real, serious artist after all. I received a small scholarship to go to the Hartford Art School in West Hartford, Connecticut. You see; growing up in working class Bridgeport knowing you want to be an artist and knowing how to reach that goal are two different things. When I first entered art school I’d never been away from home (even though Hartford is less than an hour drive from Bridgeport). As I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, I was an inconsistent student. Despite the rocky road it was still one of the most important decisions I ever made in my life. Many ideas introduced to me that first year formed my intellectual bedrock. I maintain life long friendships with people I met in Hartford. Successes aside, I did not easily fit into the university mold.

 

I chose art school very specifically. To decide on art school over a broader university major usually indicates a very driven desire to be an artist. I was very naïve when I entered school. My vision was that I would be a painter and move to New York City. Mary Boone would show my works to great acclaim. This vision was one step away from the caricature of the beret wearing, palette holding artist. Still I knew (since I was eight years old) that my life’s work was art. What I did discover while bumbling through the institution is that art is a discipline– a vocation in a vast field of ideas. It has taken me all these years to really understand some of these early influences. Dies were cast and seeds planted. The intellectual life of an artist is just that– a life. Now I am a teacher in this system. How does art school look from this side?

 

Firstly, I can’t help but puzzle over the proliferation of BFA programs in the last 15 years. As more programs pop up so do tuitions. As I mentioned above art school was once a very distinct option for a student. Do all these young people want to be artists? If so, what does that mean to them? When I ask my students at Pacific Northwest College of Art about their vision of themselves after school I get a limited range of answers. Some say they want to go to graduate school to teach. Most say they don’t know, maybe get a job as a barista for the benefits and do their artwork on the side. Some have commercial aspirations. Almost no one cops to calling himself an artist. And only the tiniest of fractions mention ambitions as a studio artist involved in galleries. Even then it takes some coaxing on my part. Does this mean that this generation lacks ambition to be art stars? Is the commercial turn an act of rebellion against what is seen as an out-of-touch fine art system? Or do they truly not know? I was certainly naïve at this stage of life as to what entailed being a working artist. If claiming artisthood is an embarrassing thing to admit, why are there so many BFA programs all of a sudden?

 

Let’s start with the changing nature of art schools. When I was in art school you went to study art. Whether you had a commercial bent or desired avant-garde glory you were studying to be an artist. It was a badge you took on. A couple of trends have changed that picture. One is the nature of contemporary art practice. The field has opened up to include a wide range of activities from community minded events to video to sound. There is no consensus for art’s limit or for what defines artistic skill. Add to this the seemingly arbitrary rewards system conferred by a monied priestly class of collectors and museums. To someone from the outside of this little world (a little world with a steady billion dollar market) it all seems like a put-on and an insult. To keep up with the multiple tentacles of art practice very discrete departments began blooming in art schools and universities. More departments mean more administrative edifices.

 

The term “entrepreneur” has spread like a virus since the dot-com boom at the end of the twentieth century. It is now an epidemic. Entrepreneurs use language once reserved for visionary artists and artists now speak like policy wonks. The arts and particularly arts administrations have happily adopted the language and belief systems of the market. The conservative tide that began with the incoming Bush administration shows no sign of ebbing. Art is not something that one does for the soul and works outside of society for its betterment; art is part of “the creative class” which brings jobs to the city. In this way growing arts administrations devalue faculty who are working artists in favor for administrator/ facilitators. Art schools use the term “artist” very carefully. Peruse the websites and literature of top art schools. You’ll see that being an artist is almost never mentioned. Being a professional, a creative, a thinker, an entrepreneur– almost anything but an artist– is touted. Art schools do their best to not encourage the messy, experimental aspect of that vocation. It’s all buttoned down now. It’s the difference between The Kingsmen Trio and Woody Guthrie.

 

In order to compete in a market stuffed with other BFAs, colleges have to offer as much choice as possible. The need to retain students and attract more at the high tuition rates currently at play forces institutions to treat students as customers. In order to have many departments offering a wide menu, the latest equipment and other social amenities something must go. That usually means the power of the faculty. Faculty becomes the equivalent of “associates” in big box retail stores. If the student is the customer than the customer is always right. Of course even when I went to art school there was a perception that artists are flaky and untrustworthy. My parents were very wary about me going to art school because it seemed like a frivolous thing. Artists starve. Only a few make it and most of them are charlatans bamboozling a bunch of swells. (It turns out a lot of workers starve when the market no longer has use for them. Most artists I know are resilient and tenacious.) To counter this perception, schools push the corporate and utilitarian argument to showcase the professionalism of their graduates. True education is secondary in this scenario.

