Reality TV and the Art Critique

Ahhh… to finally see my TV return to grace with a new season of Dancing with the Stars.

I suppose that for me and my ongoing, possibly failed attempt to prove the value of my $100 TV, this is second only to baseball season.

Dave Hickey’s “The Heresy of Zone Defense” (in Air Guitar) convinced me that sports are, more or less, the black sheep of the humanities.  It’s ironic, I know, I know…  But, listen to a good radio sportscast.  The discussion that surrounds players’ and teams’ decisions, and even the rules of a game, can and should rise to metaphors, helping us navigate our lives much as does a short story.   Let us all remember George Carlin’s monologue on baseball vs. football.  As it were, I see in baseball a strong connection with Zen philosophy, have no interest at all in football (American, fútbol, or otherwise), have yet to make sense of the baseball game I went to in Japan three years ago, and believe all of that says a lot about me and my understanding of the world.  Now, let me remind you that I’m in the arts.  Next, enter B-list celebrities in a dance competition − competitive humanities no less − and you’ve got the best of both worlds, right?

Getting to the point:  For several years I taught a variety of introductory level college art courses.  Whatever the disparity of experience among my students may have been, one thing was certain, almost none of them had any idea how to conduct themselves in a critique.  And how distressing the first critique is.  For all of their lives, little Johnny and Janie have heard nothing but praise of the cartoon characters they’ve traced out in their sketchbooks.  Suddenly, here in college(!), big meanie art professor stands up and begins to pontificate on everything that’s wrong with what they’ve made.  What a dick.  Alas, yeah, not only that, but he wants everyone in the class to join in!  O-M-F-G indeed.  It’s tough, and conducting intro level critiques is a skill and an “experience” that separates good Foundations instructors from those who avoid those courses at all costs.

Then, one day, I got a couple of students in a class who knew exactly how to do it.

One of them said, “Yeah, critiques are just like Project Runway”.

And, they are.

Thus via reality TV (or, rather, a few shows in the category), idioms and practices for critiquing creative production have entered into mainstream popular culture.  Sure, most students still try to avoid talking.  But, some of them, more than before, begin the first critique with some idea of what to expect.  For a teacher who emphasizes participatory modes and student self-direction, having a couple of students around to “prime the pump” so to speak, is as much as I could ask for.  They understand that the critique is a time during which we bring problems as well as praise into the light.  They understand that it is in the spirit of learning.  And, they are somewhat inured to taking comments too personally.

Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a contestant stand before the judges’ panel on Top Chef, et al. and said to myself, “I’ve had that student before”.  It’s plain as day.  Some delicate ego becomes defensive and cagey at Tom Colicchio’s observations, and we can all mark that as the exact moment at which said contestant ceases to improve.  You may as well count the episodes until he/she “packs his/her knives” and goes home.  And, oh, how much time have I spent trying to get students to drop their defensiveness for their own good?

Even then, however, a few students will see that destructive critique behavior and immediately associate it with the worst menu, design, etc. that has been presented to the judges.  They recognize it as the behavior of a person who is about to be eliminated.  In the same percentages of students who are/were helpful and harmful before and after reality TV, some of those students will use their advanced knowledge to the benefit of their classmates.

I believe that is all good.  And, it’s something I’ve wanted to put into writing for a while now.

Moreover, there is one other aspect of competitive reality TV as it relates to teaching art that interests me.  I’m intrigued by what the differences among TV show judgment systems could mean for conducting art classes.  Project Runway, for example, employs a closed panel of experts (often with guests) to judge the creative work of its contestants.  American Idol, a show I’ve never been able to stomach – in the least for my unflagging distaste of pop music – escalates the scathing commentary by experts, but leaves all of the judging to call-in viewers.  Dancing with the Stars operates via a combination of those systems.

I think we are all accustomed to the mode of art professor as expert panel.

I tried, once, to have my students grade one another (a.k.a. call-in voting).  I developed a rubric and asked them to apply it to their classmates’ work.  I averaged out the scores.  And… nearly every student failed! Oh were they upset.  If words could describe it…  I gave them all the option of redoing the work (a 1-day in-class) as homework for a grade that I would determine.  Of course, without a rubric in hand, they generally all pat each other on the back and dole out the high marks with élan.  Forced to directly apply the criteria of the assignment in evaluation of the work produced, however, at the very least we illustrated how art is in fact graded in a college class, and maybe even hinted a little at just how forgiving the teacher (me) typically is, contrary to prior conceptions.

Should I return to teaching art again, I’d jump at a chance to work out what it could mean to bring more reality TV methodology into my classroom.  We could have teams that voting their own members off.  We could put art in the halls and ask passers-by to vote on it to decide the next “elimination”.  I would certainly employ some quick-fire challenges.  Especially in the case that I go back to teaching in community colleges, considering the astounding number of students don’t want to be in school anyway, why shouldn’t I make my class be “not school”?  My only sticking point now is figuring out what to do with the eliminated students, assuming they are the same people as the students who show up anyway.


Start Rolling Out Your Soup Kitchens

So, in my last post I waxed not-very-poetically about art as a force for political change.

I went with art that describes the legacy of political decisions on our built environment − with the built environment as evidence of social conditions.

I also mentioned in an aside that I generally prefer to diminish the distinctions among forms of creative human production, i.e. as often springs up among conceptions of art, design, and craft, etc.

And so, today I present to you a charming and disquieting animated explanation of economics 101.  Or, why almost everyone who will stumble across an art & teaching related blog doesn’t have a clue about how contemporary economics works.  It’s quite timely and very political given that, apparently, the United States will explode tomorrow if John McCain doesn’t personally bitchslap our banks back into line, or something like that.

When you have 45 minutes, it’s worth a watch.

Provided with a disclaimer that this one video is the source for almost everything I know about 21st century capitalist monetary systems:  I’m left with a lingering malaise that we’re going to have to address our banking collapse either by just letting them all fail; suffering through The Even Greater Depression, with years of poverty and famine − to “correct” “the market”, resetting a longer course of relative prosperity until the next time things correct themselves by getting fucked up again.  (Here’s to hoping that a master’s degree in art will provide me ample resource to avoid starvation.)  Or, we should just call it quits and start over with some kind of isolationist anarchy or maybe a giant hippie commune.

I guess that’s why no one has called me to ask for help drafting the bailout.

Benjamin Edwards

I went out to see the Picturing Politics 2008 show at the Arlington Arts Center last Friday.

The show brings up, for me, the age old art world conflict over whether or not art can be an effective form of political commentary.  (That’s of course, to make hard distinctions among design and art, to dissociate performance and public protest, etc.   Those are lines I generally prefer to diminish, but I’m going to stick to one hot button at a time.)

I imagine it all comes about because so many people in the arts are very politically aware and also inclined to contribute to specific causes as well as to a more abstract “good”.  Seeing that what we do is communicate, it seems to follow that we may as well ply what we do best for the benefit of things about which we feel passionate.  The trouble that follows often lies in finding the right line of expression without spoon-feeding or being so specific as to become dated before the paint even dries − while also avoiding speaking so opaquely as to exclude audience, or commenting so generally as to not address to the issue at hand.  “Gallery” may as well be listed as an antonym for “public”, “art” should never be “easy”, but rather “timeless”, etc.  There are just a lot of mutually exclusive idioms to navigate.

The other trouble is the difficulty in assembling a coherent show around a concept so broadly encompassing as “politics”.  I know it must be tempting, what, here inside the Beltway and weeks before the nation is surely to set explode, I know.  I’ll add it to a long list of themes that tempt curators but are not sufficient to do the curatorial work in and of themselves.  I’m sorry to say it was the second show in a row at the Arlington Arts Center that I thought fell into that trap.

However, there was one bright spot in the show, at least as far as my taste is concerned.  And, that’s where I want to turn my attention.  I really enjoyed the prints by Benjamin Edwards.

Benjamin Edwards - Then/Now

Benjamin Edwards - Then and Now

For one, this sort of happy dystopia and subtle surreality reminds me a little of Roger Brown‘s suburban landscapes.  So, I’m also a sucker for happy colors and patterns.  (See previous post on the merger of the dark and the giddy.)

What I like most about them is that the way in which they interpret the landscape of Northern Virginia highlights a palpable atmosphere and character of a landscape formed through and through, since it’s beginning, by politics.  More than being topical, the images are historical and reflect the legacy of the topic on our built environment.

One thing that struck me when I moved to the DC Metro area a year ago, having for a long time lived in Chicago, is that all the pared-down Colonial(ish) style housing looks a lot like “the Projects”.  It’s the red brick and stark unambition of the architecture.  They make the half million dollar (plus) homes here appear rather similar to the low-rise subsidized units I used to carry my laundry through (to get to the laundromat), while six year olds taunted me from school bus windows − to get out of their neighborhood.  And, under the looming panopticon of the Pentagon and the distant Capitol in Edwards’ print, the (currently high priced) blocks of austerity and conformity reveal their identity as a product of Post-War, big, centralized government planning and new prosperity that is, actually, kindred to the decisions that brought Chicago it’s now mostly defunct Projects.

