Thursday, October 8, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Last Wednesday I went to a lecture at the Phillips Collection given by one of my former professors at Illinois. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with him on the fundamental matters of art making back then, but I did think it might be nice to see a familiar face (and hear familiar dialogue) in this new and different place.

But besides the feeling of being back in grad school for an hour and a half, what has stuck with me from this talk is the introduction the director of the Phillips gave. She talked about one of the purposes of this lecture series (and, it turns out, an alliance with my alma mater) as being to join the “two art histories:” the academy and the museum, theory and practice.

The director’s comments have made me think about my time spent under both of those regimes and how they each changed me as an artist. I came out of the university three years ago feeling bitter, stupid, and like a passé freak of a formalist. I just couldn’t get with the relational aesthetics program. However, I did have a strong sense of my own motivations as an artist, wrong headed as I believed those to be. My time as a MOCA educator worked to sweeten that bitterness, as I was then in the position of having to interface between difficult artworks and the public. I could share both my love of a Morris Louis (or Robert Rauschenberg or Laura Owens) and my puzzlement at a Cindy Bernard or Chris Burden, and in so doing created a richer experience of these artworks for myself and my tour groups. Perhaps my changing attitude had to do with gaining perspective and maturity; it could also be the difference in a top-down versus collaborative approach to challenging artworks.

(tangential rant to conclude)

During grad school, I was always frustrated by the insistence on projects that were as non-commercial as humanly possible, so collaborative and community-involved that little seemed to remain behind of the artist’s own self. I came to see this position as pie-in-the-sky delusional; professors could espouse such work, and make it themselves, because they had jobs with regular paychecks. Meanwhile, they churned out more of us grads with suspicion of craft, the object, and the hand beaten into our brains, to compete for the precious-few such academic positions, yet not equipping us with the career guidance we would need to chart our own paths. It was a trial by fire, but I think I came out stronger for it.

My time in LA, however, gave me the opposite experience. The LA art community is so frank about the money that makes it go ‘round, that I, at times, felt myself feeling wistful for those alternative-space, non-commercial, community oriented days of yore.

I guess the truth is that you need both commercial outlets and non-commercial aspirations to be a whole artist. The collapse of the LA economy had, even before I left that city, started me thinking about how to chart this kind of a course for myself. Perhaps I will figure more of that out here in another new place. Fresh start, fresh face, fresh ideas.