Artist / Associate Professor Emily Carr University








Taming the Beast

Bridging Critical Theory with Studio Art

Alexandra Phillips

Have you ever found yourself surprised when a student makes a theoretical connection between the ideas in their academic courses and their studio work? The apparent disconnect between theory and practice got me thinking about why this should be, and why so many of us studio Foundation instructors leave the introduction of theory to our colleagues in the art history or visual culture departments.

Now it goes without saying that everything that is known or imagined is assigned a category which excludes its complement, and that without these categories it would be impossible to navigate one's way in the world. Some more obvious examples of these complements might be time and space, matter and anti-matter, perhaps being and nothingness. On a more mundane level I ask you, could the English exist without the French, fast food without slow cuisine, Hummers without Hybrids, what about disgraced celebrities without a tabloid press?

Although categories owe their existence to boundaries, defense of these boundaries obscures the fact that these restless co-dependents not only uphold each other's existence but actively inform their meaning.

Likewise doesn't theory inform the practice of art I wondered, and why were these categories often addressed at the institutional level as separate and apart? At Vancouver's Emily Carr Institute where I teach in the Foundation program we pride ourselves on offering an array of interdisciplinary electives as well as the more traditional classes such as drawing, design, and sculpture. It seemed especially ironic then that many of us teaching studio art persisted in this disciplinary division between theory and practice.

But as any of us knows getting the widely varied ability levels of an incoming freshmen class to chew the “bitter pill” of theory beyond their required academic assignments is another thing altogether. Not only is the vocabulary beyond most students' comprehension, but the concepts often originate in disciplines outside their acquaintance. How, I wondered, would it be possible to introduce Lacanian psychoanalytic theory or Marxist economics to a class whose most recent conversation about art involved meeting the portfolio requirements for admission?

While pondering these questions I came across an intriguing analysis of the distinction between found objects and readymades in an essay by Margaret Iverson in the summer 2004 edition of Art Journal. Iverson's article: “Readymade, Found Object, Photograph” examines the difference between these seemingly interchangeable categories of artmaking based on an analysis of Kant's idea of the aesthetic. Like most instructors I had used these terms indiscriminately. Iverson's article elegantly argues respect for their categorical distinctiveness, forcing the definitions apart from a close inspection of their historical origins at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition of Objects. To show how I integrate the main ideas in this article into my studio courses I will briefly trace its central themes.

Citing the jumble of “items including natural objects, interpreted natural objects, incorporated natural objects, found objects, perturbed objects, readymade objects, American objects, Oceanic objects, mathematical objects, and Surrealist objects” at the exhibition she notes that “only the readymade and the found object still retain any currency, and the readymade can no longer be subsumed under the Surrealist umbrella. Duchamp's readymades and Andres Breton's found object have such different legacies that they now arguably constitute a categorical distinction.”

Iverson's article traces these legacies in relation to aesthetic theory which she argues extends beyond the concept of beauty but does not terminate in the notion of the anti-aesthetic. Arguments for and against beauty, writes Iverson, overlook the “continuity of certain aesthetic attitudes and ideas that stretch from Kant through the early avant-gardes and re-emerge in contemporary art practices.” Citing Kant's notion of “disinterestedness” as a defining feature of aesthetic judgment Iverson traces this principal emerging in Symbolist poetry and photography's celebration of the impersonal and objective. These qualities she says, are also present in the factory-made mass-produced, manufactured object. “The celebrated autonomy of the work of art, it turns out, implies the obliteration of the poet or painter in his or her medium. It is fundamentally about the displacement of one's own agency so that something other can surface. The aim is to cut through stereotype and sentiment so as to discover what Mallarme called “a strange new beauty (Iverson 47).” Iverson shows that Duchamp pushed this principle of the object's disinterestedness to an extreme with the readymade, which, she quotes Arthur Danto as calling a “limit-case” of the anti-subjective, anti-aesthetic” which calls into question ideas of personal taste, expressive gestures, craft, or even originality. “The readymade,” writes Danto, “ is a limit case that throws into sharp relief our deeply embedded expectations of a work of art (Danto quoted in Iverson 47).”

