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If you’re a recent MFA or PhD you’re not an artist nor a curator


– A community of trust –


They are like high priests murmuring to each other”. Camille Paglia


Jaclyn Meloche just published her book through YYZArtistBooks (Toronto). Titled “What is our Role? : Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy”, it follows the theme of her symposium some years back at the Lillian Smith Library, also sponsored by YYZ. Meloche, reflecting on what she learned on her own journey through academia, said that artists today needs a Ph.D. to attain the high level of accomplishment that only advanced academic studies deliver. The symposium illustrated this with work by four post-graduate students, all showing strong, interesting, even fascinating art when they started their doctorate. But the work got weaker as they progressed through the program; by graduation day their art looked like every postmodern clone, the ones that make us roll our eyes in despair.


In my opinion these students had been homogenized, the originality squeezed out of them, they learned to get with the program. Which suggests that if it’s 2018 and you’re a recent MFA or PhD graduate, you’re neither artist nor curator but an esoteric priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine. Remember that in 2008 bankers crashed the global economy, so an entire generation of artists can certainly go off the rails.


Came discussion period. As audience I felt imposed by the discipline of this specific academic creed so I raised a question on aesthetics; the work shown had denied a role to algorithms like a sense of beauty. Jaclyn came down like a ton of bricks, with severe disapproval at hearing the word beauty used in an art conversation. Was I ignoring the latest canonical assertions, did I know nothing of postmodernism? I replied a bit intimidated, spooked by so stringent a voice. It was perhaps inadvertent; she was likely defending curatorial territory… and yet a dialogue should be an exchange of opinions and not the imposition of one. Still, I nervously brought up that Denis Dutton youtube video “The Art Instinct, a Darwinian Theory of Beauty”.


Aesthetic taste, argues Denis Dutton, is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection. It’s not, as most contemporary art criticism and academic theory would have it, “socially constructed.” The human appreciation for art is innate, and certain artistic values carry across cultures. It seems an aesthetic perception allowed situations that ensured the survival of the perceiver’s genes. What does that mean for the entire discipline of art history? Dutton argues, with forceful logic and hard evidence, that art criticism needs to be premised on an understanding of evolution, not on abstract ‘theory’.


Today science reveals a visual language of non-verbal communication along with body language and other subliminal forms of deep brain functions. That means making art intellectual is harmful, severing it from its supportive functions. We restricts art to superficial levels when we discards its sensory and aesthetic foundation. It deprives art of the vocabulary and grammar that’s integral to it’s intellectual meaning. I presented a condensed version of the above to keep it short, including other scientists who established beauty as an algorithm. Some in the audience murmured agreement but curator Meloche was not pleased.


Awhile after Jaclyn’s symposium I got in touch with YYZ Artists’ Outlet director Ana Barajas, I wanted us to meet and to ask her about working with YYZ to publish a book. She asked me to hold on as she was overworked; a few more emails through the year got a similar brush-off. Eventually her replies felt like what the flat-earth society would send to astronomer Carl Sagan.Doug Ford’s behavior is no different than your typical socially conscious arts administrator today.


YYZBOOKS attest they are an alternative Canadian press dedicated to critical writing on art and culture. Their mandate is to encourage ideas and critical thinking and to foster appreciation of contemporary Canadian art and culture by producing challenging yet accessible publications that reach diverse audiences. Their objective is to provide a discursive forum for artists and writers and to facilitate new avenues of discourse within Canadian publishing. YYZBOOKS is the publishing arm of YYZ Artists Outlet, a non-profit artist-run centre in Toronto, Canada.


Eight months later YYZ announced the publication of Jaclyn Meloche’s book, but my emails went unanswered. I then sent Ana and Jaclyn a first draft of this article suggesting a discussion, expecting they’d invite me over to chat over Glenlivet and Dufflet’s pastries but no such luck. A deathly silence gave the impression they pulled up the medieval drawbridge and barred the gate instead. Perhaps they were not fully committed to encouraging scholarly critical writing? They really don’t seem eager to produce challenging yet accessible publications that reach diverse audiences.


It brought to mind H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the Worldon the papacy of Innocent III (1160-1216).  “And it was just because many of them secretly doubted the entire soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it.  They were intolerant of questions or dissent, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were not.”  Possibly YYZArtistBooks encourages “critical thinking” by their friends and does a good job of it, yet showing a haughty even at science if it contradicts their Logos.  Danielle S. McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that when we can no longer explore and discuss ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets.


It’s interesting to find this pattern prevalent in today’s art, here’s a Gabriel Scorgie post shared by St. Catharines’ Bart Gazolla #theartcriticfromhell.  “But this is just one piece of a larger trend. There is a concerted effort among many progressives to pre-empt artistic risk-taking. They want the artist to work on pre-approved themes and express pre-approved truths, even if the artist herself suspects those truths may not actually be truths at all.” There was a context that when you placate ideological critics it pushes art into the realm of propaganda.


