The New Education in the Arts
Art and the universities are both caught up in deep strife. Revolutionary redefinitions of the academy's function together with radical reform movements from within the university tradition are beginning to force the issue of higher education's continued relevance in the real world. Concern for new education in the arts is only one--but a particularly illuminating--example of reactions to a very widespread malaise. Student demonstrations--from Berkeley to Columbia or from Nanterre to the activities of the Red Guard--express the crisis of survival facing the university system with far more brutal eloquence than the professoriate has so far been willing to acknowledge.
The great problem is whether academic courses will continue to mean anything (and if so, then what?) in the lives of those who have begun to inject their own sense of meaning into university life, despite every official faculty cop-out and deadening administrative demurrer. The humanities embody this problem openly, without the shrouding mystique that so often shelters studies in the sciences from the scrutiny of relevance. Disciplines like art history, with its primary content precisely in the realm of creating or recreating symbolic meaning--now finds itself nakedly defensive when called upon to re-examine its own working assumptions. But cornered intellects are often fierce--and art historians are loath to relinquish their rigidly mechanistic, fragmented, lineal notion of "chronological development," the inane inferences of causality attending most analyses of "artistic influence," the heavy-handed cliches of stylistic description, logically and psychologically bogus attempts to resuscitate the nebulosities of artistic "intent," and their almost fetishistic obsession with name-and-date data--suspicious of humor and devoid of compassion when they should be dealing with matters of inspiration at least with reverence if not with sacred joy.
It has become manifestly impossible to make sense out of the history of twentieth century art by using those conventional concepts and methodologies based upon strict partitions of artistic media or nationalities, or the pigeon-holes of supposedly clinically distinct movements and expressive styles. Everything does fall more neatly into place for the Medieval specialist, say, but only because so much of the historical evidence has perished. Yet for the twentieth century historian, the tedium is no longer the message: too much of the art is still alive and puts the lie very swiftly to efforts at pedantic parcelling. Just as art itself has established entirely new stances toward Life and the world of non-art, particularly within the the last century, so too must at history reveal its genuinely, necessarily humanistic content in new ways and with greater impact. Otherwise it risks dealing itself out of all relevance at the price of remaining obeisant before some crusty ideal of a collectively senile intellect. We must expressly initiate probes for alternative effective modes of teaching and research.
I have attempted to establish some sort of advanced base from which to conduct such explorations while teaching several courses in the history of art at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1965 to 1968. It may be of interest and value for me to mention here a few of the problems and the possibilities which emerged from the sometimes extraordinary events of that time. With hopes of offering a fair sample I would like to describe briefly just one course--a large class composed of advanced undergraduate students.
In the catalogue of course descriptions this series of lectures was billed as a survey of modern, particularly twentieth century art. Nothing specified that the lectures had to contain lantern slide illustrations purporting to document those dubious categorizations of art art's ''development" and laced, with apocryphal anecdotes from the lore of public fascination with "culture." Nothing said art meant just painting, or painting with a bit of sculpture and a smattering of architecture--the standard balance (plus a few literary quotations for tone).
The first class I met at UCLA in autumn, 1965, had an enrollment of some 50 students, most of them art majors fulfilling requirements. From the beginning we dispensed with the conventional programmatic approach in favor of a flexible and somewhat less formal, more organic syllabus structure. This encouraged the growth of an intuitive discourse with the students (although it was admittedly often one-sided), which launched unsettling probes into new themes alongside traditional ones. By sacrificing the role of indoctrinator, or dispenser of data ex cathedra, I could incorporate a relatively high level of feedback in the conduct, content and structure of the course. The educational results (for me, anyway, emphatically positive) strongly suggest the parallel of cybernetic sophistication with its greater long-term effectiveness--in principle opposed to the relatively primitive rigidity and absolutism that characterize so many courses in the university curriculum. This opens the way toward developing the generic function of lecturing as a medium of communication--and even as a medium of artistic creativity and expression--in its own right. Such a direction in teaching leads away from a concept of the lecture as the reading aloud of a written paper or article, toward the lecture in which the total content is prepared for oral-theatrical rather than visual-literate presentation.
Thus, partly by chance or circumstance, and partly by careful preparation and dramatically-conceived presentation, events in those early classes produced insights and stimulated innovations which were then refined and reincorporated in subsequent semesters. By the third (and last) time the course was offered its enrollment had risen to very nearly 400 students, drawn from throughout the university, plus occasional auditors from among the faculty. Because such a course inevitably generated controversy, it became something of a target for academic ultra-conservatives in coalition with those concerned California taxpayers who reflected then newly-elected Governor Ronald Reagan's suspicions about higher education and the life of the intellect generally. They succeeded in forcing the course to be effectively withdrawn (the same numbered course was offered, but it was nothing like before). The almost audible sighs of relief from administration officials and senior faculty members of the UCLA Art Department, however, suggest that in the very success of the course they at least sensed a subtle paradigm of problems pervading their own academic existences.
The most forthright challenge of the course was probably to the concept of the professor as title-holder or owner and commander of knowledge. Instead we formed a cooperative expeditionary force probing rich worlds--sometimes seeming all the stranger from our academic perspectives because they involved so much of the total environment of Life. Lecture topics ranged far beyond those conventional subject matter classifications of art history--although many examples of painting and sculpture still were used as eloquently illustrative material. But there were also examples from the not-so-fine arts, including advertising, movies, TV, and popular music, especially soul music and rhythm and blues, as well as rock and roll in its several stylistic manifestations. This material from the popular arts came to function as the basic vehicle for bringing the true humanistic content and scholarly methodology of art history to life, i.e., the means of establishing relevance. It follows that the leading conceptual or theoretical problems to be formulated in such a history of twentieth century art lie just in those areas where the traditional fine arts overlap the various realms of popular art, folk art, commercial and industrial art, non-art or even anti-art. And it is in such areas that the most meaningful problems about art Will arise in the course of the students' own lives--whether the universities consider them important or not, (either the problems or the lives).
