Each issue the New Art Examiner will invite a well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest. Richard Siegesmund is Professor of Art and Design Education at the School of Art, Northern Illinois University. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar to the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, and the Faculty of Sociology at KU Leuven, Belgium.

The New Art Examiner, when first founded, was distinctive for recognizing the social, economic, and political contexts in which the visual arts existed. Art was not a rarified world of visual excellence. It was a messy, contentious, humanly fallible process that was susceptible to self-aggrandizement and greed. Powerful forces benefited from what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural commodification. the New Art Examiner promised to challenge this world head-on without fear or favour.
Much has changed since the New Art Examiner first went to press. The principal art world has abandoned its older buildings that leant to staid Greek columns and Brutalist architecture and replaced them with the flash and whimsy of Frank Gehry fantasy. The deconstruction of Modernism has held to the triumph of spectacle. Art is no longer concerned with form; it’s all about experience. And with attention spans running at about five seconds, experience can be fast and furious.
In this age of hyper-aesthetic taste, issues of substance, training, and pedigree get pushed to the side. This is bad news for art academies. The idea that you need six, seven, or more years paying tuition for a degree seems increasingly irrelevant. How does an academic degree prepare you for the networking and marketing that drive the art world? In this sense, the art world is far more transparent than it was when the New Art Examiner was founded. The pretenses have melted away.
There is more bad news for art academies. The neo-liberal policies of the European Union have largely decided that the idea of stand-alone national art schools is obsolete. Efficiency demands consolidation, and independent art schools have been swallowed whole into research universities. How does this get digested? Several peculiar permutations have resulted.
First, as research universities regard the PhD as the terminal degree, European art schools have abandoned the MFA and introduced the PhD in studio practice. What does this mean? It’s anybody’s guess.
Second, as art schools arrive in research universities, they can lay claim to university research funding. What does research mean in art? It’s anybody’s guess. Some universities, trying to force progress on these issues, now require that internal research funding proposals include collaboration with the arts. How do our arts of spectacle and limited attention span contribute to other
disciplinary forms of research?
This is all chaotic, but chaos can provide opportunities. It’s a time to allow for some rethinking of what art is and might be in the future.
To begin, perhaps assimilating art schools into research universities offers a new opportunity to imagine what art can be, by cutting it loose from the spectacle of the contemporary art world. There could be a decisive separation from an economically speculative commercial art market. The biennials and art fairs could stand alone for what they are: trade shows. Markets have their own history — like the Dutch tulip boom of 1637. In contrast, art schools inside of research universities could focus on philosophical progression and forms of substantive social interaction. These efforts could be held to rigorous standards.
Of course, museums get caught in the middle. Ostensibly run by scholars, museums are ultimately controlled by boards of trustees who are heavily invested in the art market. Inevitably, trustees exert pressure on the scholars to put their connoisseur’s thumb on the scales to subtly manipulate evaluation to the trustees’ economic advantage.
There is no solution to that problem. But the assimilation of art schools into research universities presents an opportunity for a place where art could make a clean break from market forces and rethink itself in new aesthetic terms.

Richard Siegesmund

Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 p 6

7 thoughts on “Speakeasy

  1. Thank you Richard Siegesmund for your informed and brave article. Given today’s climate of distress and turbulence resulting from the unsavory tactics of Trump, it is easier to be aware of the tribalism that structures American politics and art, as some point out this destructive undercurrent did not start with Trump.
    Anti-intellectualism is the handmaiden of populism. The late Jane Addams Allen, co-founder of the NAE and art critic for the Washington Times, with dignity and modesty carried forward the better side of American humanistic culture. Her writing was crystal clear, a characteristic of her great aunt Jane Addams. It is more than interesting to pose the question on why Jane Addams was virtually ignored. Richard Siegesmund suggests some reasons.
    Certainly, Professor Elkins missed the boat in his pertain book “Whatever Happened to Art Criticism”. The Spiral continues its downward trajectory.

  2. The university where I once worked changed out the word “research” for “recognition” during early negotiations with the faculty union decades ago. Thus the work an artist might do in the studio can easily be compared to the work a chemist does in the lab. In both cases, the intrinsic value of the outcome does not matter, rather it is the level of recognition it garners. That is fair enough, inasmuch as the university is the employer and the faculty the employees.

    Besides, it is unreasonable to expect those who judge the quality of faculty work to know enough about every discipline to form a reasonable evaluation of it all. But it does create some undesirable side effects, namely, faculty in both disciplines will focus their efforts on what’s popular, if they want to meet the standard set by their employer. But when the university is interested in originality, this does not seem the best way to achieve it, though originality does sometimes happen anyway, and then manages to get recognition. However, such originality seems easier to come by in the sciences than in art. Perhaps that’s because the work of a scientist can be checked with the intellect and repeated by other scientists for validation, while that of the artist can be had only with direct experience which simply IS, rather than demonstrated. Experiencing art is also somewhat different for everyone, and radically different some of the time. The satisfaction of joining a herd, er, popular movement, easily passes for the satisfaction that is specific to the direct experience of art. (I wonder how many bananas have now been duct taped to the ground in the name of teaching advanced art in the university system? And how many found the result to be good?)

    Since the work of the art herd often fails to satisfy as art, a fertile solution for universities would be to rehabilitate the popular, but defective, trends that abound. Performative art seems like an almost ideal candidate. Art students (and faculty) could join forces with colleagues in music, theatre, creative writing, and dance to create performances that are really good. All too often performances conducted exclusively by so called visual artists indulge in amateurish methods under the guide of “originality”. And they are “original” in so far as they are bad or worse. The race to the bottom paradigm. The worse it gets, the farther out it gets. But by including artists in other disciplines that know what they are doing, “originality” might morph into genuine originality.

