Sunday 02 March 2003

My brush with academia

I imagine my “overdetermined revulsion” (as AKMA might put it) for architects results from never having met one I liked. What is it about architecture school, I often ask myself, that turns decent people into insufferable know-it-alls?

Here’s the kicker, though: I’d only have to meet one architect I liked for my revulsion to evaporate.

I used also to loathe post-modernists and post-structuralists, for the way they ripped the heart out of art practice, taking something I loved almost as much as life itself, and trampling it into a noxious slurry concocted from fear, ambition, hatred, French theory, and PC claptrap mixed with generous portions of their own shit, piss, and vomit.

Whenever Dorothea Salo writes about graduate school, I’m reminded of the university where I taught photography and managed to complete an MA in visual arts. I don’t know whether the system was particularly slack in those days but when I commenced the MA the emphasis was firmly on art practice: my obligations were to make photographs, write regular progress reports, meet occasionally with a supervisor, and present the finished work in a gallery where it would be judged by independent assessors.

After a few false starts, I settled on a project—documenting everyday life in a neonatal intensive care ward. Although this bore little resemblance to my original proposal, I wasn’t troubled, since I’d always believed that art can’t be made to a formula but invariably takes on a life of its own, that it is possible to exert a fine degree of control over a project without necessarily knowing where one is headed. “You never know where you are with production,” said Brecht, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

But by the time I was photographing in the hospital, the pomo clique was firmly in control and I’d grown used to having my values dismissed as “idealist,” “transcendentalist,” or “essentialist.” (I felt a kind of perverse desire to be castigated as a “bourgeois individualist” but Maoist invective had fallen out of fashion by the mid-eighties.) In what must have been an accidental irony, a malicious joke, or a deliberate attempt to bring me under control, I was assigned the “supervisor from hell”: an up-and-coming young Marxist-feminist with a PhD in post-structuralist art theory.

I knew instinctively that my project would be anathema, that her enervated theorizing applied to the raw emotion of my pictures could only harm me and the work. And I was already fragile, since I’d placed myself in the most extreme situation I could imagine, other than war—the point at which life begins and is immediately under threat.

Every day in the hospital I experienced moments of unimaginable happiness as well as periods of the deepest distress. Every day I saw ordinary people, faced with appalling misfortune, behave with the most extraordinary courage and dignity. I learned more than I can adequately describe. And I became close to people. There was no way I could expose their experience or mine to any “theoretical analysis.”

So I invented a dummy project.

Out of the hundreds of finished 11 x 14 color prints from my various false starts and the thousands of unprinted negatives, I picked one failed project: pictures of suburban gardens, artfully lit with a mix of ambient daylight and fill-in flash, which I knew she would like—precisely because their emptiness and sterility had been the catalyst for my venturing into the intensive care ward.

I took a half-dozen garden prints to our first meeting and encouraged her to tell me how they could be improved. A month later, I showed her another five or six photographs, sprinkling a fine dust of theory over the prints as I explained how I’d put her advice into practice.

What some might characterize as a performance of breathtaking dishonesty and cynicism was to me a strategy for survival—for which, as it happened, I was more than adequately equipped.

Since I’d always been prolific, exposing thousands of negatives, year after year, my three months worth of garden photographs looked like at least two years work. And because I was relentlessly self-critical, these rejected images would easily have gained me the MA. More importantly, after three years as a member of the Visual Arts Board (the Australian equivalent of the NEA), I was neither shocked nor surprised by the duplicity of art politics.

So the charade proceeded. Every month I’d bring a batch of “new pictures” for her to critique whilst I poured all my time, energy, and passion into photographing at the hospital. An hour of lies a month was inconsequential compared with the truth I encountered every day in the ward.

I’d booked an exhibition at the Sydney gallery where I normally showed my work. Eventually, once I’d chosen the prints with the help of some photographer friends and written the captions with the assistance of one of the nurses in the ward, I piled all the framed prints into my van one Sunday morning and headed off to the gallery.

We held two openings: one for the parents of the babies I’d photographed and the hospital staff, another for the usual art crowd. The photographs were well-received, the reviews were enthusiastic, the show would tour to other galleries, the assessors were impressed. To the delight of my parents, I got my MA.

My supervisor never commented on the “real work” though I heard from reliable sources that she hated it. As I’ve written in another post:

Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.

This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.

Looking back, I’m astonished that I got away with the subterfuge. Dorothea might point out that circumstances conspired to ensure my success, that someone else—lacking my cunning and audacity—might well have been crucified. That’s true. But, once fate or destiny put me under the invidious control of someone who lacked sympathy for the work I needed to make, I had no alternative but to marshall the resources necessary to outmaneuver her. In doing so, I learned that my only loyalty was to the individuals I’d photographed and the images that resulted from our collaboration. I didn’t give a rat’s arse about my supervisor’s opinion, pomo theory, or my academic career.

It’s hardly surprising that I’ve constructed myself as the (flawed) hero of this narrative. My former supervisor would tell the story differently—and, for some readers (or many), her version might be equally persuasive. If I’d listened to her unbiased advice, if I’d been able to put aside my pathological distaste for art theory, if I’d been really open to experience… I could have created a work of far greater depth and complexity. Better still, I might have continued to teach happily at the university instead of resigning my tenured position, splitting up with the lovely woman I’d been seeing for a couple of years, and abandoning photography, thus diving headlong into a midlife crisis.

All I know is this: at that time, she was absolutely the wrong supervisor. For me.

It’s only recently I’ve realized that she could well have been precisely the right supervisor for someone else, an insight that depended on both the passing of time and my “meeting” a couple of post-modernists and/or post-structuralists I like and respect. Enter stage left: AKMA and Jeff Ward.

Whereas once I regarded pomo theory (and theorists) with revulsion, as a consequence of reading AKMA’s and Jeff’s weblogs over the past year, I’m more open to viewing the world through theoretical (rather than purely experiential) eyes. I’m also willing to admit—having encountered a variety of smart, engaging academics amongst the faculty of U Blog—that not everyone who works in a university is either a cynical opportunist, a ruthless careerist, or a time-serving hack.

So, when Dorothea attacks academia and Jeff defends it, it seems to me that they are each describing different aspects of the same institution, since universities are just as subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”) as every other area of human endeavor.

The Theodore Sturgeon FAQ explains how the Law originated:

In his 1972 interview with David G Hartwell (published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #7 and #8, March and April 1989) Sturgeon says:

Sturgeon’s Law originally was “Nothing is always absolutely so.” The other thing was known as “Sturgeon’s Revelation.”

The first reference I can find in his oeuve appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture Science Fiction, where he wrote:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of sf is crud.

The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.

Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.”

It is this Revelation that has now become known as Sturgeon’s Law.

As a codicil, the author of a Spanish web site refers to an old Arab fable I’d not encountered before:

A young Caliph asked the Great Vizier how he could tell if a poem was good or bad. “Always assume it is bad”, he was told. “You’ll only be wrong one time in a hundred”.

Whether one focuses on reducing the bad or adding to the good is probably determined by experience and temperament. Either way, if you’re successful, the end result is the same: slightly less crud, though I doubt—given our moral and intellectual frailty—that we’ll ever radically alter Sturgeon’s ratio of 90:10.

All I can say about my experience of academia is that I taught until my passion and commitment were exhausted and that in the time I was there I made a set of photographs that combined the best parts of me, the parents, children, doctors, and nurses I’d photographed, and the dozen or so photographers whose work I’d loved and studied for nearly twenty years. As Jeff Ward explained:

Some people would rather sing. In order to be heard, they rearrange the language they inherit into something that is unique to them. It is composed of the song of others; there is no choice in this. It is novel in its arrangement, but not in its themes. It is an engine that creates difference from uniformity.

Because nothing is always absolutely so.

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I've enjoyed Sturgeon's Law for as long as I can remember knowing it, which is probably more than 30 years now. I've kind of re-worked it into another view I call, The Marginal Theory of the Universe: Basically, everything interesting, important or worthwhile happens in the margins.

What that suggests to me is that we're most engaged with life when we seek it at the edges, which are seldom the places where we are most comfortable.

I modestly submit that the nature of your project was consistent with that view.

Posted by dave rogers on 3 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Maybe I'm missing something, but why did you need academia to do this work? It sounds like academia (in the shape of your supervisor) was more of a hindrance. And if that's the case, why aren't you in there with Dorothea, bashing away? (Full disclosure: grad school nearly ruined my life, and I always advise people to steer clear of it unless there's absolutely no other way to do what they must do -- and if that's the case, to be aware of the hell that awaits them and prepare for it.)

Oh, and Sturgeon's Law is one of life's great lessons; I've cited it for decades.

Posted by language hat on 4 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Gosh, you are getting mellow. My sympathies are with the photographer whose MA is a kind of detournement of the whole academic certification process. The best advice I have ever given my daughter, now 18, for which she has finally reluctantly thanked me is, "Submit crap, and pursue your own work without compromise."

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 4 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've spent most of my life since I was sixteen inside academia-- undergrad, grad student (repeatedly), instructor, law student. There's probably some sad syndrome that involves collecting initials after one's name (BA, MA, MA, PhD, JD)... But academia is also a safe zone. You don't lose social status by being known to care more about ideas and books than about the more concrete world, the expenses are reasonably low, the co-eds are young and leggy and impressionable, you don't have to wear a suit and tie to work, there's access to libraries and archives, and there's usually a good pub or two just off campus. You do have to deal with the occasional ideologue, but I suppose merchant banking has its equivalent set of Believers.

Architects, like surgeons and auto mechanics and fighter pilots, are known to be arrogant, but I suppose there's something to be said for that. I don't want to live in a building designed by someone racked with self-doubt any more than I want to be operated on by someone suddenly paralyzed by a crisis of faith.

Posted by Lohr on 23 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour