It’s the time of year when, as the frost giants finally abdicate their annual reign over Chicago, applicants the world over are getting their responses from Master of Fine Arts graduate programs. Since mid-February they’ve been braving the slings and arrows of “We are sorry to inform you,” “It is with regret,” and “We wish you every success,” occasionally tempered with the cold comfort of some statistic or mention of the unexpected number of applicants and their impressive collective quality. Some are still dangling, hanging to the desperate hope of a waiting list. Many, though, have been receiving their notifications of acceptance, and with those come choices, sometimes difficult. At least three people I know personally are in this situation this year, and it got me to reminiscing, second-guessing, and Monday-morning quarterbacking the choices I made in my education, and also thinking about the choices facing my friends.
Some applicants are accepted only into a single program, at which point the decision pretty much makes itself, especially if that program was one of the applicant’s top choices. In other cases, if accepted by a “safety,” the choice is between accepting admission into a program that wasn’t one’s first, second, or even third choice, or licking one’s wounds, getting back to work, and applying again the next year, in hopes of getting into a more competitive program.
I actually found myself in this situation ten years ago, in 2003, just after graduating from my undergraduate program at Humboldt State University (my degree was conferred in December 2002). I had applied, rather casually, to a few graduate schools, not really taking the process particularly seriously. Mass Art, Pratt, RISD, and Tulane University all wisely concluded that I wasn’t quite ready, while SAIC informed me that yes, their application deadline was a firm one, and that I’d have to apply again next year.
After receiving all this bad news, I finally received an offer of admission from the University of New Orleans. I had applied to UNO, along with Tulane, primarily out of an interest in its role in the Gothic subculture; even as late as 2003, I was thinking it’d be a good place to meet girls in black lipstick. I had visited New Orleans on a road trip with a friend in summer 2001, and it seemed like an interesting place: I found a porcelain doll’s arm and some fragments of what I’m pretty sure were human bone in the topsoil of a cemetery, and at the New Orleans Art Museum I saw Odd Nerdrum’s “Five Persons Around A Waterhole,” which let me tell you, when I was 21, seemed to me to be the paragon of contemporary art. I know, I know.
So I had applied out of a sort of schoolboy’s crush on the city, and I’d been accepted. By that time, though, the end of March, I’d had a sort of awakening, and had realized that despite having just received my degree, I still had a lot to learn about the actual techniques of painting. My interest was in figurative representation, but I had been pushed away from it by my instructors and classmates, probably in large part because I wasn’t very good at it. Instead, I had been making paintings that were a sort of workaround, essentially drawings on toned canvas, and these were pretty well received. My classmates and faculty were supportive, I showed some in local coffee shops and restaurants, even sold a few (albeit at undergrad-in-a-small-town-coffee-shop prices). But ultimately I knew the work was shit. Or, at least, I thought I did; in hindsight, it might have actually been an interesting direction to go in, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. At any rate, by the time the schools I’d heard were good had all rejected me, and UNO had accepted me, I had decided that the work I’d applied with was terrible, and concluded that I “wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The point of all this masturbatory, navel-gazing, canker sore-licking reminiscence is that whatever choice you make, you’ll have the rest of your life to second-guess it. And, if you’re anything like me, you will. If I’d accepted that offer of admission, I would have moved to New Orleans in summer of 2003, having just started a series of large self-portraits dressed up as other people (friends, famous artists, and artist stereotypes), which was kind of clever and funny in an undergrad sort of way. A military saying is “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and how this body of work would have gone over at UNO’s grad program will remain forever unknown. Would I have been pushed in a more interesting direction with it? Encouraged? Sidetracked? Challenged? Coddled? There’s no way to know, but thus relocated, my influences and peers all rearranged, it’s impossible to imagine that I would have gone on to make the same work as I ended up making after deciding to decline their offer and spend another year working on my portfolio to reapply.
As it turned out, I didn’t accept the offer, instead electing to spend another year working on what I thought of at the time as my first real body of work, that dozen or so self portraits. I felt pretty good about them at the time, thought I had a decent shot at getting into a more competitive graduate program the following year. I busted my ass, pulled some crazy all-nighters. I was an animal. I was a machine. All summer, I worked. Some friends and I, all in the same boat, spent Thanksgiving break in the painting studio; we knew how to shimmy across a roof and in through a window so we could paint even when campus was closed. On Thanksgiving, three of us had a little potluck dinner, using the model stand as a table. And then we got back to work. I bought Rock Star (or was in Monster?) at Costco by the case. December came, and with it, the deadlines. I applied to nineteen schools. I was rejected from every single one.
If I’d accepted that offer from UNO, I would have been finishing up my first year, instead of collecting a massive stack of rejection letters. As it was, I started a new body of work, better than the last (I actually still like a few of those paintings), and tried again, and that third year was accepted into three of my top choices: Mass Art, Cranbrook, and MICA. They were all basically good programs, and I had to choose between them. None had offered me a full fellowship, the proverbial “free ride” that MFA students sometimes get, which would have made the choice easier. (Some programs are free for anyone who’s accepted, but none of these three were.) I had a friend at Cranbrook, which was tempting, but ultimately I decided that the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA was the best fit for me, due to its director Grace Hartigan’s emphasis on figurative representation. I started at MICA in August of 2005. A month later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving me to wonder what would have happened to me if I’d gone to UNO. Would I have found a teaching position in the area and been hit by the hurricane, or would I have found work elsewhere and dodged the bullet? If I’d been affected, how? Would I have stubbornly refused to evacuate? Might I even have been killed? More likely, I would have survived, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that I wouldn’t have made work about it, but would it have been any good?
Like Maximus said in Gladiator: “The choices we make in life echo in eternity.” The problem is that we can’t always know how our choices will echo. Whether or not the wingbeat of a butterfly can really effect weather systems a continent away, unexpected outcomes are certainly the rule rather than the exception. So maybe, as you’re mulling over your options for MFA programs, you should picture Jeff Goldbloom playing with droplets of water on the back of your hand, explaining that there is no way you can know what consequences your choice will have.
I never could have known that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the city I would have moved to if I’d accepted UNO’s offer, nor could I have known that by staying in Humboldt for another two years, I would meet the woman who would become my wife. There’s a certain hippie, New Age kind of mindset that may be more prevalent on the West Coast than in Chicago, that the universe has some sort of plan, that everything happens for a reason, and looking in hindsight at some of these consequences leads some to say, “Well, see? There you go! It all worked out.” But of course, if it hadn’t , something else would have worked out. If I’d never met my wife, I would probably have met somebody else. (Tim Minchin’s got a great song about this.) If I can draw any lesson from my experience, it’s that the most important outcomes of any decision tend to be the ones you can’t predict, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.
In the interests of concluding with something a little more actionable, I’ll share two pieces of advice I received while looking at graduate programs. The first was “Follow the money,” that is, go to the school that will result in the least student loan debt. This is great if you are offered a full scholarship to your top choice, or even one of your top choices. But it’s difficult if you’re facing the choice between taking on a major debt load to attend a program that really feels right for you, versus getting a free ride at a school that feels slightly less right to you. Add to this the fact that some programs (Northwestern, for example, and also UIUC I believe) are free for anyone accepted, and at others you can teach in exchange for a tuition waver and sometimes a stipend to live on. It’s a tough choice, not one I ever had to face, but one that some of my friends are facing right now. One mitigating factor in favor of getting to the school that’s best for you, debt be damned, is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This says that, in effect, if you work full time for a non-profit public service institution for ten years, while making your scheduled student loan payments on time, at the end of that period they’ll forgive the rest of your loan debt. Considering that a.) a primary reason a lot of people pursue an MFA degree is in order to teach, and b.) that most colleges count, and that c.) you can make fairly low student loan payments on the income-based repayment plan, this means that you can go to the fancy MFA program, teach for ten years (if you can find the work, and that’s a big “if”), make modest loan payments of as little as eighty bucks a month, and then you’re free and clear. This takes some of the hurt and fear out of going to a more costly school that might offer the kind of program you’re looking for.
The other piece of advice I got, though, was that the most important aspect of graduate program was the city you’d be living in while attending. It makes some sense; certainly we see players in Chicago’s art scene who represent students and alumni from not just SAIC but also Columbia, UIUC, UIC, and more; attending graduate school in Chicago can be an entry point into Chicago’s art scene regardless of which school one attends. On the other hand, Yale’s MFA program pretty obviously has influence outside New Haven, Connecticut. Cranbrook is located in an almost monastic retreat in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, not particularly close to Detroit or anywhere else, and yet its graduates show up, doing well, all over.
I only ended up in Chicago out of sheer, dumb luck. I stuck around Humboldt for another year because I wanted to go to a school that was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, and then another because none of them would have me. On a whim, I went to crash Freshman Orientation to pick up on freshman girls and scam free pizza. Three years later, I married one of those girls, Stephanie Burke. She’s quick to point out that she was a transfer student, not a freshman, and also there for the free pizza. After she spent a year with me in Baltimore while I finished up at MICA, she applied to her own round of MFA programs. It was her first year applying, and she got into three excellent programs: Virginia Commonwealth, MICA, and SAIC. SAIC had been her top choice, and Baltimore hadn’t really set any hooks into either of us compelling us to say, so we pulled up our stakes and headed for Chicago. Five and a half years later, we’re rocking and rolling in an incredibly vibrant art scene, and while it’s hard for me to imagine doing so well anywhere else, the road that led here is one I couldn’t see at all from where it started.
The CAA conference is pretty much the industry standard place to go for those seeking teaching jobs with colleges, as well as administrative or other jobs with colleges or museums. Unfortunately, it’s a big investment of time and, more importantly for those seeking rather than holding full-time teaching jobs, money. There’s the cost of your CAA membership, the conference registration fee, airfare, hotel, and all of those fancy meals with friends and trips to the bar with more successful colleagues whom you passively aggressively resent, which you rationalize as “networking expenses.” All that shit adds up, and frankly, that kind of travel and fun in the name of business are some of the perks that make the shallow horror of the art world bearable. (“Art world” being here distinctly separate from “art,” the making of which is so a separate from the culture that surrounds it that the common language is misleading, in the same way that a “carpet” isn’t a pet that rides in the car with you. That’s a little Ramona Quimbey reference for the Beverly Cleary fans out there.)
Fortunately for my Chicago-based readers, the College Art Association conference is coming to Chicago in February 2014. It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to travel to get there, and a lot cheaper too. In fact, if you can, you should probably see if any of your fellow alums or old friends from school are coming into town and want to sleep on your couch to save on the cost of a hotel. This can be a great way to turn a competitive frenemy into a collaborator and confidant, as they seek to avoid cognitive dissonance, preserving their positive self-image by attempting to repay the favor by, for example, telling you about an opportunity. (If you’re reading this, and we know each other, even rather distantly, like you saw me naked at a party one time, call or email or hit me up on Facebook, and you’re welcome to the couch or at least some floor space. Even if I kind of hate you.)
There are some tricks to cut the cost and get smart about attending CAA, particularly if your primary motive for attending is as part of a job search. Here’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about the CAA conference before their first time attending: You don’t need to register for the conference to attend the professional development stuff or go into the Interview Hall. That just requires a current CAA membership, which you’ve probably already gotten, since the friend whose membership number you were using to look at the jobs on the website either got their job or gave up, and either way let their membership expire.
There are good reasons to register for the conference; the price of a badge is well worth it if you’re going to attend a bunch of the panel sessions. These are a great way to keep current in your field, particularly if your field is something like “The Post-Gender Significance of Nipples on Ancient Sumerian Bronze Armor.” It’s also probably a good idea to go if anyone you know is presenting. Just try not to glare at them from the back row, resenting their success. Plaster on a fake smile, fight your way to the front at the end of the presentation, and try to put a positive spin on whatever you’ve been up to for the last couple of years. See if you can call your babysitting gig a performance piece.
I’m talking shit, but I actually really enjoy the panel sessions. I’ve seen some great ones, on “The Opposite of Snake” (spoiler alert, it’s “bird”), and on Nazi curatorial practices at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art. These sorts of art historical things are half professional research (I’m sure they’re good for my making, teaching, and writing, somehow, even if the connections are neither direct nor immediately clear) and half guilty pleasure. For a contemporary artist, writer, or educator, a panel session on a given art historical topic may be neither more nor less relevant to their practice than watching a History Channel special on sea monsters.
The thing is, if you’re on the job hunt, there are far better uses of your time than showing up for the conference because a bunch of jobs you applied for said they’d be interviewing, then scowling your way through a bunch of panel sessions because nobody wanted to interview you. You can prowl the Interview Hall; again, no conference registration required, you just need a current membership ID. During the conference, there’s a career services subsection of the conference section of the website, where they tell you who’s interviewing (useless if you don’t have an interview lined up), but more importantly, who’s accepting drop-off packets. In my experience, at a given conference, an average of 2-3 places have been hiring in my medium (studio art focusing on drawing, painting, or foundations), and accepting drop-off packets.