    Oops, I just woke up and don’t know where this dream leads.

    1. Good point, John. When the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room in the 1960’s, those who judge the quality of faculty work were already hampered by working an intellectual verbal process, by which they were expected to judge non-verbal production. It’s only recently science qualified non verbal communication (Albers Moravian on body language, or neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on the subtle coding of perceptual experience), so academic scholarship did not have the language to judge the quality of art. Now we have to define quality and standards of art; communication theorist Claude Shannon is among many who insist that without standards and definitions, communication dissolves in entropy until it is unintelligible.

      1. Miklos, You are onto something. I might say it differently than science has qualified non-verbal communication though. Mainly because I don’t know anything about that approach, but also because I can describe part of the process with plain talk.

        In the early 60s Modernism fell into a black hole from which it never has emerged, even though modernist activity still exists in a zombie like fashion in the belly of the darkness. (I am one of those zombies.) Abstract art, which came to be Modernism’s principal aspect, never did understand how to communicate content, unlike music where good music without words has long held its own. The world, whether Wall Street or Main Street, was hungry for the feeling that content can deliver, and the rehashed Avant Garde provided it, albeit with sizeable deficiencies in the stuff that makes art, art. I’d say the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, but would bet the owner of the taped down banana most likely disagrees. The fact that it can be named according to a definition that everyone accepts is reassuring that indeed it includes content, even if that content is rather thin.

  3. John Link hits the nail on the head. It is not possible to quantify Art. American Culture is dominated by Wall Street. In which speculation with the help of Artificial intelligence can play the market. The study of statistics is the bankers and speculators business, As Universities suffer in particular art Departments as recruitment of students becomes more difficult the Pr becomes more suspect and unreliable, As we live in a frightening culture as dissent for the ambitious is a fool’s game, Unless one has enough money, status or social position to join in the ranks of bourgeoise culture the individual is outside the box. Witness the deplorable conditions of adjunct Faulty. Doomed to a life of the permanent outsider. once upon a time in the past Art history tells us that artists lived in a culture that was very different from the American culture of today, To put it in a nutshell The Avaubt guard is dead or has died, It died on the Campus, In conclusion, I suggest that any reader consult the comments of dr Giovanni De on if it Works Don’t Fix it. His timely comment arrived Yesterday. on this site new Art Examiner.net.

    1. You’re right. We can’t quantify art… though the pricier universities try to restrict top accreditation to their students. On the other hand, we can qualify art.

      The nature and history of art since the dawn of time has been that art has quality. Unfortunately the trend for deconstruction since the 1970s favoured the counter-aesthetic over quality, so we’ve forgotten the importance of the good over the mediocre, as we stood in a pile of deconstructed structures.

  4. Richard, thanks for bringing this up. Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments.

    I recently attended a Duchamp symposium that I found disturbing. There was no mention of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, when evidence including Duchamp’s letters to his sister document that she’s the author of the urinal and found objects. Also no mention that Duchamp insisted, till the end of his life, that found objects are not art. No mention that Duchamp made art intellectual, after which he could no longer make art, “it was like a broken leg, you didn’t mean to do it” he said. The participants displayed a scholarly censorship, avoiding controversy and ignoring documented facts to create an echo chamber of mythology. The art world has created Gods whose narratives cannot be questioned.

    As you wrote “The New Art Examiner, when first founded, was distinctive for recognizing the social, economic, and political contexts in which the visual arts existed.” Now it’s gone too far in the other direction and the art world only recognizes the social, economic, and political context, though all of these are conscious verbal thoughts about art. What got lost was the nature of art itself, as in the art of medicine or cuisine. Art rises above it’s illustrative social functions, because that’s only illustration, art is better than that.

    In our focus on ideas we have lowered our standards of what art was, and consequently renamed art as political illustrations. As it turns out, the fact that art does exist in a social and political context did not cancel out that art is “a rarified world of visual excellence”. I have a feeling the fish got tossed out with the seawater.

    I’m proposing that in the past, within the traditional search for excellence in aesthetic representation, we were building up a complexity of non-verbal languages, and that these were more important than the politics and overt statement. For example, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors was important for who was represented, but now nobody cares. The way it was painted was appreciated then and still is. So what’s that about?

    Paul Dirac said when he sees beauty in his equations he knows he’s on the right path while if beauty’s lacking, the math is probably wrong. It’s sensible to think this science behind beauty also applies to visual art. In my own work I wanted to see if beauty was an algorithm that could stand on its own; I found there’s a level of mastery where you can even paint dust and the image will be fascinating, because there’s a non-verbal statement of visual language that speaks to depths in us.

    Recently a top tier curator said that no one knows what art is anymore, and I was facepalm. You’re a curator, it’s your job to know what art is! Every other profession knows what they’re doing.

    I think we can compromise and recognize the social, economic, and political contexts in which the visual arts exists, while admitting that art is a rarified product of excellence; in dance and movement, in music, and in visual form. Makes sense that we’d rather see excellence than inexperience or incompetence.

    Paul Dirac said when he sees beauty in his equations he knows he’s on the right path,
    while if beauty’s lacking, the math is probably wrong.

    It’s sensible to think this science behind beauty also applies to visual art.

    In my paintings I’m testing if beauty is an algorithm that stands on its own,
    if the media really is the message,
    if how it is said is as important as what is said.
    If that “how” is a non-verbal language with a tale to tell.

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