Thursday 28 November 2002

The art and politics of exclusion

Jeff Ward is scared. He read a book by Judith Butler, winner of the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Fourth Bad Writing Contest, and found it “to be clearly written, understandable, and to the point.” Jeff explained:

I’m really scared that I find Butler’s sentences quite comprehensible. What the hell is happening to me? Have I acquired the virulently pernicious academic gene? Maybe I’m even more terrified by the conversation I had today with the director of the graduate program here. We had a nice talk about my project, in post-structuralist terms that we were both quite comfortable with and she stopped to point out that our conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just talking. Now I’m struck by images of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly where I become reduced to some genetic mutant who drools on his food to digest it. Or worse still, I shrink to an imperceptible size like the Vincent Price version squeaking a nearly inaudible “help me… help me…”

I detest post-structuralist theory because it gutted art practice, subordinating artists to the whims of curators who hate art but love politics and power. Consequently, contemporary art, which used to attract a substantial audience, is now almost totally marginalized, as a tiny coterie of artists, curators, and collectors conduct an abstruse theoretical conversation amongst themselves, while the alienated general audience flocks to exhibitions of antiquities and European masterpieces.

The process that occurred in the art school where I taught for seven years simply mirrored what was happening in literature departments and in academia at large:

‘A typical first-year graduate student in English, now, has a cannier sense of the profession than I had at the age of 40’, [Frederick Crews] complains. ‘What that means is, they’re aiming for one of these little niches - a gender niche, an ethnic niche, or what have you. So their perspectives have already been narrowed. They are completely oriented to the profession, they master the jargon of the profession, and for the rest of their lives they essentially speak to each other.’

But I don’t think Jeff need worry. He bears no resemblance to the graduating BAs mentioned by Crews, who submitted brilliant essays with their graduate school applications and, five or six years later were writing “incomprehensible crap.” Jeff writes with clarity, elegance, and precision. More importantly, his love and enthusiasm for the subjects of his essays—particularly literature and photography (I share these interests)—is evident in every sentence.

I rather see Jeff as someone who, thanks to a happy confluence of factors, is incorruptible. Why? He came to formal education later than most naive and impressionable undergraduates. He’d photographed for many years and therefore understands—in a way no academic possibly could—the relationship between theory and practice. And, as I’ve mentioned, he’s primarily motivated by love: for art, for literature, and for learning itself.

Jeff can enjoy reading Judith Butler and talking post-structuralism with the director of the graduate program because he’s multilingual: he also writes in a way that the rest of of us can understand and appreciate.

It’s his colleague who has me worried, the one who noted that their “conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department.” What petty desire for superiority and control lies beneath that smug remark?

But, hey, what would I know about post-structuralist theory? I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that art and literature are communicative acts, the tangible products of the human need to share our deepest thoughts and feelings, not to exclude as many people as possible.

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u sound gay

Posted by coco pop on 29 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

To be honest, I've found Jeff Ward to be a bit intimidating at times, though gifted. This particular passage makes him much more approachable.

I took an art appreciation class, once, to learn more about the different movements and styles. Expand my limited art horizens, so to speak. (At this point, the only thing I knew about art is I liked 'that' painting, but not 'this' one.)

The teacher sneered at each piece of art he showed us -- pieces that I thought were quite lovely and/over very unusual and compelling. At the end of the class, he showed one of his own paintings -- this awful thing of dark, murky abstract lines all jumbled over each other. He was met with dead silence.

After the class as we walked away, we all agreed that the teacher had done an effective job of showing us how to appreciate art, though in a way he hadn't intended.

Posted by Burningbird on 30 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Lousy teacher. The best teachers I had (and there weren't many of them) taught by showing enthusiasm for the things they loved, not contempt for what they disliked.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 30 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour