I have never taken a studio art class, but I do have a fascination with artists. This probably dates back to the pre-bat mitzvah Friday evenings I spent on the floor of my bedroom, reading Sylvia Plath, understanding little other than the myth that surrounded her tortured genius. Back when Tumblr was my primary aesthetic informant, I devoured any myths about artists who exhibited unbridled creativity. One such myth claimed that Jackson Pollock painted his largest work “Mural” overnight. As the story goes, Pollock was so consumed with artistic passion that he stayed up for hours painting this gigantic work. This myth has since been debunked, as various imaging techniques have determined that the painting contains several layers of dried paint. But it’s not hard to see how this myth came to be: Staring at “Mural” is like peeking behind a restaurant curtain to watch a master chef move passionately around the kitchen. The process of assembly is the true work of art, the food that is produced only a byproduct; it’s impossible not to see “Mural” as a bursting expression of both mind and body.
In the age of Etsy, Pinterest, and Instagram, the picture of the artist has become far less hegemonic, which is to say, far less white, male, and genius. Our daily lives have become potential aesthetic commodities, and all of us are creators, buyers, and sellers. As always in the art world, what is deemed “good” and “bad” is constantly changing. Works displayed at the MoMA, (the Van Goghs, the Dalis, the Warhols), which are now found tattooed on millennial forearms and suspended on dorm room walls, were at one time considered disruptive and provocative. And more recently, when Banksy shredded his work “Girl with Balloon” at a live auction, the videos on the Instagrams of spectators revealed hushed whispers to the effect of, “Is that art?”
In any university art department, there are decisions that must be made about what gets included in the curriculum and what does not. And these decisions inevitably echo the same question asked by those Sotheby’s spectators: Is this art?
It is true that the creation of all academic departments is ideological. The Sociology Department at Wesleyan, for example, does not teach quantitative sociology. A conscious decision was made by the department to not hire quantitative sociologists; those faculty members can likely justify that decision and its consequences. But this process of creating an academic department is more complicated with creative arts for two main reasons.
First, because art is a personal creative expression; having another thinking body prescribe what is right, or good, complicates much of the creative aspect of making things. At school, this becomes quantified through the grading system: You literally receive a numerical indication of how good your art is according to the department’s standards.
And second, creating an art department gets complicated because unlike a discipline like sociology, in a creative field, you are learning the standards and expectations of a subject in which the most celebrated works often break the rules, not just in content, but also in form. In sociology, you are learning the methodology and tools of analysis to write a paper that will be identifiable as a legitimate academic paper. But as an art major, while you can learn the tools and language of artistic creation that others have used, and while you may choose to use those tools to express your own content, you can also play with the form. You can create art out of anything: you can combine mediums, you can take the canvas off the easel and use your whole body to paint (as Pollock did) even though no one has set a precedent for such an act before you. And all of that can still be recognized as legitimate.
Our art curriculum is inherently making prescriptive judgments about the kind of art Wesleyan students should make, and that has to be problematized, or at least interrogated, not because those judgments are wrong, but because you are allowed (and should maybe be encouraged) to disagree.
The Wesleyan studio art major demands eleven courses. You must take Drawing I, one 3D art class (like architecture or sculpture), four studio classes, and three art history classes (which dictate that you must take one non-Western, one classical through renaissance, and one post-Renaissance). Additionally, you must complete a thesis, so general education courses are required (that’s three science/math classes, and three social science courses). In total, then, the studio art major requires seventeen courses. The English major, for comparison, requires only ten.
Some interesting comparisons can be made between our studio program and others. Wes rival and NESCAC member Amherst, for example, requires twelve courses in their art major, ten if you choose not to complete a thesis (which you can!). Of those courses, the requirements dictate that you must take eight studio courses, one contemporary art history course, and one additional art history class. Needless to say, Amherst’s art studio major is less rigid.