 

And what of those incoming customers? What product are they looking for? In other words, what is a student being trained for? Many of the educational structures adopted by colleges and universities come from larger national trends. The American educational system is industrial at its heart. For the most part it is designed to train workers not thinkers. Colleges are organized around institutional expediency and not the needs of the individual. That is what private schools are for. And if you’re not from the elite forget it. Assessment, charts, pay blocks, measurable outcomes– these are the real needs of the structure. Those numbers are turned into data for accreditation boards and fundraising activities. Credit hours and the sixteen-week semester were developed with the same aim as factory mechanization. It bears little on the best delivery system for learning. There are much better ways to train artists. Regardless of the “common sense” of free market mercenaries, the whole human being– the student who is a nascent artist, the artist who is not simply a producer of “value”– cannot conform to blanket assessment forms. Really here I should say artists are not special in this regard, but all human beings should fit into that last statement. Market ideology assumes anything that is not profitable (by a narrow definition of profitability) is wasteful. If students stopped thinking like customers and instead began thinking like learners we would have a revolution on our hands.

 

To accommodate all the contradictory forces of market expectations, diffuse practices and opposing views as to exactly what an artist is; schools generally have two kinds of pedagogical approaches. They are often represented by schisms in older faculty vs. younger faculty and conservatives vs. progressives. For lack of better terms I will call one the vocational approach and the other the philosophical approach. These are imperfect because each contains a philosophy and each contains means to a vocation. But there you are words are fugitives.

 

The vocational approach can be seen at its most extreme in the French Academy. A very tightly controlled autocratic faculty meted out progress based on benchmarks. Favoritism and abuse of power are certainly a part of this system. The artist leaving this kind of school had very concrete skills in drawing, painting, mixing materials and studio practice. In the craft world this kind of training can still be found. It is simply an updated version of the apprenticeship system. Once a master conferred that an artist was ready to move on, that artist could set up shop and begin entering contests and amassing patrons. The term “masterpiece” comes from a medieval system in which a scholar or apprentice would present his best effort to a panel of masters to be granted master status. Some artists remained journeymen their whole lives. You still see echoes of this in current thesis structures in art schools.

 

The philosophical approach can also be called the “conceptual” approach. I will discuss in later dispatches why I think “conceptual” is an oft misused term. This approach arises out of the practices of Marcel Duchamp and European modernism. In its current incarnation it relies heavily on French theory from the mid to late twentieth century. Modernism and the avant-garde are presented as a march from Old World parochialism to a utopian casting off of history. Artists in this mold are seen as sanctioned bomb throwers thumbing their noses at anything that stinks of tradition. There has been a lot of powerful and liberating artwork that has emerged from this approach. It also produces armies of naked emperors.

 

Most art schools have a muddy mix of the two with one approach or the other dominating. On one hand you have traditionalists asserting hand skills and disdaining anything that came after Picasso. On the other hand new media or theory-based faculty throw everything else out but assign punishing amounts of theory to students. Joy in making is to be despised in both cases. One thing I value about being an artist is that I get to live joyfully amidst contradictions. Artists should embrace questions and plug into the energy between clashing ideologies. Leave ideologies to fundamentalists. There is no reason that these two approaches can’t get on together. I think the main reason they can’t is anxiety.

 

That anxiety arises from a number of deep wells. The first is the above-mentioned confusion as to what an artist is supposed to do or know. Most professionals don’t like to admit this, but it really is a muddle. Measured against our society’s metric of success being an artist really is hopeless. The small group of conferred “art stars” and the craven collectors and institutions that support them eclipse any other measure of success for a working artist. For instance when I’m at a dinner party meeting someone for the first time and I say I’m an artist one of the first questions is “where do you sell your work?” In a celebrity-crazed culture all the minor signifiers of celebrity muddy what the vocation means. It becomes easier not to call yourself an artist and play some other game.

