Review of Who Says That’s Art? by an Emeritus Professor of Art Education
This book, intended for a wide audience, is dynamite thrown at a largely self-satisfied little world. That little world of art, claiming self-ordained superiority and untouchability by ordinary intellectual standards, needs shattering if it is ever to approach reality; and this book is needed if change is ever going to occur.
There have been prior blasts. Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) raked over the art world’s misrepresentations—many of which are restated by Kamhi. And David Holt’s The Search for Aesthetic Meaning in the Visual Arts: The Need for the Aesthetic Tradition in Contemporary Art Theory and Education (2001) offered a refutation of Arthur Danto’s anti-aesthetic stance. Unlike the comedic but insightful Wolfe, Holt was serious but a little thin and weak; nonetheless, he defended art as a unique human endeavor.
Who Says That’s Art? attempts a wider-ranging analysis than those writers did of why the world of art seems such an absurd and off-putting mess. No one can accuse Kamhi of weakness, even if one wished she were more succinct. The pervasive corruption of the art world drives her to a passionate desire to lay bare every diseased root and branch. She carpet bombs the field of visual art, exploding every half-baked notion that has cropped up in visual art and education since Kandinsky. What she has written so passionately about is well worth reading, although I would put more emphasis on the institutional theory of art [see Note below] as most to blame for claims of art regarding what is obviously trash.
Having stated that, let me write about what I know best, the teaching of art (to which Kamhi devotes a chapter). Let me begin with the experience I had as Deputy Chief Examiner for the International Baccalaureate Organization, which gave me the opportunity to examine school work from all over the world. My most striking observation was how weak American students in grades 10-12 generally seemed compared to their British counterparts.
All too often, there appeared to be little or no teaching of the skills related to creating art. Even when American art educators talked about teaching art during the era of “discipline-based art education,” the British seemed to devote more thoughtful time to teaching about art of the past, developing skills in drawing and painting, and building up the repertoire of knowledge needed by a student of art, perhaps even for a lifetime practice of art. Yet even the British art scene has gone haywire, as the recent history of the Turner Prize illustrates. If American art teachers seemed as if they teach little, what should they do when the leaders in their field seem so directionless?
Having mentioned the prize given in his name, let me turn to J.M.W. Turner. I used to live near the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Several times a month my wife and I would spend a Sunday afternoon there, where I would visit Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights:
It is a marvel of atmospheric effects and absolutely controlled technique. It is not mere bland reportage, as generally occurs in the post-modernist genre of Photorealism. I doubt that the warm colors on the left and the cool colors over much of the surface of the canvas actually were seen at any one time, but they are totally convincing, and the many times I visited the painting did not diminish my experience–my aesthetic experience. It is something “for all time.” Turner was a true master—totally unrelated to the nonsense that has attached to the prize that has since sullied his name.
Art educators of the 1990s would have probably chattered on that the painting was an example of hegemonic imperialistic something or other, and would have been virtually silent about the image before their eyes. Why? The answer lies in the politics of academe (to which Kamhi only faintly alludes–not even a book of such scope can cover everything).
Promotion and tenure of faculty in universities depends on publication and/or exhibition in “approved” venues. To get published, one has to write about new things in one’s field, whether in visual art, theory of art, or art criticism. (Kamhi does mention that publication in scholarly journals can be subject to fashion, and describes some of the obstacles she has run in to.) In Wolfe’s 1975 frolic through the art world, which he dubbed “Cultureburg,” the smallness of the respected art enclaves was described. They have grown only slightly, but their exclusivity, perhaps snobbishness, has also grown, and Kamhi reveals the flimsy philosophic foundations on which these bastions of “art” rest.
Visual art has meaning and power, but like a giant Sequoia, it is silent. Since humans make art, its intended meaning is embedded in the work and if the artist has sufficient skill, intelligent viewers can, through what they see, apprehend at least some of the message. Experience and education can guide them. But not, Kamhi would say, if education consists mainly of repeating the brainless lessons of institutional theory.
Let me turn again to Turner. I recently saw the motion picture Mr. Turner. Late in Turner’s career, a very wealthy person offered the artist an immense amount of money for all his paintings, then housed in the London home Turner had let fall into disrepair. Turner refused on the grounds that he intended to give them to the nation. As a result, the Tate in London has a grand collection illustrating nearly all of Turner’s career. It is an exhilarating, if exhausting, overview of what one person achieved through visual art, through trying by visual means to evoke aesthetic experience. Turner had fulfilled his life goal, and gaining more money would not have fulfilled it further in any meaningful way.
Perhaps Kamhi will revisit more fully the role of money for artists, institutions, and art education in the future, but she has at least indicated the corrosive influence of commercial interests completely apart from the nature of true visual art.
About the time Mr. Turner began showing, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Gauguin had been sold for $300,000,000—a price beyond the means of even a very well-endowed museum, except in some oil-rich kingdom. Meanwhile, many galleries have closed in the small art city of Santa Fe and elsewhere.
The buyers of art at such huge prices are not interested in art, but in bragging about a trophy. As an artist I can’t help but dream of spreading that money around to living artists–to say nothing about Gauguin, who must be spinning in his grave now that he no longer needs money.
Wolfe aptly described how big a role money played in the history of Abstract Expressionism. And as Kamhi so thoroughly lays bare, the theory that virtually anything can be art has been a boon to purely commercial interests.
But the institutional theory has destroyed the foundation for art teaching—the idea of anything as a cultural treasure, as something to hold up as an example for students. Even once-serious places of instruction now seem clueless. To cite one egregious example: the Art Institute of Chicago boasts a wonderful collection of art works, yet the art school associated with it hired “visual culture” advocate Kevin Tavin to teach there—ignoring that he would in effect deny the value of the museum itself, with its splendid assemblage of art works. As a visual culture theorist, Tavin (who now teaches at Ohio State University) was less concerned with the art works in the Art Institute than with the contents of the nearest shopping mall.
In the March/April 2003 issue of Arts Education Policy Review, Kamhi and I both published articles criticizing the just plain silly rhetoric and ideology-driven claims of the visual-culture hawkers. Neither of us has been refuted in any true sense. The bandwagons of American art education usually run out of steam in a decade. Something more useful to art teachers may emerge when the visual-culture pushers get pushed aside by the next bandwagon of fashion.
In any case, let’s hope that Who Says That’s Art? will help bury the institutional theory of art and promote a healthier art scene. How long can a total lack of faith in the value of objects made “for all time” hold sway? This book has done great work in showing that the collective wizards are just loud and windy, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
Peter J. Smith, Ed.D.
Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico
Note: The “institutional theory of art” holds, in effect, that art is anything a purported artist declares it to be. —M.M.K.
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