THE ACADEMIC SCENE
The headline of a recent review in The New York Sun, "A Look Ahead," caught my eye. That is one of the things I try to do as I daily take the pulse of the arts--ascertain where things are headed. This purported "glimpse of the future of the art world" would be possible for two more days, until April 19, at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery, where two dozen first-year graduate students in the Division of Visual Arts--candidates for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree--were showing "works in progress." No matter that the writer, Leah Fortgang, had thought it prudent to hedge her bet by adding that it was "perhaps" the future of art she had seen. What mattered was that there was still time for me to see it.
Fortgang called attention to three works in the exhibition. The first was a small "sculpture" hung on a wall, which she described as depicting two halves of the same house--one half showing a "ruined chipboard facade," the other, "a modern renovation"--next to a photograph of the old house itself. In the words of the would-be sculptor, Rachel Foullon: "'I wanted to show the renovation of a ruin. It's half-ruin, half-rebuilt.'" Another student's work, according to Fortgang, consisted of three 24 x 20" color photographs, each a close-up of a woman: one black, one white, and one albino. Tanyth Berkeley, "the artist," had said "she wanted to show the natural beauty of the faces of women she had met casually." The third work, a video by Mika Rottenberg, featured "a woman trotting on her hands across a snowy field while the camera is held upside down." Now there was an intriguing feat to ponder!
On the afternoon when I visited the modest Wallach gallery, attendance was sparse. A few people wandered in and out while I was there, but for the most part I was alone in contemplating the future of the art world. The works exhibited ranged from photographs (lots of them) and videos to "mixed media," "inflatable sculptures," and "paintings poised between abstraction and representation" (to quote from the exhibition essay).
The "renovation of a ruin" hanging on the wall--a three-dimensional model of sorts--consisted of this: on the left, the roof-topped front and side of a dilapidated old cabin; attached to it on the right, a pristine, two-storied blue house with white trim. The two halves bore no resemblance to each other. No discernible "renovation" had occurred, just the arbitrary juxtaposition of something old and something new. That was it. (An image of Foullon next to a similar piece gives an idea of the size and nature of the work, which looks more like a high school arts-and-crafts project than a work of art.) In an essay written for the exhibition, curator Lia Gangitano offers this explanation:
Charting the wall as territory for sculpture, Rachel Foullon's meticulous small-scale rendering, Work/Live near Twin Cities, traces the ruins of a pre-gold-rush frontier dwelling in paper, chipboard, and glue. Using photographic documentation of actual historical buildings, her structures are executed in the condition in which they are documented, then methodically "renovated" by the artist. An existing snapshot of the original source serves as a certificate of authenticity of sorts.
The viewer knows nothing of this from the work itself, of course.
Gangitano's claim that Foullon's so-called rendering "[charts] the wall as territory for sculpture" is nothing but pseudo-scholarly artspeak, serving only to obfuscate, while distorting art history. The wall has long been a "territory for sculpture"--in particular, for relief sculpture (wall niches for sculpture in the round have also been widely used)--and needs no "charting" by MFA candidates.
If Foullon wants to make relief sculpture, she might begin by learning to draw the human figure (the principal subject of sculpture), then learn to model or carve, in a visual arts program that still teaches such skills. For inspiration, she might acquaint herself with two early works by Michelangelo, created when he was only fifteen or so--the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs. Closer to home, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she might examine, in person, reliefs by the great nineteenth-century American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. She might also head up to the Hispanic Society at 155th Street, not far from Columbia, to see Boabdil [more] and Don Quixote [1930s], two works by another outstanding American sculptor, Anna Hyatt Huntington. Finally, closer to her own time, Foullon could study wall reliefs by the contemporary American sculptor Glenna Goodacre. If she has no interest in such things, she ought to turn to some other field of endeavor.
To return to the curator's view, what can Gangitano mean when she says that Foullon "traces the ruins" of the frontier dwelling? A painter might suggest something of the lives of the former inhabitants of such a structure, evoking its poignancy by emphasizing the isolated setting, for example. Some such point of view is essential to art. But Foullon appears to have none. Both her selection of the photograph that inspired the piece and her notion of "renovation" appear to be completely arbitrary.
The next work cited by Fortgang in her review featured four 24 x 20" color photographs (she cited only three) of serious young women staring straight at the camera. Gangitano offers this interpretation:
Tanyth Berkeley casts and stages sublime moments, seemingly extracted from a temporal register. . . . Her portraits are at once lofty and transient, intimate and ubiquitous, hinting at the rapturous nature of everyday revelations.
Sublime? Film and theater directors cast and stage sublime moments in great tragedies. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is sublime. The Verdi Requiem is sublime. And lofty--as in "characterized by moral grandeur or dignity"? Or rapturous? What is this curator talking about? These are merely photographs of anonymous females in their late teens or early twenties, standing still outdoors long enough to have their pictures snapped! And the photographer's goal was merely to capture their "natural beauty." The sort of qualities Gangitano attributes to them require more than that, however.
In portrait painting, for example, it requires the maker's ability to discern and render skillfully the features suggestive of the subject's inner life. Thomas Eakins's oil portraits of two young women--Carmelita Requena (1869-70), painted when he was about Berkeley's age, and Maud Cook (1895)--are notable examples of works so made.