Iverson goes on to say that “the legacy of the Duchampian disinterested attitude can be seen in Minimalist, Pop, and Conceptual art” where for example, Robert Morris allowed the materials to determine the form. She argues that the so-called anti-aesthetic tradition in 20th century art is in fact a “development of one of the defining features of the aesthetic itself, one that became a strategy for short-circuiting the imposition of subjectivity. (Iverson 48).”

Iverson argues that while the found object shares its lack of obvious aesthetic quality and minimal artistic intervention with the readymade it differs in almost every other respect because as Breton put it “the found object is situated in the space of the unconscious (Iverson 48).” Breton denied the possibility of disinterestedness, saying that there was no such thing as “spontaneous generation in mental reality” and that Surrealist images and objects are the “visual residue” from past experiences that turn up in dreams. Breton, like Kant, saw art as a means of overcoming the “breach between mind and world.” Objects found by chance in his view, are “situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious,” a space “carved out by traumatic experience… which has failed to achieve a representation, but on which nonetheless, one's whole existence depends (Iverson 49).”

 

Iverson describes the subject implied by the found object as a Lacanian one influenced by the notion of the found object that emerges as the “Petit object a-the lost object which sets desire in motion and which, paradoxically, represents both a hole in the integrity of our world and the thing that comes to hide the hole (Lacan quoted in Iverson 49).”

I will pause here to describe how I have integrated these ideas into a studio art course. Recognizing that many people, when confronted with complex and unfamiliar material simply give up, I have devised a method of evaluation that puts the onus of interpretation on the instructor while the student remains responsible for participation.

Most important, readings are chosen for their relevance to a specific project so that students make a connection between the texts they're reading and the art they're making. In the case of the Iverson article the project: “The Object Journal” asks students to take a journey, either real or metaphorical and to collect objects during that journey which they then use in an assemblage that conveys a sense of motion through time and space.

To begin I introduce the subject of the reading, in this case readymades and found objects, establishing first that most students have heard of these categories. I then ask them to define the difference, and when they are unable to do so use this knowledge gap as the opportunity for introducing the article. The practical value of the reading to their studio practice is immediately established, providing a short-term payoff for reading the article. During my introduction I raise the principal points discussed in the article, specifically here the nature of the readymade as an unaltered manufactured object arbitrarily chosen by the artist as opposed to the found object which resonates with repressed subconscious trauma. This gives students a framework of reference.

Second, I assign a study sheet asking questions which highlight key points in the order they occur in the article. Students are required to fill in the study sheets by parroting the answers given in the text. Some examples would be: “How did Andres Breton define readymades?” Answer: Breton defined readymades as “manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art by the choice of the artist,” or: “what did the celebrated autonomy of art imply?” Answer: “the celebrated autonomy of art implies the obliteration of the poet or painter in his or her own medium.” Its a given that most students won't entirely grasp these ideas, but highlighting key points gives you an opportunity to explore major themes critical to an understanding of contemporary art practice, such as the autonomy of art and its relation to modernism and postmodernism.

Questions are chosen for their focus on central illuminating points and continue until the end of the reading. Students are also directed to research unfamiliar terms in reference works held on reserve in the library. I have found texts such as The Dictionary of the Social Sciences particularly helpful.

Expressing sympathy with students' limitations is critical to this process, consequently evaluation is based on a system that only penalizes lack of participation. That is: that while students are required to read the essays and answer the questions quoting directly from the text, they are only penalized for failure to complete the study sheet. By shifting the focus of evaluation away from comprehension onto involvement students at all levels are encouraged to work towards engagement.

I make a point of telling students that many of these readings have been written by people who have immersed themselves for years in the arcane recesses of art historical or social scientific studies, emerging every so often from the library stacks to share their discoveries with a largely indifferent world. I tell them that is up to them, the studio art student, to provide encouragement to these underappreciated scholars by reading their work. I give them advance warning that these theories often span a range from psychoanalysis to economics, anthropology, history, and sociology. Establishing the authority of the writer and the breadth of the text presents students with the prospect that they are embarking on a voyage of discovery with the possibility of developing an understanding of their own artistic impulses and contemporary art practice which was formerly inaccessible.