So rather than bringing 50 copies of your CV, bring 5 full packets, including a generic cover letter, CV, references, sample syllabi, a CD containing 20 images of your work and 20 images of student work (if need be, this can be student work from your graduate assistantship, if that’s all you’ve got), and image lists for those. Copies of your transcripts (unofficial okay) and copies of your generic letters of recommendation aren’t usually necessary, but couldn’t hurt. Obviously you’ll want to bring a USB drive with these documents on it, in both print-ready PDF format as well as editable docx and jpeg files. That way if you discover a typo, you can rush to a computer to fix it (there are computers in the candidate center, or you can use your laptop). You can also go see who’s accepting drop-off packets in your medium, then go bang out a custom cover letter real quick, print it off, sign it, and swap it out for the generic letter in your packet.
It’s also a good idea to bring your images in multiple formats: at a mock interview I signed up for, the mock interviewer’s laptop was newly-issued to him, and he didn’t realize until our interview that it didn’t have a CD drive! Fortunately, I had my images available on my website, as 8 ½” x 11” prints in an Itoya folder, and on my USB drive, so this wasn’t a major problem. On a related note, one tip I received was that if you’re offered an interview, bring new copies of all the materials you submitted with you to the interview, because it’s entirely possible that the interviewers didn’t bring them, lost them, forgot them, or dropped them on the subway. So bring new ones, just in case. Some other helpful tips I received at the various professional development workshops I attended were:
1. On your CV’s exhibition list, don’t separate solo shows from group shows until later in your career. It’s confusing to the search committee to have to jump around. Keep ‘em together, in reverse chronological order.
2. Separate solo shows from group shows, to highlight them. Your solo shows, particularly if they’re at a reputable gallery, are the heart of your exhibition record, so they should go at the top.
3. Remove from your exhibition history any shows at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, banks, or other businesses.
4. Omit nothing from your CV. Include everything. The definition of a CV is a complete record of ALL of your professional activity.
5. Use printed CD labels. Writing your information on the cd in marker looks unprofessional.
6. Don’t use printed CD labels. They can get stuck in the CD drive. Write your information directly on the CD in marker.
Literally, I received all six of those tips at one time or another while at the conference this year. Like Ned Flanders, I’ve tried to follow all of these commandments, “even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.” The annual CAA conference takes place in February, more the middle of the “search season” than the end, so even if, like me, you don’t score any interviews at CAA, it’s not too late to put these tips into practice. Full time teaching positions for the Fall often have deadlines as late as the preceding March or April, so if you’re looking now, there are still a few postings open for Fall 2013 positions. If none of them pan out, well, I’ll see you there, February 12–15, 2014, somewhere in Chicago (probably the Hyatt Regency on Wacker, where they held it in 2010). May the odds be ever in your favor.
Today seems like a good day to talk about abstract painting. It’s an issue that bobs to the surface from time to time (“…like a turd that won’t flush,” to quote Deacon, Dennis Hopper’s character in Waterworld), a sort of ghost or dark secret that can’t stay hidden forever. Abstract painting is often seen that way today, as a turd, the digested remains of something that used to be relevant, new, and beautiful, but let’s not forget, when Hopper uttered those timeless words, he was referring to the hero of the picture. It’s not an easy issue, and like everybody else this time of year, I’m a bit under the weather, so rather than force you to suffer through my foggy-headed musings, I’m going to approach this topic by serving up some hot plates of copy-pasta, written my minds less addled than my own.
The issue of abstract painting surfaced for me recently at Co-Prosperity School, the artist-run discussion circle that I’ve been coordinating, along with Stephanie Burke, ever since the school’s founders, Aaron Delehanty and Ed Marszewski, each became busy with the joys of fatherhood. Each week, in addition to a visiting artist’s presentation, one of the participants presents his or her work for critique and discussion. A couple of weeks back, it was Chicago-based abstract painter Erin McGuire’s turn to present her work. Erin’s a vocal advocate of abstraint painting’s continued relevance today, and after her critique, I asked her to summarize her thoughts in a brief “manifesto.” Here’s what she sent me:
Why Abstract Art You Say!