On the other hand, as you may well know, massive efforts have been made to privatize the American government over the recent decades.  The other thing that first defined the capital region for me, having spent the year prior in Toledo, OH, is the ungodly and astonishing amount of money just flying around here.  You could buy an entire Rust Belt town for the price of an Arlington condo.  (You think I’m kidding?)  It’s like they just can’t build the sea walls high enough to hold back the waves of cash.  And contractors are scurrying all over, gleaning millions from the over spray while they still can.  Of course, the biggest contractors could care less what spashes over, they operate on a scale unimaginable from places like the Rust Belt.  You might not be able to see it, but in Edwards’ print on the right, the buildings support the monnikers of KBR, Bechtel, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, etc.  Then, there in the midst of the financial smorgasboard otherwise known as “small government” lie the McMansions, homes that foreclosed in the Heartland under $200K mortgages, that are forclosing here under million dollar sums.  A legacy of de-centralized government non-planning; blocks of conspicuous displays of wealth, and conformity.

Things That Make Me Cheery.

This appeals straight to the heart of my love for things simultaneously dark and giddy.

I guess that all goes back my long time admiration for the Thinking Feller’s Union Local 282. (They just don’t make them like that anymore.)

Plus, the video uses typography − another thing I esteem; in its case as the pinnacle exemplar of anal retentiveness in design.  Few people can focus like a good typographer…

Apparently the song plays during the final credits of the game Portal.

It was written by Jonathan Coulton and is sung by Ellen McLain.  Typography video by Trickster.

It made me smile. I just wanted to share.

“I’m an Ignorant Boob, Let me Tell You What I Think”

No… he really does begin by calling himself a boob.

Here is why it’s so hard to promote art education and a demonstration of why we so sorely need more of it all wrapped up in one ignorant diatribe.  (And also a reason why I can’t even remember what channel 60 Minutes is on):

(I found this on hatchets and skewers.)

What was the quote?… “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.”  I mean, I appreciate the honesty, I guess.  However, as I’ve mentioned here before, I have first-hand knowledge of the fact that there are classes you can take in which you will learn about these things.  Some of them are online.  There are also books.

Of course, any professional in the arts who sees this video could, without effort, point out each revelation of the speaker’s ignorance − jaw-dropping mostly for it’s willfulness and its publication on a nationally syndicated show that is presumably about providing information.  Each of us who have taught art also can tell you that we face an attitude identical to Andy Rooney’s every other time we turn around.  And, therein lies the crux of the issue: those who know about art know about art, and those who don’t know about art are pretty sure that they know about art.

In summary − written without forcing myself to go back and watch it again:  Mr. Rooney opines to conflate widely divergent manifestations of the most typical form of public art (large discreet objects sitting in large open spaces), from the Picasso bull in Chicago to the myriad animals on “parade” across America’s downtowns (fiberglass animals that artists paint or reconfigure under the benefaction of often corporate sponsors, that are distributed throughout shopping/tourist areas for a short time so that people will smile at them.  Cows in Chicago, pigs in Cincinnati… ).  He criticizes Richard Serra’s (in)famous Tilted Arc while demonstrating that he probably hasn’t even bothered to read the wikipedia page on site specific installation.  Rooney then goes on to repeat clichés about artists proving they can make “traditional”, i.e. 19th century neoclassical, things before they are “allowed” to make abstract work.  He shows an image of a drawing Picasso made, probably in the 19th century.  He doesn’t bother to explain why this makes the Chicago Picasso better than an abstraction of mountains crated in tribute to Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  It’s just that now that Picasso has made something Andy Rooney understands (a nude male backside at that!), Picasso has Andy Rooney’s permission to make art that Andy Rooney doesn’t “get”.  He goes on and on to predictably berate newfangled “modern” art, much of it decades old, as if it’s a late and surprising pox on society.

At least when Jesse Helms did that he had a false political pretenses.

