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Permission to Fail | The Nation

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Permission to Fail

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An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

I once had this girlfriend who was an artist. We used to go to galleries and see shows together. Sometimes when she looked at a piece she would say, “Oh, that’s something I did in art school.” After a while it dawned on me that a lot of what she dismissed as student exercises—gambits she figured she’d outgrown—were things I liked. I started to think that she had inadvertently taught me, if not a definition of good art, then at least a kind of rule of thumb for identifying it in the field: if you make art in ways that other artists would have considered disposable exercises—Wittgensteinian ladders to be tossed aside once ascended—then you are getting somewhere with your art.

Later, I came to realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised how much “real” art has in common with art school exercises. As the art historian Howard Singerman pointed out in his invaluable and deeply humane book, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (1999), the purpose of the contemporary art school is not so much to teach students how to make art as to show them how to be artists. Singerman, who went to art school himself before changing direction and opting for the life of a scholar, recalls that “in one assignment we were asked to invent an artist of another type than we imagined ourselves to be—since we were to know ourselves as types—and then to produce an oeuvre, to make slides and do the talk, to model a speech or slouch.” Fernando Pessoa meets Lee Strasberg: that assignment stands in for all others insofar as each of them requires the student to take a certain distance from her presumably naïve pre-art-school self and any unexamined sense of an artist’s life. “Whatever has called a student to enter the department,” Singerman points out, be it a “love of past art, an excitement about the process of creation, a desire for personal growth, the ability to draw,” the instruction the student receives is intended to demonstrate that none of these are sufficient or possibly even necessary to being an artist. “Among the tasks of the university program in art is to separate its artists and the art world in which they will operate from ‘amateurs’ or ‘Sunday painters,’ as well as from a definition of the artist grounded in manual skill, tortured genius, or recreational pleasure.”

While most art students may never be asked to Method-act a fully characterized fictional artist, they are constantly being asked to divorce themselves from who they are—and, concomitantly, because art is still broadly (though ambivalently) understood as having something to do with vision or visuality, from what they see. Thus the title of one of the more appealing recent books on art education, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, a spin-off of the indie art magazine Paper Monument. The book was published in 2012, but I was reminded of it when I saw the British artist Martin Creed’s two recent gallery shows in New York City (at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and the uptown branch of Hauser & Wirth). Creed’s approach has long been strictly conceptual; among his best-known pieces is the one for which he won the 2001 Turner Prize, the self-explanatory Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off. He’s made paintings too, but like his other works they were often, as one commentator put it, “all about restrictions: impersonal rules which require a quick, definitive line in space in order to complete the task.” And as with the conceptual artists of an earlier generation, like Sol LeWitt, there was no particular reason that his paintings had to be executed by himself, any more than it was important that he be in an empty room at Tate Britain switching the lights on and off every five seconds. (At the opening, Creed has said, he realized he’d mistimed the intervals: “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve got the timing wrong! It should be one second on, one second off!’”) Creed’s most recent paintings, though still as rule-bound as ever, are more about imposing rules on himself, and among them are “Blind Portraits”—done not, as the title might seem to imply, with the eyes closed, but while looking at the subject instead of the canvas. That, too, is a familiar didactic exercise, a way of bypassing the aesthetic superego and letting less manageable factors enter into the picture. The student is likely to be surprised by the realization that something striking can be made by relinquishing control, that letting go of some aspects of “authorship” can be worthwhile. Honing one’s eye on a drawing that one has made without being able to see what the hand was doing, the artist learns to be a witness as much as a maker—spectator and artist as one—and to realize, as well, that any spectator is always something of an artist too. Which is why it takes a viewer, as Marcel Duchamp used to say, to complete the work.

What is it that an art student is learning when she learns to use her own blindness or ignorance as a tool? That blindness can lead to insight is something I was never taught as a philosophy major, and I suspect I would not have learned it if I’d studied chemistry, history or French either. In medicine, the fledgling doctor needn’t learn how to be a patient. In none of these fields is it normally considered necessary for students to learn by systematically pulling the rug out from under their feet. That risk is peculiar to contemporary art.

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