In addition to reading the article and completing the study sheets, students are also given a short practical assignment related to the essay. In this case they are directed to bring to class their own found object or readymade, writing a short statement as to why they believe their object falls into either category. By requiring that students translate their choice into a written form they acquire their first experience of assimilating meaning on a personal level through both language and experience.

A critical component of this process is a group review of the reading. With everyone's study sheet at the ready the instructor reads from the text, asking questions, expanding on specific points, and above all, inviting students to interpret the article. During these reviews students reflect deeply on the ideas contained in the readings, easily making connections with their own experience. Its helpful to provide a social or historical context for the concepts, for example the crisis of representation with the invention of photography and the rise of the avant-garde. Another useful strategy is to show slides and/or videos of works cited in the text.

Article reviews are often accompanied by a lot of laughter, cries of outrage, snorts of derision, and the occasional “Oh, I get it!” During a recent review of this article students were delighted by brain teasers such as Carl Andres observation that “a thing is a hole in a thing it is not (Iverson 54)” or that sculpture could be “a rupture in the continuum of space (Iverson 54).” These quotes followed a description of Orozco's notion of photography as a “hole” and a sculpture's inverse relation of object to viewer so that the “spectator becomes the object of sight” similar to Lacan's speculations on the gaze.

Through careful reading of texts students acquire an appreciation for the depth of the material, but more important, its utility and relevance to their own practice. Although I doubt most of them obtain a complete appreciation of Kant or Lacan from this brief acquaintance most will absorb and remember the main points such as the Duchampian attack on originality and the psychological significance of the narratives revealed in found objects. A reading review can enjoyably absorb more than half a class period leaving time for a show and tell of individual examples of found objects and readymades.

When the larger found object project is due, I require that students also submit an artist's statement with at least one reference to the article, further reinforcing its relevance. This same approach to introducing critical theory into the studio has been equally effective in explicating other texts such as Rosalind Krauss's “Sculpture and the Expanded Field” with its perplexing references to the Mandlebrot set of “landscape/not landscape” etc.

In conclusion I have found that by establishing the relevance of complex readings to a studio project based on the same concepts, and by guiding students through a reading using a system that requires only rudimentary comprehension without penalty for failure to comprehend, that Foundation students engage fully in an enthusiastic embrace of advanced theory, incorporating these ideas into an understanding of their own studio practice.

 

 

 

 


Art, Ethics, & the Limits of Expression

Alexandra Phillips

Recently several works of art have come to public attention that have that skirted or even exceeded the limits of legality or norms of decency, creating deep revulsion among the public and strong reactions in the art world. The controversies have brought the role art plays in society, and the responsibility of the artist to society, into question once again. In the United States for example, Yale art student Aliza Shvarts claimed to have executed a work that consisted of multiple impregnations and subsequent abortions. Although Ms. Shvarts now says this project was a hoax, the fact that she presented it as a serious work for which she expected to receive credit from her faculty, underscores the dilemma many instructors, and the art world in general, face in dealing with such controversial works.
 
There are numerous other examples from recent history. Last year in Canada the Vancouver Art Gallery presented a retrospective of renowned Chinese-born artist Huang Yong Ping. Ping’s art, which is influenced by traditions of randomness in Chinese fortune-telling in the I Ching, as well as Dadaist games of chance by Marcel Duchamp, critiques colonialism, racism and the operations of power in numerous works, many of which include taxidermic displays of dead animals such as tigers and bats. Ping went too far for many however, when, interpreting the instructions of the ancient hexagram for Decay, he placed in an undivided screened enclosure a collection of venomous animals including cockroaches, millipedes, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, lizards, and toads. The work: “Theater of the World” purported to act as a metaphor for the innate hostility of human societies.
 
No sooner had the work gone on display than the SPCA received a complaint from the public citing animal cruelty. The SPCA’s subsequent order to modify the exhibit by removing certain animals and offering more shelter and warmth to others, so enraged the artist at the infringement of his freedom of expression, that he ordered the piece closed. In its place were mounted hundreds of letters, emails, and articles both pro and con, received by the gallery. For its part the gallery steadfastly defended the artist’s right to exhibit this work, citing the important role artists play as harbingers of a future as yet unknown, and mourning the loss to society of the important insights that only they can provide. The fate of this work in Vancouver was a virtual reprise of its reception in Paris in 1994, when the director of the Centre Pompidou complained: “It’s terrible. The object of the exhibition is precisely the transgression of taboos (Julius 140).”
 
