Saturday, July 16, 2011
What Were They Thinking?
What Were They Thinking?
By Tom Wachunas
“The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.” –Paul Gauguin-
“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals.” –Susan Sontag-
“This grandiose tragedy that we call modern art.” –Salvador Dali-
“Art, modern or otherwise, has always been a record of the artist’s decision-making process. If we are to fully understand it, we need to know what or who, exactly, colored those decisions. Then again, there’s the counter-intuitive idea that some of our most memorable art is indiscernible from utter mystery.”
When I started teaching at Kent Stark nearly five years ago, the name of the course was ‘Art Survey’. Rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and there’s just a distinct enough separation from ‘Art History.’ Art Survey. Really, it’s a euphemism for Art Appreciation. But recently the course name was changed to ‘Art as a World Phenomenon.’ Whatta mouthful. It tempts me to refer to it in acronym form: AAWP. Cute if not aawkward. I think the powers that be wanted to assure a better, more balanced and relevant embrace of global concepts of art.
I’m currently engaged in teaching a somewhat truncated version of the course, crammed into a measley 4 weeks (meeting for four evening sessions of two hours each per week), rather than a whole semester. Particularly when we encounter some radical and challenging 20th century works, there have been moments when I’ve felt sufficiently boggled enough to silently rename the beast ‘Art as Rapidly Grown Global Hokum,’ the acronym, appropriately enough, being AARGGH (he moaned).
As it is, negotiating the text book for the course is an exercise in judicious presentation. Now in this Summer abbreviation, teaching the course brings to mind images of winning a 5-minute shopping spree at Walmart or Target. So much to grab, so little time. I admit that while the course is certainly intended to instill a generalized grasp of art’s (and artists’) reasons and riddles - as well as results – it’s also a glimpse into my own passion for the stuff. And that’s where I need to be careful. I can muck up the already overwhelming works with my own predispositions. I’m not there to dictate what’s loveable or detestable so much as arm my students with the wherewithal to make intelligent assessments for themselves, and, more important, enjoy the process of it.
It’s challenging enough to present various methods of understanding and evaluating movements like Cubism, or Duchamp’s 1917 submission of a urinal to a prestigious French juried art show, or Pollock’s action paintings, or Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawings. Things can get really dicey as I search the room for glimmers of comprehension when we (OK, I, mostly) talk about the 1965 Dusseldorf ‘performance’ by Joseph Beuys wherein he, his face slathered with gold leaf and honey, talked to a dead rabbit in his arms.
And speaking of performance art, there was a time, had I been teaching about the subject long ago in a land far away, when I would have killed a few birds with one stone by walking into class one day and, while fully and quickly disrobing, pronounced with mock solemnity something like, “All you need to know today about Postmodernism is that it is the ongoing decision to re-think all the decisions of Modernism.” Then I would walk out of the room. Class dismissed.
Note to my students (whom I have politely asked but not required to read my blog): Ain’t gonna happen. I love my job too much to lose it by foisting such a felonious and absurd assault on your minds and eyes. I’ll find other ways to lead you through the enthralling labyrinth of AAWP. I’d better get busy. AARGGHhhhh.