Instead of the straight-jacket fifty-minute hour of the typical academic session, fortunate scheduling provided an open-ended time period. It usually ran from an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, breaking up into smaller groups after that. This temporal flexibility also meant that I could talk for about forty minutes to present a moderately comprehensive historical and theoretical background by way of introducing guest speakers. Representing various fields more or (frequently) less closely associated with the fine arts, these visiting lecturers came to be key elements in the course structure. It may well be that in any field at least as complex as the history of modern art it is no longer possible--let alone necessary--to maintain fictions of omniscience. Professor becomes programmer, editor, organizer and impressario.
There was nothing to militate against the visiting lecturers being art historians. It just happened that those who had the most to contribute in terms of direct information and live ideas were usually in a different bag. A sample of the visitors: Tony Magar (young New York sculptor), P. J. Proby (rock and roll recording artist), Phil Spector (record company executive and producer), Bob Abel (writer, director and producer of a feature-length film on drag racing), Harold Paris (sculptor who also teaches at U. of C., Berkeley), Robert C. McDaniel (attorney specializing in tho areas of censorship and drug law), John and Anina Weber (director of the Dwan Gallery in Now York and his wife, a former member of the Once group, Ann Arbor), Iain Baxter (artist and teacher from Vancouver, P.C.), and several unannounced personnages who sometimes shared the microphone.
This insinuates that one of the major issues in educational progress may lie in getting professors to consider relinquishing some of their authoritarian control of the medium (in this case the microphone as an extension of the larynx--a medium of communication in which, as with other media, some content is more apt than other). Class sessions occasionally turned into theater events. Andy Warhol once brought a collection of his films. But in his typically reserved manner he declined to lecture about them, preferring to have Gerard Malanga read selections of his own poetry while Andy set up and ran the films from the obscurity of the projection booth. Canned Heat, a Los Angeles blues band, plugged-in on stage for another occasion. But the most triumphantly radical "lecture" involved a relocation of the regularly-scheduled class in the Grand Ballroom of the UCLA Student Center for opening ceremonies in honor of a sculpture environment installed by Harold Paris. For most or the students this was one of the first full-scale light shows they had experienced. We had several 18mm. machines, two banks of 8mm. projectors, assorted overhead and 55mm. slide projectors, liquid projection equipment, fog machines and a battery of strobe lights. On separate risers were four rock bands, all playing simultaneously, topped off--on the main stage--by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Talk about education, opening doors, providing insights, raising new and sometimes tough problems of esthetics--both in theoretical terms and by confrontation with gut reality--perhaps only in some such way can the classroom ever hope to compete successfully with TV and the street as a source of genuine education. This does not mean the universities must become like the street quite; it rather suggests a revitalisation of the classroom with elements from the real world so that formal education may better fulfill its essential and ancient role of contributing--as Alfred North Whitehead would say--to a zest for life. But you can imagine how some people might get freaked-out by all this.
The attitude of the course toward examinations was possibly regarded as even more seditious. While the above events could be written off by obdurate academicians as mere hi-jinks, the knowledge-ownership syndrome, and all its little subtleties of intellectual sadism was squarely challenged. An exam was given, following university regulations--but its character and intent as an anti-examination was readily discerned by the more astute members of the class. Sitting in judgement upon one's fellow man never has been a necessary function of the educator. The whole edifice of testing and grading that has been erected upon the false assumption that it is necessary forms one of the primary current impediments to the pursuit of involvement with the topics, and in most instances produced lucid understandings of the peculiar difficulties connected with art historical investigations in such contemporary areas of tremendous impact and importance.
A word about books. There is no single publication which could begin to serve as a textbook for the history of twentieth century art. Perhaps this is fortunate; books are excellent, possibly indispensible adjuncts to study for the art historian--but the structure of a book is almost necessarily a bad model for the structure of a course syllabus or lecture. Several titles were cited as key references, among them the following: Eric Berne, Games People Play, John Cage, Silence, W.W. Fernside and W.B. Neither, Fallacy, John Lennon, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, Marshall Morahan, Understanding Media, A.S. Neill, Summerhill, Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, Alice B. Toklas' Cookbook, A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and the collected works of Oscar Wilde. Several art journals were also strongly recommended--the old Canadian Art was not among them, although the new Artscanada would have been. The art section of the L.A. Times was required though thoroughly deplorable.
The basic aim of this course was to provide students with some of the capacity and inspiration necessary for approaching the world around them as one great, fascinating, complex, mind-blowing work of art. Specific examples of conventional works of art functioned with their most illuminating effect when they were confronted as directly as possible hence a heavy emphasis was placed upon exhibitions at various public and commercial galleries in and around the Los Angeles area. This is merely an obvious capitalization upon the subject matter of the course understandably not available to other periods of interest. Even so, by expanding ordinary concepts of proper or admissible content a far richer and more relevant frame of reference was established. Within such an extended context some important beginnings were made toward applying the precise methodology of art history and the high resolve of humanistic scholarship--together with a little humor and sheer delight in existence--in order to make some sense out of the world without, in the process, utterly destroying its spirit.
The above was printed in the publication artscanda in July, 1968