Friday, May 29, 2009

MFA vs. studio PhD


"Soutter points out that there is already an increased emphasis being placed on research in MFA programs, as a way of preparing students in case they proceed to PhD studies."

Will the studio-based PhD replace the MFA as the terminal degree in the visual arts? That is the question addressed in the article, "The Currency of Practice: Reclaiming Autonomy for the MFA" by Susette S. Min, Senam Okudzeto, Martin Beck, Gareth James, Odili Donald Odita, and Lucy Soutter, with responses by Jon Rubin and Andrew E. Hershberger (Art Journal, Spring 2009).

The other important purpose the article serves is to describe the current state of MFA programs, both in the US and Europe. Even with alternatives to the MFA cropping up (ranging from post-bachelor’s programs to non-credited residencies and lecture series organized by artist collectives), the authors note that in the US, the amount of applications to MFA programs at present is unprecedented.

With studio PhD programs on the horizon, the authors consider the changing role of the academic institution. Because the library is a critical part of any academic institution, I reread the article to contemplate how libraries (and art librarians in particular) should brace themselves for this change. I was reading on the Go Train, just after having lunch at the Grange, which acts as a hub of sorts for students at the Ontario College of Art and Design; the setting made me think about this article because they just introduced an MFA program last year.

Even if I might never be directly charged with supporting a studio PhD program as an art librarian, the mere prospect is reason enough to take note. Soutter points out that there is already an increased emphasis being placed on research in MFA programs, as a way of preparing students in case they proceed to PhD studies. She talks about PhD studio programs feeding "into a contemporary interest in research as art and the artist as researcher" (as an aside, this was a concept discussed at the Arlis NY event the other night at the MoMA called The Art Behind the Book).

How can art librarians support the emerging hybrid of the artist-scholar? Although I feel I have a decent sense of what the MFA experience entails (having sat in on the defense of an MFA thesis years ago and having had the great pleasure of taking a course with Masters of Visual Studies students with Andy Patton when I was in graduate school) I relied on the article to outline the needs of today’s MFA student. According to the authors, an MFA student generally wants or unknowingly needs: opportunities to exhibit and network; a challenging environment in which to develop their work; support for academic studies, especially interdisciplinary research; adequate face time with instructors; skills; agency; and ultimately, good job prospects. Some of these needs are better served by studio faculty than art librarians, but forming this list made me resolve to increase outreach to studio faculty to promote research sessions and to be in touch with my fellow selectors to ensure that we have a strong interdisciplinary collection of interest to MFA students.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is gender just something you are, or something you do?


"...the tendency to try to fit every person into the binary of male/female can be explained by...the human propensity to categorize."

Last night, under the yellow glow of passenger-controlled lights on the 10.5 hour bus ride from Manhattan to Toronto, I read Gendering Bodies by Sara L. Crowley, Lara J. Foley and Constance L. Shehan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). The three sociologists argue that even though human bodies, sexuality and gender are interrelated, they can be considered separately. Doing so allows the authors to demonstrate how gender is constantly mapped onto the body and reinforced through social constructionism and forms of surveillance so ingrained that we tend not to question them.

The authors state that the tendency to try to fit every person into the binary of male/female can be explained by typification, which is the human propensity to categorize. Reading this made me appreciate my own quirky complexities: how funny is it that a librarian--naturally driven towards categorizing--would become so frustrated by the practice of colour coding infants with pink and blue clothing that it would form the entire basis for her artwork?

The comment, "Gender is something we do, not something we have" really struck me. Many people are surprised when they hear that baby girls used to be dressed in blue and baby boys used to be dressed in pink. Maybe we subconsciously see the blue/pink divide as being driven by gender rather than being a celebration of gender, so we cannot imagine this social practice being different from what it is, and especially not being opposite. As I ruminated on this statement, I noticed that a similarly phrased Morrissey lyric from the song Sister I’m a Poet was going through my head: "And is evil just something you are, or something you do?" (While I am on a tangent about Morrissey, if you want to read about gender expectations, babies, and butterflies [read: former chrysalises], the three things that converge in my artwork regularly, check out Mark Beaumont’s blog posting on Morrissey’s latest album cover here).

