I was faced with a choice at a difficult age: should I write a book, or take to the stage?
— Pet Shop Boys
The dreaming spires are shivering under the kind of publicity that would make any Ivy League administrator break out into a cold sweat. The eruption of national controversy over Yale student Aliza Shvarts and her senior art project seems, on one hand, to have more substance than Obama’s “bitter” tempest in a teapot, but also distressingly falls into the larger cultural file of “épater le bourgeois,” always conveniently handy on the desktop of the American mind. As Margaret Soltan, who has been following the controversy closely, so eloquently observes, “America’s stupidest avant-gardists desperately want to shock us. But when they actually do shock us, they tend to run and hide.”
We occasionally forget, of course, that épater-ing the stuffy bourgeois actually has an important history as a critical practice. Manet’s Olympia remains for me the preeminent example of pushing conventional boundaries of what is visible, although there were others before and after who have attempted to accomplish this difficult task, stretching back to Velázquez and Las Meninas. And the questions of what is visible and what is vision seem central to transformative art, important art, valuable art. For as much controversy as her work has engendered, this is the value of the work of Kara Walker: changing the way we see things, similar to the performance art of Adrian Piper and Yoko Ono and Fluxus.
For me, it is hard to decide whether this project and its widespread publicity are worthy of a yawn or a smirk. For you see, I too was an undergraduate art major in a place very much like today's Yale. The quality of our education was uneven, the purpose somewhat obscure, and in retrospect, afterwards and from another place, I could begin to ask questions such as “What is the value of teaching art within the liberal arts curriculum?” and “What, aside from techne, should a student take away from such an enterprise?”
But even to begin to ask these questions demands a subject position outside of the enterprise of art itself, which to the undergraduate mind was wrapped up in mystery and geist. If we had all been better readers of Hegel, we might have learned to be somewhat more critical of ourselves and the art we were producing like bees in a hive, deep into the night amongst the burned out, drugged up graduate student painters and sculptors, their fragrant studios rife with the smell of turpentine and cheap liquor and cigarette smoke. Many of my fellow majors rejected intellectualism, explanation, disquisition, chalking their work up to spirit, unfathomable and elusive. This technique tended to work rather well in critiques, being, like feeling, beyond reach.
The deep romance of the whole thing belied the very real materialist dimensions of what some of us were doing. Certain students were already, at the undergraduate level, positioning themselves in relation to the New York art world, making contacts, honing their skills at abstraction, building a mystery. For the rest of us, well, we weren’t sure what we were doing, which is why we later became professors or lawyers or consultants or magazine writers. We didn’t have what it took to sustain the infrastructure of personae that would be required of us, not to mention the obligatory chutzpah of presenting rather tiresome ideas and concepts in abstraction without a knowing smirk.
Some of my fellow art majors have gone on to great fame and requisite remuneration, on the basis of trend, good looks, sex appeal, and PVC tubing or a barbell sculpted out of Vaseline. But I don’t think it a random error that I would have ended up a professor instead of a contemporary artist, for my work, as well as intellectual thought processes, was always more materialist than abstract, always more grounded in the immediate rather than dans le nuage, and most always based in the need for an income rather than networking and trust fund payments.
I was also blessed with a cynical, young professor mentor whose own work was grounded in rigorous technique, and who was also willing to guffaw gently at the pretension and worthlessness of much of what was produced in the student studios as well as New York. His critique was not based in an opposition to abstraction, of course, but from a pragmatic, materialist standpoint that recognized that art circulates in a capitalist society not as a romantic stream of consciousness but primarily as an object of market value subject often to irrational exuberance. (This is why, just as an aside, some artists have blockbuster shows at the Guggenheim and others sling hash)
The one danger I see in this debate, especially in the mainstream press, is an axiomatic dismissal of abstraction in responding to Shvarts’s project. Transparency, especially as it relates to realism, is not necessarily the only, or even the best use-value of art. It doesn’t help that the artist herself has produced obscurantist texts defending her project, seemingly locating it within some sort of post-structuralist critique of knowledge and knowing and truth, the same thing we were doing 20 years ago, when much bad art was produced but we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet to spread our disseminations widely. (I shared my senior evaluatory critique with another student artist who produced lithographs of lesbian stick figures tossing toasters; we both received a B+)
Abstraction and post-structuralism are not the enemy here. Rather the controversy hinges on evaluation and art, on our associations of art and beauty, and on art itself: what is it? These are all questions that are really somewhat beyond me right now, however, suffice it to say that for the American Scooby, art is mysterious persona and requires very little in the way of execution, other than a compelling press release and viscera. Aside from any potential merits of her project, Aliza Shvarts is a type that I know well, perhaps even reflective of how I used to be, in some respects. If she plays her cards right, she has a bright future in the galleries of New York. Whether or not that is a good thing remains open to question, I suppose.