Artists and art historians have a strange relationship. Most art historians presume that artists need them because artists have little awareness of their work outside their self-absorbed studio confines and are poorly equipped to reflect on art historically, critically, and theoretically. Moreover, most art historians believe that they are necessary for an artist's work to achieve significance outside the studio. And artists have by and large played along. Artists seem to believe that art historians (including critics and curators) are the gatekeepers of larger art world significance. But this gatekeeping role is in fact the art historian's fearful reaction to their perceived irrelevance to studio practice--that all that an art historian can offer is "discourse" that is draped over the work. This strange relationship is manifest in a number of ways, for example, when artist's ask art historians to write essays for their exhibition catalogues or when studio art faculty ask the art history faculty to give their students a language with which to articulate their work in attractive (i.e., intellectually sophisticated) ways. It appears that most artists and art historians are content with this mutually parasitic relationship: the artist believes that her work is stamped with "seriousness" if an art historian writes about it and the artist's coquettish flirtations seem to mask the art historian's impotence in front of a work of art by making him intellectually virile and desirable.
This relationship need not be conducted at this low, cynical, and self-servingly adolescent level. But it requires art historians to refuse their gatekeeping post in the contemporary art world and leave their gaggle of graduate students (or abandon the fantasy of one day having them) in order to embrace the challenge of teaching art history in an explicitly studio art context. It is in this context that the art historian can prove his mettle, by teaching a subject that is not simply an "academic discipline" but a living practice with a history and tradition that the studio art student must assimilate and make her own.
The problem is that most studio art students (and their studio faculty) assume art history to be irrelevant beyond fulfilling departmental requirements, offering a few historical details, dropping a few names, and crafting some theoretical phrases with which the student can decorate her artist statements for grad school applications. Most studio art students thus experience a chasm at least as wide as Lessing's Ugly Broad Ditch between the artists that are the subject of art historian's lectures and their own student work. The student rightly asks, what does Raphael, Dürer, Pollock, Richter, and Koons--the winners--have to do with my insecure, stumbling irrelevant, work?
The challenge for the art historian teaching in a studio context is to tell the story of the history of art in a way that reveals to the student that she is being initiated into the same practice (with the same challenges) as the art historical winners and that they have a right to aspire to make art that is big, ambitious, and adds something to the world. Moreover, the art historian has to demonstrate that the history of art offers insights that can improve their studio practice. (I believe that this story has something to do with emphasizing that the decisions these artists made, inside and outside the studio, before they became the "winners", are the same decisions that the art student must confront. But that will be the subject of another post.) The study of art history must become a necessary means for the student to develop wisdom and discernment and sharpen her decision-making skills in the studio.
But responsibility also falls on the artist. The student (and her art faculty) must recognize that artistic practice is not merely for "visual thinkers," for "creative self-expressive types," and for those for whom other "practical" (or bourgeois) vocations, like those that require reading and writing, clear thinking, and disciplined 60-hour weeks, are irrelevant. Artistic practice demands that the artist bring all that she can to the studio and that includes the disciplines of reading and writing, of thinking analytically and looking theoretically and historically. This is what the art student needs and this is what the art historian can offer.
I am working out these and other aspects of art historical work in a studio context through the Summer Workshop, a week-long series of critiques, lectures, and conversations established last summer and led by artist Enrique Martínez Celaya and me during the first week of August at Whale & Star, Martínez Celaya's studio in Miami, Florida. Modelled after the famous Bread Loaf Writers' conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, the Summer Workshop is an intense experience within the context of Martínez Celaya's 18,000 square foot facility, which houses his studio, imprint, research archive and library. The Summer Workshop offers an opportunity for artists to experience how art history and theory can play an important role in their studio practice through a unique educational collaboration between an artist and art historian.
The year's Summer Workshop will take place from July 31-August 5. Visit www.whaleandstar.com for more details.