Worrisome at best, this Canadian failure of logic and scholarship, this refusal to engage for fear that it might shake the tree. Or… maybe it’s my fault. I may have Asperger’s Syndrome like Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”. Else I may have hair sprouting from my ears, or I may seem too simple-minded a thinker for a real intellectual like Dr. Meloche (no, don’t laugh).


In an Apollonian culture increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the (artist) and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both radical politics and high theory are attempts by the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the (arts) as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating (art) with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

– Ross Dothan, Oh! the humanities! The New York Times, August 2018


I disagree with Meloche’s faith in academia as a site to shape artists; I think some serious reforms are needed if not an entire revolution. One jumps through hoops and gets with the program, learns to be an artist like all the other artists,  oh the homogeneity, what’s not to love? Unavoidably, when a bad idea enters the system it spreads like a virus, and when bad ideas take root they are tenaciously hard to uproot. Much scholarship contradicts postmodernism yet no school wants to rock that boat – there’s no place for opinions when ze curator hath spoken. Thus the art system has changed, it’s become too rigid either to understand itself, teach anyone, or to correct obvious flaws, drowning from trying to save the status quo while immutable laws say the good must make way for the better.  As Olivier Cromwell might say to them too; “begone, you have sat too long”.


There are those who for 30 or 40 years grew up with the idea that placing our shoes on a table is a work of art, after all that time they’ll never change their mind, in fact will actively resist change. But the times they’re a changing, yep they are. Some of us want something better from art than stinky shoes on the table.


Take that to a more sophisticated level and this idea of asking for quality in art threatens the Canadian art community. Until now quality in work was tertiary, it was the complexity and sophistication of the argument behind it. These were the standards, requiring from the artist the ability to express themselves verbally, the keen insight to decipher the complexities of art, and some way to illustrate them. It did not matter if the illustration was wan, limpid, or boring as long as it spoke insider language that made it a work of academic art.


We praise and admire art with reasons, some illegitimate. Among these, nepotism, being used to bad art, so starved for the art instinct that we look for and seek the small amounts of feeling we can glean from bland work. We also praise art for the postmodern anti-aesthetic. But anti-aesthetic means both unattractive and uninteresting, which we’re told is now an important concept in art… No Art, the contradiction of art, is a big thing. But with No Art you have no art. I refute it thus; no matter how many lemmings, I will not run with them, won’t admire big bad art – our standards are much improved when they’re rooted in a creative instinct that pierces eloquent deception.


For years now I’ve done photography for a performance group, ARTIFACTS, consisting of two ladies in their wiser years, Pam Patterson and Leena Raudvee, whose performance consists of going up on stage and doing… very little. But they do it so well and it feels deeply interesting.  And that’s the meaning of art. To do it so well as to make it numinous. There’s an angel in the room, an energy, making art of performance.The art of cuisine, the art of conversation, visual art, performance, to do it so well. Joseph Beuys said that everyone’s an artist and I insist that everyone’s a brain surgeon, but the question remains how good an artist, how good a brain surgeon?


Rob Storr of MOMA tells us that in the 1960s, the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Dance went unscathed; you could not hire Karen Kain to dance a ballet in your name then credit yourself the world’s greatest dancer, just as in literature you cannot escape charges of plagiarism. But in art it became legitimate to hire someone else to do your homework. That’s how little people understood art, a reduction Susan Sontag described in her seminal “Against Interpretation” as the intellectual’s revenge on the artist. If we have not see as far as others, it’s because giants were standing on our shoulders, or else we’re standing on the shoulders of very short giants.


We are raising a crop of curators and students who have no idea what art is. We’re offered blank canvasses in colors straight from the can, pictures cut from art books, empty rooms filled with chairs; are these brilliant heights or what? The cerebral hollow is underwhelming, promising a vacuous future for Canadian art. It’s a never ending praise of idiocracy but sooner or later the emperor’s new clothes must go to the cleaners. And that is why in 2018 if you’re a recent graduate you’re neither artist nor a curator, but a high priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine. It’s time for one more thesis nailed to the church door!


– Sources – 


1-Pierre Breton and Paul Eluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, p23, 1938.

2-Obalk, Hector: “The Unfindable Readymade”, toutfait.com, Issue 2, 2000.

3-Denis Dutton youtube video “The Art Instinct, a Darwinian Theory of Beauty”.

4-Paul Krugman, Turmoil for Turkey’s Trump, The New York Times, May 25, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/opinion/turkey-trump-erdogan.html

5-Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, p. 297.

6-Marjorie Perloff The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage p34, (Princeton UP: 1999).

7-Gabriel Scorgie, Real Art Is Bound to Cause Offence, Quillette



Author: Miklos Legrady

An earlier edit of this article published by Arts and Opinion (Montreal)

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