In yet another recent example Costa Rican artist Guillermo Habacuc Vargas tied a starving dog to a gallery wall and allowed it to slowly expire from hunger and thirst. No one observing this “exhibit“ offered relief to this animal. As an expression of its appreciation for this act of cruelty the Costa Rican government awarded Mr. Vargas the honour of representing his country at the Central American Biennale. Then there are the examples of the NEA five whose work in retrospect seems almost innocent by comparison, but was used by right wing politicians as the justification to end federal funding to individual artists.
As the faculty who advised Aliza Shvarts discovered, academicians are not protected from these controversies. In fact, some would say, its our reiteration of avant-garde values in the classroom that give rise to them. I myself have at various times been approached by students who wished as part of their course material, to urinate in front of their classmates, to display as sculpture the body fluids they had collected as part of their ongoing self-mutilation exercises, and to exhibit homeless people in the classroom.
 
In the career of every instructor of art there will be instances where students approach with project proposals that present debatable parameters and you will be forced to decide whether this work can be accepted for credit. How do we determine whether such proposals are acceptable as a course contribution? What guidelines should we employ when confronted with art that makes us deeply uneasy, but which may nevertheless, contain important insights? Moreover as artists and designers ourselves, how do we determine what limits if any, of expression are acceptable in the production of art?
 
Are there ethical standards that should be brought to bear in the production of art? Or do such standards merely reinforce the status quo of social acceptability, unintentionally playing the censor’s hand and thereby abetting the forces of repression that would end creative exploration?
 
Two poles of this debate can be expressed in the following terms: Yale professor Seth Kim-Cohen, quoted in the Yale Daily News in an article responding to the Shvarts debate, defined art as a “zone of free play in which the ideas, concerns, joys and sorrows of a community can be engaged in safety and without practical ramifications.” Art for him is a form of “societal role-playing, a testing of conceptions of identity and ideology undertaken in a buffered space. In this sense art tests societal mores as drug trials test medications: prior to or separate from their availability and use in the real, legislated world. It is incumbent upon us, especially as members of a community of learners, to understand what art does and how it does it. It is our intellectual imperative to ensure that art not be confused with politics, law, business or science. Such confusion has ramifications: books have been burned, poets exiled, filmmakers blacklisted, painters jailed. For art to speak to the interests of its time and place, it must be allowed to speak.” For this professor, art is that activity that isn’t anything else, a place where the imagination can play without fear of intimidation or consequences. In this Kim-Cohen echoes Gustav Flaubert who wrote: “This is why I love Art. Its because at least there, in the world of fictions, everything can happen…(Julius 224).”
 
On the other hand Art Institute of Chicago Dean Carol Becker, no stranger to controversies among her own student body, characterizes this notion of the “free space of the imagination” as a bourgeois conception of freedom. In a conversation with Suzy Gablik, Becker talks about how art schools have perpetuated the avant-garde myth of the disenfranchised, infantilized artist on the periphery of society as one that supports capitalist ideas of the autonomy of the individual and individual freedom. Becker describes this idea of freedom as one apart from society, not a freedom for the individual within society (Gablik 364-365). Ultimately she says, these notions of the bohemian, avant-garde artist perpetuate alienation, and reinforce the view that freedom is something to be found outside society, in opposition to its more and structures.
 
So here we have two poles of a debate that addresses the role of art and the responsibility of the artist to society. On the one hand, an absolute freedom of the imagination where alternative ways of being and doing can be tested as an integral part of a progressive society’s attempts to regenerate itself. On the other, the idea that a paradigm shift is needed which recognizes that artists are embedded in society and that they should think about their relation to society, and their responsibilities as creative producers.
 