1. Representational and abstract are both valid art subjects.
2. I like to draw, paint, combine forms, colors, and relationships without being constrained to one specific literal object.
3. Not being tied down to one specific object opens the piece up to everyone to understand, even if they haven’t learned art history.
4. You don’t have to “get” abstract to enjoy it.
5. It gives a lot of room for imagination.
6. Yes, there is shitty abstract art, just like there is shitty realistic art.
7. Silly, bizarre, casual, colorful, sexy, poetic abstract paintings exist that might make you cry, remind you of certain music, or a powerful little moment that no one else noticed.
8. Give abstract a chance; don’t be intimidated by its history.
9. Just (fucking) enjoy the painting, whether it’s abstract or realistic – there’s nothing wrong with just liking something without having to explain yourself.
10. There’s room in your mind for abstract if you allow it.
You can read more of Erin’s thoughts, and see some images of her work, here: http://erinmcguirestudio.com/home.html
One of our fellow participants, Kelsey Greene, took the time to write a response to Erin’s presentation. In it she uses McGuire’s work as an entry point to begin discussing abstract painting more generally.
The next leap is abstraction. But how does a person tell a good abstract from a drunken scribble? It has to do with intent, and artistic intent is very difficult to parse out without education or training. Without knowledge of proportion, composition, color systems etc., all the deliberate choices of the artist appear random or accidental. Education is essential because people want to know that their opinion has a valid basis. They don’t want to be the person with the wool pulled over their eyes, imagining that a child’s drawing is the next great masterpiece. They want to know they are not being fooled into discussing something as higher than it is. The only way to give that assurance is to discuss process and technique (artist’s choices) with the viewer…
A painting is “finished” when there is nothing left to do. There should be nothing “wrong” (out of place, unbalanced) with the painting, but it should still be interesting enough to keep the viewer (in this case, the artist herself is the viewer) visually engaged. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between [representational] painting and abstract paintings. A [representational] painting is done when it looks like what it is, and in sufficient detail. An abstract painting is done when the artist decides that it looks like itself. A representational painting is done when it can’t look any more like the thing, or when changes start to lessen the likeness of the painting to its subject, or when additional work doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the perception of the subject, but an abstract work doesn’t have an objective guide. The point of completion is entirely the artist’s prerogative, and is a very deliberate choice, perhaps more so than in a process when the work is being compared to an outside standard.
The full entry is available on Kelsey’s art blog: http://ixonia.livejournal.com/2131.html
All of this manifesto-grade discussion may feel as dated as abstract painting itself, but as with Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, painting, and specifically abstract painting, may be rendered a littler clearer with some choice words, particularly if it is going to continue to endure alongside performance, digital art, and all the newfangled whatzits that have become part of the contemporary definition of art.
The best theory or manifesto of painting I’ve read, seen, or heard in a while has been painter Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s 95 Theses on Painting, shown as part of her exhibition at the MCA Chicago and now available online: http://fromawhispertoascream.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-95-theses-on-paining.html The whole list is well worth reading, several times over, but this morning, grey and snowy outside, and stuffy and congested inside, this one feels just right:
73. The dream of abstract painting in the 20th century was a dream of whole people, whose senses weren’t fragmented, whose vision was complete, who made paintings with their hearts and minds and bodies in harmony.
Postscript: It was my great pleasure to perform my graduate work under the guidance of painter Grace Hartigan, who first became well known as a second generation abstract painter in New York, before returning to figurative painting later in life. It was through conversations with her that I learned to appreciate abstract painting, particularly the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner, as well as Grace herself. Although my own work is figurative, representational, and realist in a very traditional sense, I nevertheless drew much inspiration from these abstract painters, who incidentally happen to be women. So Georg Baselitz can suck it.
I’ve always liked Dave Hickey. This was initially because his Air Guitar was the one book of art theory or criticism I could read without feeling like I was choking down something unpleasant because it was supposed to be good for me. So, last October, when Hickey famously “resigned” from the art world (the exact meaning and consequences of which only time will tell), I was eager to hear his reasoning, which, I figured, had to be pretty good.
Hickey’s complaints, first reported in The Guardian and immediately quoted basically everywhere, carry an echo of a quotation (often misquoted) from Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80s: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason…Which is more or less true. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.”
