Thursday, February 4, 2010

Teacher or student, or both?


"Can I have my (cup)cake and eat it too? Is it realistic to make work for both the general public and the gallery-going public?"

In January, I began co-teaching a class at Purchase College called Art and the Environment. An outgrowth of the campus theme from the previous year (Environment is Everything), it is a collaboration with Environmental Studies professor, Ryan Taylor. The majority of the students are from Environmental Studies, which makes me feel especially cautious about which version of art history is presented. There are so many versions; where does one begin telling the story of art?

We're covering a lot of ground, so it's impossible to highlight everything. Cherry-picking artists and theorists is daunting because I don't want to misrepresent the discipline. At the same time, though, it's liberating. For example, the students were assigned a reading from Anthony Julius' Transgressions: The Offences of Art (2002, Chicago: University of Chicago Press) to contextualize environmental artist-activists. Why is it, I wonder, that none of my former art history studio professors devoted a chunk of time to discussing artists as troublemakers (that I can recall, at least)? I know that I am not alone in my impulse to cross the line. I know that I fit into a tradition of artists who test, break and rewrite the rules. It would be easy to just imply the transgressive nature of art, but pausing to acknowledge it is different. It is part of making the choice about the story being told.

Because the class is for academic credit, writing is a key component, with students writing critical analyses of works of art. Contextualizing this process is Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art (2008, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson). Having worked in arts publishing and having written my fair share of art history essays (the last one was worth a whopping 100 per cent of my grade), I didn't expect any big surprises from the book. However, I did run across something that shocked me: in describing the process of 'reception theory', Barnet explains that the uniqueness of the viewer's response to a work of art has really only been valued for a few years more than I've been alive. When I think of all the insights contributed by our students, it's hard to believe that individual responses were not always of interest.

I've been thinking about viewer response lately, because I'm considering applying to a summer arts festival at the end of the month. The reason is that I'm craving conversations with the general public. Will my new work shock them? Bore them? Offend them? Make them laugh? I want my work to affect the general public and make them more aware of the implications of gender socialization, but I also want my work to have a place in the contemporary art world. Can I have my (cup)cake and eat it too? Is it realistic to make work for both the general public and the gallery-going public? That brings me to another reading I want to discuss.

The students read a fascinating article about how people view artwork (C. F. Nodine, P. J. Locher, E. A. Krupinski. "The Role of Formal Art Training on Perception and Aesthetic Judgment of Art Compositions." LEONARDO vol. 26, no. 3, 1993: 219-227). It describes a study that revealed significant differences in visual perception and aesthetic appreciation of paintings, depending on the viewer's knowledge about art. Learning that viewers untrained in art history "spent significantly more time looking at central and foreground figures" (p. 226) made me think about how effective works could be that catered to that tendency. Coincidentally, the work that Professor Taylor selected for the class to examine in person showed a hummingbird--front AND center--in the palm of a hand with a neutral, non-distracting background, made by Purchase alumna, Sara Breznen. If artists were informed about the science of art viewing, would they (or should they) tailor their work accordingly? Which group would/should they choose--the group trained in art or the group not trained in art? Who would I choose?

Another article made me aware of the presumptions I make about the way viewers view. About a year and a half ago, I began making a series of sculptures in which an abstracted cocoon is represented at three points in time. I positioned the earliest/youngest cocoon on the left and the latest/oldest on the right, assuming that people would read them as they would Western language, from left to right. I was forced to rethink this assumption because of another class reading (Roger Cushing Aikin. "Paintings of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation" American Art Fall 2000, 78-89). I know, it seems like a stretch to draw connections between an article on 19th Century landscapes and my own contemporary feminist sculpture, but as my undergraduate studies in a combined studio/art history program (Sheridan College and University of Toronto) taught me, the unlikeliest links can be forged between the disciplines. I digress... Aikin suggests that right-to-left movement in landscapes symbolized the nationalist concept of Manifest Destiny by literally moving towards the West. He raises the issue of whether viewers read paintings in the same way that they read maps or language, which I sincerely hadn't questioned (at least in relation to language; being severely directionally challenged, I don't give a lot of thought to maps).

I want to skip back to Nodine et al. Their scientific study of tracing patterns of eye movement served as a reminder of the interconnectivity of art and science. We could have named the course 'Environmental Art' but instead we called it 'Art and the Environment'. They inform one another, not unlike artist and viewer or teacher and student.

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