And, my last contention for the day, I’m all in a rant in the first place because Andy Rooney is regurgitating what I think is among the worst of the anti-art cliches, which is that he “can’t understand” art, ergo art must be worthless.  What’s so troubling about it is that almost every artist, all but the most discursive among us, is engaged in a practice of communication.  We use a range of devices, from form to symbolism to context, that most of us have gone to great length to study, to make something that other people will be able to derive some significant thought from.  The thing is, viewers have to actually think, use their imaginations, give the speaker (the art work) the benefit of the doubt until they have sufficiently engaged the “message” (for lack of a better word).  As in Duchamp’s Art Coefficient, the person looking at the art work bears a large responsibility for interpreting it.  If you demand that a Martin Puryear look just like a Houdon, you’re missing the point just as much as if you demanded the latter look like the former.  In both cases, the failure would be on your part, not the artist’s.

And, even then, if you know you don’t get it, and you believe you should, go out and learn, study, ask, do the work of knowing, before you spout off that you’ve got all the answers.   Please.


So, if you are a person who knows nothing about art but would like to find 20th and 21st century art more accessible, I think a good place to start is Cynthia Freeland‘s book But is it Art?

If You See it Enough it will be True

For a lighter note today, I present you with: Best Photoshop Hoaxes – A History of Doctoring History.

911 Tourist Parodies

One thing is that sometime, shortly after it becomes your job to teach people how to make these things, it’s just not fun to email your friends pictures of them with their heads on other people’s bodies any more.  (oh to be unjaded…)  That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate some wit when I see it though; such as crossing memes…

It all reminds me of an exhibition of taxidermied fabrications of imaginary animals/hoaxes(?) I saw at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona several years ago.  I tried my darnedest to find a link to that exhibition, or the, I think German, taxidermists who made them, but the best I could do was this: If any of you know something about it, your insight would be appreciated.

OK, OK, well, I guess if I’m on the subject of fake things, and given that I don’t feel like mentioning politics again (ahem, lies lies lies lies, people believe lies, ahem), I should also give you a link to this: The Freakiest, Most Out-There LIFT08 Presentation on the Wired Blog Network.

Campaigns and Interviews

In December, around the same time that I learned that my college was not going to fund a renewal of my position, the Presidential campaign onslaught began full-swing.

Since then, I’ve been amusing myself by drawing comparisons between our ever indelicate political process and that of finding a job.

I couldn’t help but chuckle, back in the colder months, to see John Edwards on a TV news interview and wonder how long it would take a committee of weathered and jaded humanities professors, plus one representative from the staff who never says anything, to start exchanging funny glances and try to wrap things up without breaking a “fair” hiring guideline.

Who that has conducted an interview would not wonder what insecurities were hiding under such a thick and affected facade.

Then, which person would never be asked to participate on a committee again after forwarding the C.V. Rudy Giuliani sent in with “9/11” scribbled all over the front in red marker?

Let me also add that I’ve conducted somewhere between 400−500 interviews of teenagers seeking acceptance into art apprenticeship programs I’ve taught.  So, I know a thing or two about nervous candidates.

And, John McCain is really nervous in interviews − especially if they don’t just lob him softballs.  His answers, in so far as actually addressing a question, stink.  It’s like he copied and pasted his replies under the wrong numbers.  He fidgets his hands, twiddles his thumbs, and blinks a lot.  I think he even gets a little mad when a non-softball comes his way, as if the interviewer’s too dumb to know that’s not how things are supposed to work (not that TV/cable news really press tough questions).

It occurred to me that this was a guy that most academic committees would just pity.  They’d all feel a little bad, then never call him.

Then, it occurred to me that there really weren’t many candidates through the whole primary season who could muster an interview for a Lecturer position.

By contrast, I think Barack Obama could interview his way into starting with tenure in just about any department on campus, regardless of what he knows about that field. Then again, he was on the faculty at the University of Chicago.

Truth is though, that no one knows who’s going to win in November.  My guess is that most voters will cast ballots along party lines without understanding any real implications of a particular candidate’s policy proposals.  A lot of people vote by party-glossed and cultivated ideological predispositions.

Then, the next thing that occurred to me that it’s not exactly unusual for academic committees to do the same thing.

So, now I’m wondering how different the U.S. would be if we interviewed for our Presidents rather than voting for them.  “So, Mr. McCain, tell me what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”…

Would we just declare a failed search and fill the cabinet with adjuncts?  “Sorry Mr. Putin, the Secretary of State is unavailable on Tuesdays, she does some defense advising for Aruba on those days”.

Alternately, what if universities had candidates campaign for faculty positions?  I could put up yard signs at Yale and say I have an international exhibition record because I saw Canada across Niagara Falls.  That, and I have experience with the metric system.  People would have to accept that because they share my non-Christian values.