 

Another well of anxiousness comes from the need to maintain a ravenous institution. I mentioned in an earlier dispatch that the institution is a many-mouthed giant. Colleges started thinking they were corporations. Corporations only have one motive: profit. Their shareholders could care less about the conditions of their workers or the damage wrought by their products. Profit rules. Inexplicably, giant rewards go to executives at the expense of the average worker. It is currently accepted in our mass culture that corporations are inevitable and they must under no circumstances be curtailed. They are job creators after all. That’s folly. Why should schools follow suit? Education is not about profit. Its time we remember that. Our values are askew. We need to be able to sustain education but we don’t need to get rich off of it.

 

Finally, the corporate conditions in schools have caused faculty to compete like starving rats over ever dwindling bits of cheese. Instead of thinking of the whole, faculty must create ever more specialized fiefdoms and recruit students to their cause. Anxiety about job security and relevance creates a constricting of true innovation. Fragmentation occurs across the institution.

 

So, Mr. Curmudgeon, you may be asking, what’s your idea? My first idea is to start using concrete language around art. Art school is for training artists. While this sounds rather reductive it is liberating. It doesn’t mean that the artist in question can’t be a Theaster Gates style social practice/ activist or a studio painter engaged in the rich history of the medium a la Dana Shutz or a cartoonist in the mold of Chris Ware. I have no rigid definitions– the heart of the matter lies in the questions. But we must ask the question, what are the ideal educational conditions for an artist? Secondly, slash tuition in half. College should be in reach to a wide range of people. I call for a more intensive, shorter experience of school– an embodied and cerebral apprenticeship. Dispense with all the fat and peripheral frippery and narrow choices so that true depth can be achieved. Why not mirror what happens in an artist’s actual practice? Being an artist is both an intellectual and a physical endeavor. In terms of faculty, I would like to see fewer well taken care of teachers. By that I mean that teaching shouldn’t be something that gets in the way of studio work but is a continuation of it. Rather than have a large pool of badly treated adjuncts, why not commit to a dedicated core of truly working artists? We needn’t burn the institution down but reconfigure it into a space of cultural renewal. And I don’t mean real estate renewal but a place that supports all levels of art making. Art schools should reflect the education of the whole human being. A true education informs an entire life. It doesn’t necessarily conform to charts and outward notions of success. Perhaps if we allowed another measure of a successful life this new generation of artists can lead the way out of the soul-sapped world of corporate institutions.

 

 

 

The Whole Live Animal Dispatch # 2

I have a confession. I don’t have an MFA. And yet I am allowed to continue making and teaching art. Any minute now the gendarmes will swoop in and divest me of my raiments.  I have transgressed against an institution of transgression. I should be excommunicated. Well. Regardless of rank I do operate on the margins without country or banner. So it is from there I shall speak.

By the time I finished my BFA I was 29. I had failed out of the Hartford Art School once. Then I joined the Marines and was kicked out during boot camp. I went back to art school only to drop out mid-semester and give away all my belongings and take a train from Hartford to Albuquerque. I’d had enough with the phonies of the art world (at 21 I had no idea what I meant by the “art world”). I was going to really live life. I put my shoulder into writing poetry and built a kick wheel from plans in a 1972 Mother Earth News article. I constructed a crude raku kiln and started making pots. There are other adventures sandwiched in there. I’ll save those for later dispatches. In a few years I decided to complete my BFA at University of New Mexico at the urging of my girlfriend Tracy. (She decided to stick around and is currently my first wife). I returned to school as a more focused and mature student. I was the polar opposite of my earlier self. I graduated summa cum laude with honors.

At the time I felt the pressure to get an MFA but I was already in debt and tired of school. I’d just spent my twenties in and out of educational institutions. I wanted to begin making art. Tracy and I moved to Portland, Oregon just after my graduation in 1996. Portland is small enough that it didn’t take long to meet people in the art world. Within a few years I had my first article published in Ceramics Monthly, a couple of gallery shows. Soon I was teaching. The tug of graduate school kept at me, some friends insisted I needed it to really move forward. But move forward to what? I would have to disrupt my life, take on more debt and then return to do exactly what I was already doing. By 2001 I was regularly publishing, making art and exhibiting in different venues and teaching at the college level. Yet, like an impostor hiding out in the countryside I had the nagging fear that I was a fraud. I feared all the reading, writing and making I was doing was less legitimate than someone who had gone to graduate school. I would question my own idiosyncrasies in light of intellectual trends. 