In photography, which entails no such creative process (and, however dramatic, is therefore not art), one must first be able to select an inherently interesting subject. Yousuf Karsh's iconic portrait of Winston Churchill comes readily to mind. Planned and executed with great care, it captures perfectly the sitter's lofty character and outsized personality. The following account of Karsh's method and aims suggests why:
[Karsh] was a master of the formally posed, carefully lighted studio portrait. Working with an 8-by-10 view camera and a battery of artificial lights . . . he aimed, in his own words, "to stir the emotions of the viewer" and to "lay bare the soul" of his sitter.
He characteristically achieved a heroic monumentality in which the sitter's face, grave, thoughtful and impressive, emerged from a dark, featureless background with an almost superhuman grandeur. [From Karsh's obituary in the New York Times, July 15, 2002; quoted in "Yousuf Karsh--Portrait Painter par Excellence"]
The third work cited by Fortgang in her review--a video entitled Julie, by Mika Rottenberg--was of an intrepid barefooted woman laboriously "walking" (hardly "trotting") on her hands on what was supposed to seem to be a ceiling of snow. Fortgang claimed that the video gave "the impression of a laborious struggle against the merciless force of gravity." In Gangitano's quite different account:
An interest in seemingly mundane yet extraordinary performative situations marks the . . . single-channel video works of Mika Rottenberg. . . . Roughly believable as real situations, her staged tableaux are just one step beyond the ordinary, her characters not quite impossible. In Julie, a woman is seen walking on her hands across a snowy lake, as if this almost superhuman activity is commonplace.
For me, this was the most interesting piece in the exhibit, for the sheer ingenuity and effort expended--not to mention a dash of unintended Chaplinesque humor. Though scarcely art--there was neither narrative, plot, nor characterization, nor any point to it all--it was at least momentarily diverting. Julie triggered memories of Fred Astaire's magical dance sequence in Royal Wedding (MGM, 1951), a classic of film entertainment that possesses all the elements Rottenberg's video lacks, as this appreciative summary suggests:
[Royal Wedding] includes a delightful, four-minute sequence in which Fred Astaire, animated by his love for Sarah Churchill, dances in a hotel room. His passion is so powerful that it evidently frees him from gravity, for he is seen to dance not only on the floor but also on the room's walls and ceiling. The illusion is elegant, and the sequence is deservedly famous. ["Elegant Illusion and Shabby Fakery"]
Not "art," but who cares?
I cannot omit mentioning what was by far the most unusual contribution to the exhibition. Entitled "Untitled" (as many abstract and postmodern works are) it was by the "performance artist" Will Kwan, and consisted of his stamping the hands of visitors with his thumbprint as they entered the gallery, thus "marking their presence with his own identification" [!]. Much to my relief, Kwan and his ink pad were absent the day I visited. (On another occasion, Gangitano reports, he had purposely run the New York Marathon "on the wrong day," a feat that "could easily go unnoticed.") In case you wonder how Kwan came to be enrolled in Columbia's "visual arts" program in the first place, acts such as his have long been perversely classified as visual art, alongside painting and sculpture. As to what "performance art" is, one authority, RoseLee Goldberg, offers this explanation:
By its very nature, performance defies precise or easy definition beyond the simple declaration that it is live art by artists. Any stricter definition would negate the possibility of performance itself. . . . Indeed, no other artistic form of expression has such a boundless manifesto, since each performer makes his or her own definition in the very process and manner of execution. [Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, p. 9]
One can readily understand how this bogus art form would appeal to a curator not given to precision of thought or clarity of expression.
Regarding the organizing principle in what she does, Gangitano cites something she calls "the fallibility of completion":
A curatorial viewpoint that is partial, remote, and relocated to a future projection is at play. Diverse, these works require viewers to abandon wholeness in favor of disunited parts, incomplete stories--to find the latent plot that is revealed in pieces. Certain ambivalence toward plotting conclusions replaces a model of curatorial influence, as the exhibition encompasses propositions that exceed the limits of a discernible whole. . . .
Having clarified that matter, she offers this account of what it is that artists do:
[A]rtists confound mandates of definitiveness, linear narrative, and closure. . . . The viewer may be required to add to or finish a story through an intimate relation with individual pieces, or reorganize their assumptions about why they want it to end. . . . Artists necessarily find ways to subvert authority and conventional modes of production to suggest other outcomes and unlikely categories for delineating problems of comprehension.
As a curator, Gangitano is unwilling to "fix meanings, to act as interpreter." For good reason. The sort of work she exhibits has no meaning to fix upon or interpret.
No doubt about it--I had had a glimpse at the future of the art world, and a gloomy glimpse it was. Students like these in MFA programs across the land are the art stars of years to come. Work by them, often scarcely distinguishable from that of their established postmodernists will be exhibited in "contemporary art" museums. It will be acclaimed by critics, and sought after by wealthy collectors. It will represent the United States at international art festivals, and be awarded prizes. Some of it will one day be noted in art history texts.
A few cultural critics I know claim to detect signs of a renaissance in painting and sculpture, and a concurrent decline in the influence of the avant-garde. I am not so sanguine. There are, to be sure, still artists among us who learned their craft the old-fashioned way, beginning with the fundamental skill of drawing from life. Some of them teach in private or academic settings. One day, such artists may indeed be part of a genuine renaissance in the visual arts, but not without a re-birth of reason in philosophy, and of objective standards in art scholarship and criticism. None of this is likely to happen anytime soon.
To learn more about Columbia's Visual Arts program--and view further examples of "art" produced by MFA candidates there, as well as work by recent graduates and faculty members--see the following:
"The next generation of artists put their talent on display" (December 14, 2002)
Faculty (partial listing)