Although the book does not look at the practice of dressing baby girls and boys differently, it is clear that it fits with the many examples they cite of imposing gender on humans. If I do not get around to reading Stephen Pinker’s writing anytime soon, I take comfort in the authors’ suggestion that resolving the nature vs. nurture debate is less pressing than grasping the ways in which gender is constructed. By relaying countless examples that reek of sexism, the authors reveal the practice of gendering bodies to be anything but nurturing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Looking back in time


"If a book of hours survived rigorous daily use and got passed down through generations of women...all of its users would essentially contribute to the 'use-value' of the object."

This morning, I took the Metro North train into Manhattan, which is the opposite direction of what I usually travel. As I navigated my way through the swarm of commuters in Grand Central Station at 8:30 am, I felt very thankful to avoid such chaos on a regular basis.

The occasion for traveling south was to attend a retreat for tenure-track librarians at Stony Brook University. I presented a paper that I delivered two weeks ago at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The initial presentation was given to a mix of scholars from art history, literature, history, and theology, so it was a treat to present the same paper today to a group of librarians, especially because my approach to the topic was inspired by librarianship.

Here's a summary of my presentation: Traditionally, patronage in the arts has been associated with men, but I believe that we can look beyond economics to see the impact of women in shaping art history. My focus was on medieval books of hours, which were very small prayer books that emerged as early as the 11th Century and became immensely popular in the mid-14th Century, remaining the darling of bibliophiles for an incredible 300 years. They are primarily associated with women, which is how my presentation, 'Redefining Medieval Patronage: Female Circulation of Books of Hours', came to be included on a panel entitled 'Gendering the Book' in Kalamazoo. Although their primary function was devotional, they doubled as art objects, which is where my interest was piqued as an art librarian.

Essentially, my intention was to introduce a librarian's perspective to the domain of medievalists. Based on the tendency of libraries to assess the value of a book based on the degree of its use rather than on the circumstances surrounding its creation, and to avoid making distinctions between the various kinds of use (recreational, academic, etc.), I proposed that we consider all users of books of hours to effectively be patrons. If a book of hours survived rigorous daily use and got passed down through generations of women through bequests, loans, purchases or even if it were won in political conquests, all of its users would essentially contribute to the 'use-value' of the object.

My assertion was that peripheral and subsequent users of books of hours valued them for reasons beyond their primary purpose (that of assisting devotion by guiding prayers throughout the day); specifically, women valued ornate versions of books of hours as virtual accessories; they used them as tools for literacy, both for themselves and for their daughters; and they used them to negotiate personal salvation in the afterlife by making inscriptions and alterations to the text that called on subsequent readers to effectively pray for them posthumously. Basically, I believe the investment of time (i.e., in using books of hours) should be equated with the investment of money (i.e., in commissioning books of hours). Through this shift in perspective, we can recognize the power of female medieval readers.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Making the grade


"Fickle though the tastes of the gallery world may be, its methods for interacting with artists are relatively consistent."

Memorial Day affected both my train and bus schedules this morning, leaving me with a window of forty minutes and nothing to do. I decided to tackle the lengthy questionnaire in the book, Art and Reality: The New Standard Reference Guide and Business Plan by Robert J. Abbott (Seven Locks Press, 1997).

I checked the book out from the school library not for my personal use but to see if it had become outdated, as there is a later edition that is not in our collection. If I deemed it to be outdated, it would be set aside for ‘deselection’ (that’s the PC replacement librarians have chosen for the arguably gauche term ‘weeding’).

In fact, Abbott’s book has held up very well over time. Fickle though the tastes of the gallery world may be, its methods for interacting with artists are relatively consistent. If you are an artist trying to make sense of how to get your work out of your studio and into galleries, you will likely find this book very useful.