Now any discussion of the role of the artist should recall that the idea of the artist as outsider originated with the early avant-garde in the late nineteenth century when the traditional sources of employment for artists as visual recorders were supplanted by photography. Finding themselves outside the mainstream, artists searched for ways to continue working that no longer involved strict adherence to illusionist representation. This condition, arising at a time of overall social unrest and dislocation with the onset of industrial capitalism, promoted the idea that art as a category of human productivity was a thing apart from normal life. Reacting to their own alienation and widespread social disillusionment after the Great War, avant-garde artists seized on shock as an implement of the artist’s tool-box, both as a weapon of protest and as a vehicle of creativity.
 
The Futurists in particular took an aggressively hostile position to society, deriding everything that wasn’t modern, progressive, or technological.  Within the context of the creaking edifices of post-Victorian, imperialist societies with their class-bound, gender and race-restricted mores, shock must have seemed a powerful antidote to the intransigence of the status quo. The transgressive nature of progressive art was captured by Theodor Adorno who wrote: “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime (Adorno quoted in Julius 222).” For a hundred years transgression has fueled the production of art. “The modern period can be characterized in part by three distinct kinds, or versions, of transgressive art: an art that breaks art’s rules; an art of taboo-breaking; a politically resistant art. That is to say there is an art that repudiates established art practices, an art that violates certain beliefs and sentiments of its audience, and an art that challenges the rule of the state (Julius 102).”  Indeed the very idea of the artist remains implicated in the notion of the creative genius as “lawless, necessarily violating the conventional and the lawful in the realization of his genius. Rules are mere restraints on his creativity; the art canon is a tyranny from which he must free himself. He must surmount many obstacles, among which is the burden of art’s own past. His family may suffer, laws may be broken, he may even have to defy the state itself. This is the heroism off the artist, a transgressor for the sake of his art (Julius 100).”
 
But has transgression’s shock now become a convention of art, something that serves to reinforce notions of artists as amusing if thought provoking fools on the outskirts of society? Has shock in fact now become institutionalized, so that its appearance among the “chattering classes” signals the presence of a significant work? I give you as an example the recent sale of Emily Carr University graduate Terence Koh’s semen-stained underwear for tens of thousands of dollars. Such prices underline the degree to which the market still considers shock as one of the key indicators of value. The significance of shock remains intimately tied to the amount of discourse an artwork generates: the volume of press is conflated and confused with the inherent value of the artwork as the intoxicating spotlight of international media beams down like a high-megawatt grow light, expanding the art’s aura in its glare.
 
But even the early avant-garde recognized the limited value of shock: once the initial effect has passed the entire effect fades away, never to pack the same punch. Today works that once shocked and offended even the avant-garde, are under heavy guard in our great institutions where they reign as anointed sovereigns of the empire of international culture. I give you Duchamp’s urinal, whose legacy of shock and disgust still acts as the font of honour, if not the Fountain, for subsequent works that stir similar reactions.
 
But does shock still carry the same ability to propel society forward by challenging outdated notions, in effect to regenerate itself through the element of surprise? Does shock still carry the ability to regenerate outmoded art forms, as it has for the past century? What is the contemporary context of shock as an art supply?
 
I submit that in a world where fundamentalists regularly blow themselves and the public up for a cause, where the most intimate details of the lives of the famous are voluntarily divulged on the mass media, where unimaginable extremes of wealth, poverty, and racial division exist in adjacent neighbourhoods in the great cities, when private investment banks are rewarded for their larceny with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, where we contemplate the utter extinction of ancient species such as birds, whales, amphibians, and plants, as well as the disappearance of all the glaciers and polar ice sheets due to global warming, that there is little art can do to shock anyone. I would argue in fact that the sense of immanent global disaster is now so acute that the shock delivered by the occasional artistic outrage acts only as a momentary diversion from the general emotional paralysis in the face of our colossal problems. We no longer live in a world where people have to be forced to take notice of startling and disturbing events, rather these are the nightly fare of news stories. The rapid, ceaseless, technological change the Futurists longed for, is now the exhausting norm.
 