The MFA was once a haven for artists looking for a little more serious study or for returning GIs who had other experience. A Masters in Fine Art was by no means definitive of artistic seriousness or talent. Certain programs became hothouses for some of the best artists from the last part of the twentieth century. That intensity and proximity recommends a graduate degree in and of itself. Unfortunately along the way as MFAs proliferated they settled into a mediocre professionalism. The ubiquity of the MFA is a symptom of the rise of the Administrative Institution. MFA’s are now considered essential to getting a teaching job. They are also (theoretically) launch pads into big gallery careers. MFA’s make colleges a lot of money. Unfortunately that money is never channeled back to the faculty that delivers the nourishing meat of the program. So all those young academic hopefuls entering the workforce will find a very dismal scene. Colleges and universities engage in terrible labor practices. The bulk of the money in an institution goes towards administrators and vanity buildings. This is an epidemic throughout the art world. Look at MoMA in New York as they build yet another superstar building hostile to the art it is meant to showcase. By hiring more disenfranchised adjuncts while cutting tenure and pushing out older faculty, colleges treat teachers as if they were interchangeable fry cooks at McDonald’s. And what of the launch pad into international art stardom? Our art institutions seem to be training an army of very polite mid-level professionals. These are the people who keep the dream alive while propping up a ridiculously bloated star system of galleries and artists. If you go to a small handful of grad schools (CalArts, Yale, RISD etc.) you have a leg up. Everyone else is on a permanent farm team. This is an untenable situation. It must change.

How do we shift these institutions? The institution is a many-mouthed giant and it has gone rigid. Rigor mortis has set in. Its joints are locked. It is dangerously fragile though from the outside it appears implacable and monolithic. The giant is simply the housing for the content–the living germ, the leaven that keeps the culture alive. This shell has built itself up thinking it more important than the living thing inside. The architecture should serve the living not the other way around. So– awakened and hungry the giant dreams of gamboling in fields while its huge lump of a body intravenously consumes the surrounding countryside. It feeds off the life force of the culture. It absorbs art forms and freezes them in amber. We must cut off its head. Does it surprise you to learn that you and I are parts of the giant? We live in the Titan’s belly and have imprisoned ourselves. These institutions do serve a purpose, but they’ve forgotten their place.

We don’t need to scrap the whole institution, just strip it down and make it more organic and flexible. It is important to remember that institutions are made up of people and we do have power to change them. One place to start is to not give so much credence to the MFA. An MFA should be one of many legitimate choices for an artist. I don’t mean to discount the life-altering experience of many graduates. Many people grow immensely while in a graduate program. An MFA is the perfect environment for someone who has had other undergraduate experience and wants more formal art training. MFAs as they stand now are symptomatic of the pervasive corporate values of art education. The MFA is quickly becoming something only for a small minority with the requisite capital. What does an MFA give a student now? What is the meat of the thing? Contacts? Legitimacy? I have seen some graduates leave a program with the joy and drive for making art squeezed out of them. Work time is something you give yourself.

And what of me? The fake hiding out in academia without the proper requisites? I have been teaching for 15 years now. I was an indifferent student. I am now a good teacher. My real education came from teaching and working in the studio. Whatever pull I feel between studio and classroom it is clear that one of the roles of an artist is to teach.  

I don’t believe in the system as it stands. What we have now is something that serves vague corporate ideas of a “creative class”.  We need a true pedagogy aimed at the whole person, the complete artist. Early on, my insecurity from lacking an MFA caused me to follow advices other than my own. I tamped down instincts that ran counter to prevailing wisdom. I tried to keep up post-modern institutional pretenses. I kept saying, “Yes this dry saltless wafer is delicious and satisfying.” But hunger intervened. Confidence from experience bubbled over. I can now proudly say that I don’t have an MFA. But dear reader you are thinking that I am still a small town nobody. That is true. And yet I would be whether or not I had an MFA. Where I am has more to do with my own inner compass than chasing the mercurial vapors of institutional fashion.