At Skidmore, another liberal arts school, the art studio major demands sixteen credits, but they offer far more art forms, including ceramics, jewelry making, and fiber arts. The presence of these art forms at Skidmore might be due to a larger arts budget, but the exclusion of them from Wesleyan’s curriculum suggests a distinction being made between what is fine art and what is craft. Some students reported personal stories about professors in the department actively making that distinction, citing a professor who no longer works at Wes who would explicitly reject screen printing as “craft.” But sometimes the enforcement of this binary is more implicit.
The art world loves this distinction. This way, we can neatly divide art that is high art and art that is utilitarian—things to be contemplated versus things to be used, enjoyed. This semantic distinction is gendered as well. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for NY Magazine, Jerry Saltz, wrote, “Today craft is considered ‘girly.’ Why people still believe this is a sick mystery. But it’s time for it to end. It was never really true in the first place.” While these standards have changed over time, particularly since after the 1960s, the distinction persists in university art departments, where decisions must be made about what art forms are available.
At Wes, contemplation is certainly prioritized. As Associate Professor of Art Julia Randall pointed out, the Art Department is housed in an academic institution.
“[The program] develops thinkers, and the thinking is foregrounded,” she said.
In this exaltation of “thinking,” there comes a devaluation of “doing” just for the sake of it. Thesis student Rafe Forman ’20 has been challenged throughout the process of creating a thesis to produce art that will be received critically by his faculty and peers. But he sees this challenge as a necessary part of the major.
“A lot of the stuff I make is really cutesy,” he said. “I had a lot of conversations first semester that were like ‘where is the bite?’ ‘How do you subvert this cutsey thing?’ At the time though I was like ‘I don’t want to subvert anything! I just want to make cutesy shit!’ But this program is really specifically grooming you to have a fine art practice. Capital-F Fine Art. And that can be really great.”
In a small department, one professor’s ideas about what is good art can become the concentration’s ideas about what is good art. Aware of this trap, Randall circumvents the problem by making an effort to have all of her advisees attend each others’ meetings with her.
“So you’re getting more of a conversation as opposed to ‘she is god,’” Forman said.
But sometimes, when a professor’s approval has so much weight, the process of making art for class inevitably changes. Many students labeled this phenomenon as a “culture of validation.”After seeing the kinds of works that get positive feedback in a critique, students subconsciously begin making that kind of work. Caris Yeoman ’21 complicates this critical narrative, as she also finds the culture created in workshops to be a motivating force.
“I think it’s dangerous the trap of validation that a lot of art students fall into, but it feels so good!” she said. “When I think of last year, that’s sort of what I think of: me thinking, what am I gonna shoot that’s going to be worthy of this class.”
The thesis looms at the end of the studio art major, and with it comes rules and regulations, including the requirement for installation in Zilkha Gallery.
“There are a lot of constructed parameters around finishing your thesis (that I totally chose and I wanted to do a thesis so I’m down), but it is pretty limited in terms of what art could be,” Lucy de Lotbiniere ’20 said. “It’s very focused on a contemporary art show. Zilkha is a limestone and perfectly white gallery. It’s a very contemporary art feel.”
Forman began the year with ambitions to learn new software and construction techniques for his project. To some degree, he feels like this was accomplished, but sacrifices had to be made.
“On the one hand, it’s the most exciting thing and never will I have this many people talking about my work,” he said. “But on the other hand…because I want a really polished gallery thing at the end, I feel like there’s an added pressure that maybe means developing shortcuts instead of learning.”
This space also regulates the kind of art that is deemed acceptable for a thesis project.
“There is so much work to be made for the purpose of advertising that can be super innovative and creative,” Randall said. “But there’s a marketplace for that. What we’re trying to do here is get to the thought process. If there’s not an intellectual inquiry there then it’s not really the right department.”
Forman recalls one student who proposed a graphic novel for their thesis project, which was subsequently rejected on the grounds that “that’s not what the program is.”
“But as much as I want to shit on that, I’m never going to put my stuff in a giant beautiful gallery. That’s cool. For an undergrad to be able to do that? That’s really cool.”
Jodie Kahan can be reached at email@example.com.