Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by KQED.org. Also, check it out: Help Desk was interviewed for the Art21 blog!
If an artist is attempting to call attention to a particular issue that in some way either oppresses a group of people or includes imagery of unethical actions, is their artwork also unethical if they intentionally include or use oppressive tactics or graphic images to do so?
There is no permanent, fixed equation that we can apply to art—especially art that intends to become activism—and I’m not amenable to making an ultimate pronouncement on work that exists as a hypothetical. It’s better to be aware of the concerns surrounding art and activism in general and proffer judgments on a case-by-case basis. An artist who wishes to take an activist stance in regard to an issue must think very carefully through the problem at hand.
I contacted a few artists that are currently making work that intends to be activist, but for the first time in the brief history of this column, not one of them responded. Perhaps they were afraid to go on record regarding the conflicts and contradictions their work presents? In any case, Anuradha Vikram, Curator of the Worth Ryder Art Gallery at UC Berkeley, kindly shed some light on this matter. She asks would-be activist-artists to ponder some art-world assumptions: “When seeking to call attention to any troubling issue, one key maxim to consider is that of the physician: ‘first, do no harm.’ Too often, artists seem to mistake demonstrating a set of conditions for critiquing them. If the work is replicating unethical behaviors, what is the artist doing besides perpetuating those behaviors? Perhaps, if one assumes that the context for art is a neutral one (the proverbial ‘white cube’) then it could be argued that by isolating and framing such actions, the artist makes the critique implicitly. However, if the last 40 years of art-world controversy have taught us anything, it is that ‘neutrality’ is often interchangeable with ‘privilege.’ Recreating oppression within a space of privilege is simply oppressive. A critique needs to go farther than that, and a sophisticated critique does not need to replicate such dynamics in order to unpack them.”
I agree, and can’t emphasize that last sentence enough: a sophisticated critique is what any artist-activist should be working toward. I also think the issue of commodification is important here. Can art truly make a change if it doesn’t materially aid the victims whose cause it purports to advance? If it only “raises awareness” of an issue by replicating abuse, it’s possible that its main consequence is simply to turn the expression of subjugation into an exchangeable commodity (for money, status, notoriety, etc.) which primarily benefits the artist or the art establishment. And on a personal level, if your activism turns you into a celebrity but does nothing to change the brutality you supposedly decry, your innocent intentions become worse than worldly cynicism. Emancipation cannot be achieved by oppressive means.
I am in my junior year of a BFA program at a university that I love. My grades have always been stellar, and I feel empowered to make work that extends far beyond the minimal requirements of assignments – work that I would be proud to exhibit; however, my work has been rejected from several local juried shows recently (in the past, I have been accepted to shows and even sold work). In addition, one of my main professors has been giving me lower grades than I am used to. I’m open to criticism, and I know I have a lot to learn, but the direction seems to be simply that I’m not making the work that they expect. There is a small part of me that wants to conform and get good grades so I can move on to an MFA program elsewhere. The louder, bossier side of me believes that my Postmodern ideas are valid, but happen to be inconsistent with the traditional Modernist teaching methods of the faculty at my university. Can you give me some ideas about how to make the most of my education without burning bridges or officially ruining my transcript?
There are really three parts to your query: how to make the most of your time in school now, the correlation between grades and MFA programs, and the larger idea of the feedback you’ve been getting. I think they’re all related in the end, but let’s deal with the MFA part first because it might be the easiest.
My understanding of the MFA admissions process (which I went through in 2009) is that it is heavily weighted toward the quality of the applicant’s work, her CV, her recommendations and how she performs in the interview, more or less in that order. Unlike medical school, undergraduate grades don’t really count for much when applying for the MFA. I confirmed this with one department chair at a well-known art school in a Midwestern city (all my experts requested anonymity).
Another department head, this one from an art school on the east coast, said, “First and foremost is the portfolio! This seems a rule and something that can be applied across the board. If the work is strong, other things become secondary.” My third expert, a painting chair from a well-regarded school in California, said, “Strong, well-documented work and a well-written statement are 90% of the battle.” Some MFA programs do have a minimum GPA requirement, but it doesn’t sound as though you’re in danger of getting an F. So on one hand, it seems that you don’t have to worry about your grades if you only consider them in aid of going for the MFA later.
However, your question touches on larger issues. It seems like your prior work was more successful in the past, earning you good grades and exhibitions alike. Your newer work isn’t being met with the same regard. There could be some good reasons for that: it might be that the work still needs to be developed (it’s new, after all), or that it doesn’t fit in with the status quo of your Modernist milieu, or any number of other possibilities. There’s only one way to find out for sure, and that’s to get people into your studio to see the work and talk with you about it. Here’s where we come to the subject of how to make the most of your time now.
If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I’m an ardent advocate for following your own course. I think that if you want to make this work, you should. I’ll always stand by your right to define yourself and your work on your own terms. However, passion alone doesn’t necessarily make good art and it’s your charge to determine if your new direction shows promise or not. How can you do that? By making a concerted effort to have as many conversations about the work as possible over the next year. Begin this process with your own professors, including the one who has been giving you lesser grades. Have you asked this person directly what drives his decisions regarding your lower marks? Asking someone to explain their grading process is not the same as whining for an A; just be blunt: “I noticed that my grades are lower than before, and I’m not sure I understand why. Can you please walk me through your decision?” If nothing else, you’ll clear the air with this person and figure out if you want to work with him during your final year of school.
While this is a good place to start, I suggest you expand the field. If your suspicion is that the new work simply goes against the grain of the academic atmosphere, then you must investigate this hypothesis by requesting studio visits with artists who are not part of your university’s faculty. Are there visiting artists or lecturers you can contact? Are there local people (artists working in your medium, gallerists, or independent curators) that you can approach? Write them all an email asking for a visit and explain your situation: you’re not looking for a show, you’re trying to get some non-academic feedback on new work. These visits should be absolutely candid. Say what you’ve told me about your prior work versus your new work and its reception at school. Ask these people to be honest and direct. It sounds to me like you can take it, and you don’t want to waste your time.
Before I wrap up, I want to say something about the MFA and graduate school in general. Don’t go straight from the BFA to the MFA. Unlike undergraduate studies, graduate programs are entirely self-directed, and two years goes by very quickly. The only way to make the most of a graduate program is to go in knowing what you don’t know so that you can ask the right questions while you are there. This requires a level of maturity and self-knowledge that can only be gained through living in the real world and negotiating a life as an artist outside the support system of school. Get your BFA, make a studio life for yourself, work on your oeuvre and your CV, and then apply for the MFA when your portfolio is so dazzling that it could blind an admissions panel to a string of Cs on your transcript.