The questionnaire consists of 61 questions, ranging from philosophical questions to extremely practical ones, such as asking the reader to pinpoint time-based goals. I found the most interesting questions to be about output, particularly the question asking about the percentage of the reader’s work that is high quality and suitable for exhibition. It’s difficult to be objective about artwork since it is, by its very nature, subjective, but if you narrow it down to several factors it becomes a manageable task. (If you’re stuck, there’s always the elements and principles of design to be considered). When I’m assessing my cocoon sculptures, I like to think of people grading tobacco in my hometown in southern Ontario: after the harvest, the leaves are graded according to factors like colour and ripeness. Sure, farmers would like it to all be top grade, but that is impossible, so it’s best to be systematic about it.

Without significant output, an artist is unlikely to have a strong pool of work to present to galleries. Abbott notes that artists frequently insist they aren’t ready yet for whatever their next step is; for myself, I can identify the culprit as lack of time for increasing my output. I once read that Hannah Wilke credited her productivity in part to her former partner, Claes Oldenburg, who had said that an artist can’t become successful by making a few pieces a year. After reading that, I stopped seeing my part-time approach as a luxury and began to perceive it as a threat.

Another benefit to being productive is having more opportunities to learn. Last night, I was twisting pink fabric into umbilical cords for some cocoon sculptures. Distracted by Dirty Dancing playing on the television, I acccidentally wound too much and was faced with excess cord. I chose to play with it instead of chopping it off, and ended up winding it around the feet of each layette so that the cord acted as a sort of shackle. I thought I had a static formula for the umbilical cords, but I was wrong. I can only hope that the more work I make, the more I will learn, and the better my work will become, shifting the ratio of work made to quality work in my favour.

Even on a holiday week-end, work hard, play hard: it’s what helps an artist make the grade.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The ugly duckling


"Who knows how many egos are stroked by moments of artist awkwardness?"

Yesterday I took the 6 train to Soho to look at Jean-Michel Basquiat shirts for a friend at Uniqlo, which is a fabulous Japanese clothing store. I wondered what the artists who are now household names would make of the merchandise that their work inspired. It's often the artists who are the ugly ducklings of their time that become venerated in this way: Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, the list goes on. Would they not give a second thought to all the fuss, would they think it's too little too late, or would they delight in being a posthumous celebrity?

This train of thought persisted as I walked through the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition, feeling a bit envious at seeing artist upon artist fitting perfectly into his or her category (artists are organized under painting, sculpture, etc.). My work never feels quite at home in the category of fibre art because it doesn't use traditional techniques other than embroidery. Since the cocoons aren't entirely in the round, they never feel entirely like sculpture either. When I had a booth at Toronto's equivalent of the Washington Square show, more than once, the first thing out of someone's mouth was a quizzical, "What ARE these?" Fortunately, the curator who asked that immediately said he loved them, which undid a lot of the damage of hearing a stumped passerby follow the question of 'What are these?' up with, "But, I mean, what are they FOR? Are they pillows or something?" and walking away in frustration. Perhaps it's the better position to be the ugly duckling than the swan. Ultimately, what's important to me is making the work.

Although I had a great time wandering around Manhattan, the ugly duckling feeling seemed to follow me. I stopped by The Strand for their art book sidewalk sale (incidentally, I felt a surge of nationalist pride when I heard one customer rave about the Marcel Dzama catalogue she had just purchased). I'm certain that the man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt on a bad day thought I was interested in him, as I kept hovering around the corner where he was leafing through books. In truth, I didn't want to ask him to shift so that I could see the book of naked baby photos any more than I wanted to admit to waiting for the book on bridal clothing, both as references for my artwork. Who knows how many egos are stroked by moments of artist awkwardness? As artists, we want to affect people and enrich their lives. And if Brad Pitt's inferior doppelganger left feeling like a swan, all I can conclude is...mission accomplished.