Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Academic Art

A reader (hi!) sent me this link, Mum's Not The Word, expressing interest in my take on it. NOTE: The pictures are not safe for work, the text may not be safe for your brain.

To summarize quite roughly, an artist is taking some pictures of 40-something-ish women lying down in a fetal position, as some sort of statement about women who don't have children. There's an interview, of sorts, with the artist.

I suspect that my reader will be slightly disappointed by my reaction, which, while negative, is not wildly so. The artist in question actually managed to dodge many pitfalls. Notably lacking are certain things I expected, seeing the subject matter:

  • A demand, implied or actual, that I, as a man, find obese women attractive
  • A claim that nobody is talking about these taboo issues
  • A lot of blather about how brave the subjects are

This is the kind of project we see all the time. Usually larded up with a bunch of crap as listed above, and I dare say I missed a half dozen bits of nonsense. This particular artist, as noted, doesn't pull the usual rubbish about taboo and nobody's talking about these things.

The artist also is working pretty hard to communicate a concept. There's the fetal position of the women and the implied bed, with all the stuff that goes with those symbols. Great. The portfolio, being a bunch of more or less the same picture, sure hangs together. The concept is OK, I think. This is something we could reasonably be talking about. Women do feel pressure to have kids. The jumbling of child-free (no kids by choice) together with childless (no kids despite wanting them) strikes me as an error, but whatever. I have no problem with standing up and saying (again) that it's OK not to have kids. That's something people ought to say.

What this does not do is read. You'd never have the faintest idea that these women are childless, or child-free, or whatever you want to call it, without the labored text accompanying the work. The actual point seems to have gotten lost in translation, or perhaps the artist really wants to talk about the point rather than to photograph it. As a photographic work, it's an abject failure. As a bunch of words, illustrated by some pretty ordinary genre pictures, it's probably fine? Maybe? I'm not much of a judge of this sort of thing where the execution is so uninteresting, but the concept might have some legs.

And this is where we tie this to a larger theme.

There's a whole genre of Art, which I will call Academic Art for lack of a better phrase. These artists are interested in getting grants, awards, and academic positions. They seem to be surprisingly uninterested in actually making Art.

Of course, the way you persuade some grant-giving corporation (and they are all essentially corporations, or at the very least bureaucracies) to give you money is to talk about your Art. A position at a University is not obtained by silently showing some superb work, but by talking about the work (and that's as true in Mathematics as it is in Art -- you've got to be able to talk about your work). It is therefore no surprise that this group of artists mainly natters on about their Art rather than actually buckling down to the business of smearing paint on canvas, or running indiegogo campaigns to fund their latest book project.

Academic Artists rarely rise to the higher ranks, but the more facile ones can claw their way into some sort of a safe berth from which they can pontificate to a new generation of Academic Artists. The main reason they don't rise higher is because they're not very good. They stick to safe subjects which they can sell to bureaucrats as avante-garde because they were 20 years ago, and they work much harder at the talking than the doing. (Wait, is Molitor talking about himself or what?)

What is striking about these people is that they think they are the Art world. They don't even know about the scruffy bastards fundraising online to publish books, they don't know about the people operating their own galleries. I have no idea what they think about the top-tier people. Probably they think Sally Mann talked her way to the top, which is an utterly hilarious notion.

If you read Lewis Bush's blog over at Disphotic you'll see a lot more of these people. Also, you can observe Lewis himself scrambling around, talking about his art and other people's art in what is a pretty transparent effort to claw his own way into some sort of safe academic berth. He's making headway, has some little teaching gig already!

Good luck, Lewis! But you and your ilk are not the Art World, or even, really, an important slice of it!


  1. Replies
    1. By coincidence, it comes that I had a discussion close to this with a friend (a blogger as well; unfortunately this discusson is published in French). No, this is not Art, at least no in the noble sense, and it is also linked to the usual crap that to so-called Contemporain Art movement is producing. And it sells. Quite well, indeed (even a potato on a black background sells very well, apparently). For me, these are at best (and most of the time poorly executed) illustration for a speech about various topics, which mainly fall in the category of "discussing (or trying to discuss) about art without showing art".

  2. A while back I reached a similar, though much less well-reasoned or articulated conclusion (You know what? I think this is all BS!) regarding Academic Art.

    I came across a portfolio of snapshots (like, camera-on-auto, built-in-flash snapshots) of houseplants in corporate offices. This portfolio was being published in a book. By a publisher. It was wrapped up in so much Artspeak and seemed totally un-concerned that the associated Art was awful. I swear the whole project was an excuse for the author to use the phrase "biophilic desire."

    I don't really know how to craft words about my photos, but I keep making photos. I figure words will come, or they won't, but if they do I want them NOT to sound like an art-school graduate.

  3. What an unfortunate project. Many years back a psychologist friend told me that the greatest harm of experience in general is that the human mind is unable to "un-see" things once seen.

  4. @ Shawn: Your "Drive" portfolio is beautiful. And yes, as you can see, I too have trouble writing about art.