Words Words Words

December 19, 2007

I thought, since this is a thesis blog, I would do a little genre-blurring and make photographs of bits and pieces of one of the two books I’m writing, either or both of which will be my thesis.

I have a bit of a problem with the whole idea of the “thesis.”  It’s an understandable rite of passage in academia because its function is both instrumental and knowledge-building–it both proves that you know how to do a certain thing well in a certain way, and it also contributes to a larger body of knowledge.  Art/creative theses lack the second half of that, though.   Maybe I’m showing a sociological/conceptual bias in thinking that art is necessarily related to knowledge and discourse first and pleasure second, but I really would rather encounter art that’s ungainly, unprofessional and thought-provoking than something slickly beautiful and empty.  (Not that these are the only two options, of course, or that beauty is necessarily empty, but you get my drift.)

In the art school, here, the thesis show, in that it’s a show, is less of a culmination/milestone/accomplishment than a traditional academic thesis, and I like that: it still gives us art students the chance to experiment (and fail) while still demonstrating that we are learned and serious.  But writing program theses are often “whatever book you happen to be working on when the thesis is due” and since I’m almost always working on more than one book, just picking one and handing it in as the definitive statement of My Time At Grad School seems silly. 

I think some of the reasno for this is that many people still think og creative writing in the form and shape of “the book,” meaning that it’s an investment of time and money and energy that demonstrates readiness to be a professional unemployed writer, not the actual content of the book.  Which could be problematic.

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8 Responses to “Words Words Words”

  1. AdamFeldmeth Says:

    I am unsure whether this informed your current decision in removing yourself from the grad show, but it being present for some of planning meetings I have come to think that for many grads now in L.A. schools the actual thesis they are thinking about is their work for the grad show, in putting energies into making a “happening” (Allan Kaprow’s MOCA exhibition could not be more timely in town) event, and presenting themsevles once they’ve crossed through the institution doors, free but still holding onto the name sing out front.

    And this is rather problematic: that a (graduate) student consider their actual thesis to be a presentation not to their peers, faculty, and program, but to a collecting public, a buying public, a critic public, and an L.A. art scene public. This thesis will be evaluated by whether the work is picked up, moved, written about, or spread to the larger art world via curatorial voice.

    As you bring up, our thesis shows are yet another opportunity to experiment, which is how it should be if calarts follows its doctrine throughout an individual’s education. but with the advent of supersonics, these grad shows, and open studio days the calarts grad community demonstrates its interests are not devoted to its education, but where its education’s name will aid them, and to whom.

  2. Nicholas Says:

    You hit exactly on why I’m reluctant to participate in the year-end show. (I’m thinking of being on panels, if there are discussions, but not showing anything.)

    I’m wary of the way in which art and artists are marketed to the art world, but IF I decide to market myself, I want to at least have control over how I’m “packaged.” Being popular is not why art is meaningful and important to me.

  3. Michael Says:

    I enjoy the opportunity of making art in school, but it’s not an insular environment that can be perpetuated for life. We make work in response to our own interests, but once it leaves this institution, it gets framed by someone else. In Nicholas’ case, gallerists might be looking for a cohesive body of work and not find it. It then becomes incumbent upon the artist to address, acquiesce, or subvert those expectations; they cannot be ignored.

    For me, the focus of artistic production is on making and meaning, but at the same time, I’m looking over my shoulder and wondering what the viewer that stands behind me sees. I can guess, but the proof is in the putting of work in an outside context. Whether one uses the grad show as a cotillion or another opportunity for experimentation, foregoing the opportunity makes as much sense to me as never making use of the CalArts gallery spaces. Being devoted to one’s education means thinking about exhibition contexts along with everything else.

  4. AdamFeldmeth Says:

    Surely thinking about exhibition contexts is part of the education. We have galleries for this on campus. I locate the problem in Calarts leaning more and more towards letting that art world beyond its walls make the drive up and bring interact with the student community. With Tomory Dodge’s thesis exhibit in on of the D300 galleries selling out through ACME in 2004, to Ali Subotnik coming up for meetings last spring through being a guest lecturer in Karina Schnitt’s class, to Laurie Firstenberg scheduling meetings right before break, and Karen Atkinson for the first time bringing up 8 curators to F200 as a final sell-yourself day in her GYST class. Not to mention recent affiliations with REDCAT curator(s).

    I follow that some come back to grad school for certain reasons that will involve the market, but calarts has been less forceful to keep these reasons at bay during a student’s short two years. In our world there is no outside viewer. In goes without saying that the only academic minded (and I mean above else) persons are too few and far between. Work made in school is made in and thusly for that context. Out of school work can sit in a broader area. Now it seems that more of our peers are thinking about the work they are making now as the work they will present for their grad show. And understandibly so, because it is of their current studio and practice. But what happens when we recognize a student who when installing their thesis student show and spends the entire week tweaking everything for the opening reception on thursday? Education is the context this work is shown in, but it is not the context the work appears to be made for.

  5. Nicholas Says:

    These are all good points, and I think it’s valid for different people to want different things out of grad school, including quick and easy recognition.

    But if that’s not my priority, where does that leave me as an artist looking to engage in serious conversations (like this one) and meet my peers and figure out not just what to do, but what to do with whatever it is I’ve produced.

    Adam’s correct that CalArts used to, as it were, pooh pooh the idea of curators interfering with the art process, but the powers that be recognize that to keep up with UCLA et al. it needs not just to produce artists but to produce Names that generate publicity.

    And it speaks to the nature of right-out-of-the-gate recognition that I have no idea who Tomory Dodge is. I’d rather slowly build a career that maintains some stability, because my projects often last for years and are not necessarily user-friendly.

    On the other hand, of course I want to sell my work, but there’s something distasteful about the “hard sell” when it comes to art. Is it necessary? Probably. But one of my problems I’ve had since I started making art is that it (the art) doesn’t lend itself to instant visual gratification. It’s “slow” art in a fast world.

  6. Nicholas Says:

    In paragraph 3, above, I meant gallerists interfering with education by saying, even implicitly, “do this don’t do that.”

  7. AdamFeldmeth Says:

    I’ve often thought if Calarts were to state a goal for itself in relation to student success stories it would be to have its alums end up being written up in all the trade magazines and journals. Whether its a review in the back or being included as an example in an article somewhere in the middle these would mark more than any sales the impact of the calarts education. Certainly calarts also lays claim above all other institutions that amount of university jobs its graduates have found and in so doing spread the mentalities of the art department in valencia across L.A. and even to places like Harvard.

    But it seems now that we have artform with its own separate online mini-reviews and other such venues on the web to be written about the wheel is turning faster. I think of it like some giant hamster wheel in which more than one rodent is running. The pace is raised by one and the others have to quicken their pace if they are to keep up. If you’re unable to move with the wheel, you get thrown through the loop and are launched out of it.

    Grads are right there on the side of the wheel, moving their heads to the pulse, like timing a jump rope’s revolution in order to successfully enter unscathed. They have to be ready to run immediately with the wheel and if they miss they’ll get bruised.

  8. Nicholas Says:

    The particular scope of that wheel–moving back and forth between gallery and museum until the two become all but indistinguishable–is why I’ve been devoting a lot of my energies, lately, not just to making work or selling it but to curating shows, editing books, starting magazines, writing criticism, and generally trying to push my agenda, such as it is, in a way much broader than simply making a few expensive photos every few years and having a show.

    So to respond to Michael’s point about having to reckon with the art world, the idea is not to acquiese or even subvert so much as it is to confront head-on the whole world of the production of meaning with respect to artwork.


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