In contrast to the shock generated by works such as those by Aliza Shvarts and Terence Koh, I would ask you to consider the shock that Carol Becker experienced when on a trip to Spain during the Gulf War, she discovered that artists were regularly sought out by newspapers for their considered reflections on that conflict (Gablik 361)? Can you imagine a world where creative people were normally quoted as thoughtful leaders of opinion? Such a scenario is nearly unimaginable in North America, but I put it to you that our persistent reiteration of avant-garde alienation now only serves to sideline artists in the public view as inventive freaks. Moreover, the use of transgression as a motivating force in art now appears spent. As Susan Sontag noted: “Transgressions presuppose successful notions of order. But transgressions have become so successful that the idea of transgression has become normative for the arts- which is a self-contradiction (Sontag quoted in Julius 234).”
 
But what of Professor Kim-Cohen’s stalwart defence of art as a free space, a place where the imagination can roam without fear of intimidation or consequences? Should artists limit their creative impulses to only those ideas and areas of production that follow existing norms? I would argue that the human imagination is not some fragile flower: many are the totalitarian regimes that have witnessed the flourishing of creativity under their heels. No less an artist than novelist and former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel ironically noted the vacuum of ideology created by the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the negative effect it was having on the country’s artists who no longer had anything to react against.
 
But where I differ from Professor Kim-Cohen is where art departs from its “buffered space” of the imaginary and enters the real where the conception of the artist is no longer a representation but actuality. To inflict suffering in the name of art may contain important insights as the Vancouver Art Gallery or Guillermo Vargas maintain, but the value of these insights must be weighed against the assumption that the public will silently accept the wanton cruelty they cause. To gain notoriety through acts of self-mutilation, humiliation, or cruelty must be weighed against the very real calls from disenfranchised peoples or the immanent threat to endangered species.
 
Rather than erecting new standards of censorship I think it would be useful if new standards of value based on an ethical questioning of an artwork’s intentions, were determined by artists themselves. Instead of allowing ourselves to be titillated by apparent outrages to existing standards of decency and acceptability, perhaps we should be asking questions such as: “what is the work’s intention, and whose interests does it serve?”  Is it a cheap publicity stunt, or does it have something meaningful to say other than its attack on convention? Other questions that might be raised in relation to an artwork’s value are: “which relations of power does it support?” “What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?” “Does it break the bond between humans and nature?” “Does it serve community?” “Does it serve to commodify knowledge or relationships?” “How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?” “Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?” “What values does it foster?” “How does it affect our perception?” “Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?” “What are its effects on relationships?”
 
By these standards of measurement I would venture that Aliza Shvarts’s project succeeded only as a trivialization of the struggle of millions of women over the last century to obtain reproductive freedom through access to safe, legal abortions. Shvarts’s work is weak because it tells us only that one woman can acquire a medical service for her own purposes, but fails to contextualize the political and social struggle for access to that service. Interpreted by fundamentalists Shvarts’s project could well become an unintended billboard for those who would deny women control over their bodies. As artists I believe we share responsibility for the consequences of our works, as far as can be reasonably foreseen.
 
Professor Kim-Cohen thinks art should occupy an exclusive zone of freedom precisely because its realm is imaginary. But there is nothing imaginary about the slow death of Guillermo Vargas’s dog on the exhibit floor, and the inevitable conflict between Huang Yong Ping’s scorpions and tarantulas would more nearly approximate the Roman Coliseum than the debating chamber of the United Nations. While the realm of the imaginary is limitless, all actions in the real are subject to the law, just as freedom of speech is bounded by the limits of libel and slander. Exactly the same arguments for freedom of scientific inquiry are made as for artistic freedom, that is the advancement of knowledge is critical to social renewal. But the scientific community long ago accepted ethical standards in the conduct of its research involving life, and these standards are held to frequent public and professional review. I would suggest that artists subject their own practices to similar standards. Rather than asking “How low can we go?”  How shocking can we be?” I would ask: “How far can we as artists creatively challenge society within an ethical framework?” For if we ourselves violate ethical norms, how can we expect to sensitize others?
 
Emily Carr University of Art & Design
November 2008
 
References:

Gablik, Suzy. Conversations Before the End of Time Dialogues on Art, Life, and Spiritual Renewal. Thames and Hudson, London: 1995.
                   
Julius, Anthony. Transgressions the Offenses of Art. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2003.