Education doesn’t need to be so expensive. It needn’t be simply utilitarian– a step stone into a job. Any artist worth your time is constantly learning and challenging herself. Why must the only valid means be an overpriced, overly rigid MFA? How can we create educational environments that happen organically to produce something alive? The world doesn’t need any more middle managers. Residencies, short gatherings, and symposium these are all ways that an artist can connect and learn without the weight of the graduate institution. The pendulum is already swinging. In London several artists are beginning their own schools. It’s happening here in Portland as well. The ideal would be to retool our existing institutions. As Andrea Fraser said in her excellent essay in Artforum from 2005 we need to move from a critique of institution to an institution of critique.

One aim of these dispatches is to propose conditions for a living art– one that has a total environment in which to live. Teaching is essential to this environment because it instills the values of the culture. At the moment those values seem pretty muddy and abject. What is the real role of an artist in our culture? What environment should a school train that artist for? How do we create a real living context for an artist to work in, not just a winner take all celebrity system?

I will write more in the next dispatch about educational reforms for artists. 

The Whole Live Animal Dispatch #1

Imagine I am holding a small earthenware jar full of leaven. The leaven is a small bit of bubbly, sour smelling goo. The smell is the odor of life, because this little unassuming mass of yeast and flour is alive. It is culture. If I don’t feed it, it will die. If I take care of it, I can use it to make bread and feed me and you and our friends. Better yet, I can give you some and each starter will grow its own distinct qualities despite their shared birth. It is no accident that fermentation and culture share common words. Culture–language, music, art belief etc.– is a living thing and must be fed. In our current hyper-capitalized and overly monetized world art has become the equivalent of Costco white bread. It looks like a good loaf, but it has no life. Art has become an anemic thing, bloodless and wan. I am hungry for sustenance.

I am an artist, a writer and a teacher- a practitioner of contemporary art. Albeit an unknown, regional practitioner– a scrubby farm leaguer who has no cause to muddy the parlor rugs of contemporary art’s inner sanctums. In the coming months I will be writing dispatches collectively entitled The Whole Live Animal addressing a growing dissatisfaction with current art institutions. But the dissatisfaction is that of a dedicated low-born priest. A supporter who believes that art could and should do better. I can see something is unhealthy in contemporary art, and it is not the pallor of the fashionable. These dispatches arise from the backwater frontlines of an artist’s life. The above-mentioned practice. They are an act of love and hope more than it is a sour polemic against current conditions.

The title, The Whole Live Animal, is adapted from a chapter in John Dewey’s book Art as Experience. In this chapter Dewey lays out the necessity for a piece of art to live in a total environment. I don’t believe that there is a gap between “real life” and “art”. I do believe that art is experience that is formalized through a material. It is not the experience itself but it contextualizes experience. This formalizing adds shape and punctuation to a lived life. So in that sense, when art functions within a full ecology it is in fact life. It is the thing that connects to the field of ideas– the whole field– from the most transcendent to the dumb and petty. The latter of course can serve the transcendent and the former could be the latter. As a working artist for the past seventeen years, I’ve come to understand how the bloated market and celebrity system of contemporary art mirrors our food system. Just as we now eat food-like things we consume art-like things that give no sustenance. I want sustenance.

Art consumes me– I read about it, look at it, make it and teach it. When I look at my students, burdened with much more debt than I ever had and ask them why they’re in art school they look at me blankly. No one cops to wanting to be in the Whitney Biennial or an art star. (False modesty? Coyness?) There are no proclamations. In classes we critique, teach professional practices and look at art. Portland, Oregon like most places outside major art centers (i.e. New York and L.A., perhaps lucky pockets in the Midwest) owns only minor artworks to see and occasional strokes of fortune. We look at digital slides culled from the internet. These dispatches are for my students. And my colleagues. And for me. Because I am hungry.

Some of the topics I will tackle in the coming months include the art world and the market, regionalism, art schools, the direct experience of art. I can make a case for the whole live animal- an art that is plugged into a field of ideas as old as ideas themselves. The purpose of these dispatches is to create a new way of thinking about, consuming and making art. If the living culture is the catalyst for the rising of the bread and the source of its flavor, the oven is the new institution. I am not speaking of an industrial oven but something more provisional. A clay thing heated with a wood fire. Anyone can build one and we can all gather round its mouth and create the other kind of culture, the one that befits a human life lived to its fullest.