The institutions that develop and drive artist training, and even teacher training, move with the current market. The market is based on volume of sales, including the sales of politically savvy work generated by a few who wish to leverage some attention against the status quo. I think of the freedom Deborah mentioned and getting my art degrees (BFA & MFA) when it felt as though I was elevating myself and could find a community conversation around making work and exhibiting work. When I was in graduate school I wanted to show work where I hung out, which changed things for me, especially how I saw the galleries as supplementing some part of my work with a public, rather than partnering with me.
I think of what Harrell wrote about MFA programs and there was a sampling of that interdisciplinary exchange at my school. It was a studio arts school but very conceptual, so reading and writing and moving towards experimentation and performance had value and muscle. I was very fortunate to leave that institution feeling that my work as an artist would not follow one definitive path or would forever be defined as unique to a certain discipline or politic. The school was only slightly responsible for how it shaped me as an artist, as many factors accumulated prior to that education had taught me to be flexible. I was very grateful to have made it that far—my youth was a diorama on how not to occupy your youth.
In some ways, art schools and educational institutions provide an understanding of currency as value is considered by time and expense. But it is easy to imagine a value placed or replaced on your work as the machinery of institutional exportation, which serves to remind graduates of the value of education in specific terms. This realization collides with any artist who, like myself, felt that the lack of institutional support was constant or predictable or the price was too high, and the realization of being on one’s own was self-evident. That collision with the power structure of the institution is layered in such a way that it forms a predetermined relationship; it necessitates that an artist understands he or she is in a deficit position and needs to wrestle with tendencies and tensions about competition and access from the beginning.
Artists find ways of operating in the world like no one else I know. It doesn’t surprise me that outside the promise of public education artists are finding other avenues to explore and being welcomed in ways that I find hopeful. It also makes thinking about the role of the artist more complicated. Deborah’s statement on agency is a qualifying conundrum—even within this conversation we are each stepping back at a reasonable distance and declaring very different approaches, philosophies and practices, both in our work and also in demonstrating it descriptively through dialogue (which has its own peculiarities).
Sketch for Gang-Proof Suit, 2000.
I was speaking with an artist friend recently, describing a project I did many years ago with Stockyard Institute to build a gang-proof suit with youth in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. There was so much of that project that was secret on multiple levels and illuminated the distinctions between pedagogical forays and contemporary artwork. That project showed me how one artwork could function on different levels with what I believed to be of equal weight, distribution and authorship. In many ways it is an example of my take on an “in-between zone.” I too take the passage from Robert Smithson to include perception as having other qualities, destructive or in replace of an artwork; how making the work is one form of knowing, and writing about the work is something else. Writing about what I do versus what I see someone else doing is very different. Over time it has become harder to integrate the similarities of my art practice with others through language that has a certain kind of rigor. Steve, I think that this whole conversation and all the ideas in it may be how you zero in on the fundamental idea and at the same time answer your initial question.
In response to Deborah’s question, I am not sure if artistic freedom and artistic agency are like lines of credit but it is useful for thinking of disparate but parallel actions from the same person at the same time. Some part of me always seems to be time traveling. Freedom and agency may be like two sides of a coin, but is it the same coin, not different coins? Rockhill’s story was an obtuse narrative example of how I describe our current state—good or bad seems to be splintering the focus of art education generally, if it could ever claim to have a focus. His story is a sample of that breaking apart of the narrative, and maybe an example of my own process. I keep trying to zero in on the most important idea but I tend to slip into a circuitry where I make a judgment of what is the most interesting—and then, I also realize it is judgment of what is the most interesting to me.
Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested
“Exploring the In-Between” by Jim Duignan – April 18, 2014