Last night over after-dinner drinks, a friend told me about Damien Hirst’s collaboration with the Olsen twins: the twins’ signature black patent leather Nile crocodile backpack (which, apparently, is a thing), released as 12 limited-edition designs embellished by Hirst. The Nile originally sold for $35,000; the Hirst edition goes for $55,000, with the proceeds going to Unicef. Nobody’s going to hate on Unicef, but Hirst’s spot paintings already had an air of an artist who’d become too big to fail just phoning it in to make a buck. Repeating the spot imagery on a luxury backpack starts to feel like the art world’s version of the Portlandia “Put A Bird On It” sketch.
Big shots make big targets, and any museum-vetted multimillionaire artist is going to draw some flak. Jeff Koons has attracted criticism ever since his public relationship-as-performance with an Italian porn star-politician (a pretty special combination in itself) was widely written off as an obvious publicity stunt. Hirst has always attracted skepticism, mostly of the “but is it art?” variety, for his dead-thing-in-a-vitrine work, but they were at least monumental. His spot paintings look lazy by comparison, and stamping them on a bag reinforces the idea that he’s become not just a brand, but nothing but a brand. Warhol would approve, maybe, but a lot of us, I think, are tired of it.
What makes us uncomfortable, I think, is the implication that this collaboration may actually be between equals. We dread that there may be some hypocrisy in our criticism of the balls-out consumerism that allows a pair of twins who got famous getting their diapers changed on television to sell handbags for five figures. Are art world celebrities so different from the garden variety? More to the point, are art world celebrities any different from ourselves, and our friends, if we got the success we pretend to disdain but secretly covet? We want to see ourselves as the kid who points out that the emperor’s new clothes are nothing at all, and when one of our darlings pairs with one of theirs, we start to feel the tickle of the breeze on our own naked back.
The truth, I think, is that there is no difference. These art world titans fill our need to have something to worship, and to hate. Like soccer moms flipping through tabloids in the checkout line of the grocery store, we need these gods and demons, to love and to fear, to envy and mock. In the end, the fact that they happen to be artists is entirely incidental. Like everybody else, we’re drawn to epic personalities, and like everybody else, we’ve been eating a mile of their shit just to see where it comes from. That we happen to prefer the flavor of artist shit over actor shit, or musician shit, or athlete shit, is an incidental consequence of subculture, class, and education, and has no bearing whatsoever on the essential nature of cults of personality.
This at least would seem to explain Hickey’s “fuck this shit” decision to opt out of the whole thing. And Hickey is one for whom the system worked: I’m sure the man’s received his share of rejection letters, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s been a while. His criticism can hardly be called a case of sour grapes, but it must resonate with anyone who’s doing good work, not getting the recognition it deserves, and seeing what look like heaps of laurels being stacked on the heads of lazy hacks. The temptation to sweep the chessboard onto the floor and walk away is certainly understandable.
Here’s the thing: gods you don’t believe in can’t touch you. It doesn’t matter what million-dollar deals are being done between people you’ll never meet. It may be interesting, and sure, we may wish for a slice of that action, but it can only suffocate you if you bury your face in it. Art is like Calvinball: if you don’t like the rules, you can change ‘em. I’m not going to second-guess how Hickey wants to live his life; it sounds like he’s got some book projects he’s into, which look interesting, and while they’re not directly about art, I was never entirely sure that Air Guitar was, either. But opting out isn’t the only option on the table for anyone else who feels that way. Nothing the big shots are doing, however frustrating, however misguided, need stop you from making that work, writing that blog post, or running that apartment gallery.
Bumper stickers make for lousy arguments, but there’s one out there that slings a butchered quote spuriously attributed to Mahamta Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The actual quotation isn’t quite as pat, but it’s a decent thought for anyone who’s frustrated with the way things are, whether in the art world or anywhere else:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
P.S. Fuck you, Olsen Twins: This is how to use a crocodilian as a fashion accessory: The author’s wife Stephanie Burke with one of Jim Nesci’s reptiles, at Big Run Wolf Ranch.
Of the many branches of contemporary art’s gnarled and twisted family tree, arms and armor appears to be a particularly precarious limb, a long-dead branch likely to be pruned off by any serious storm. More than any other field of art history, arms and armor have come to be associated with the dimly-lit studies of the super rich, typified by Bruce Wayne’s manor in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. “Check this out. He must have been the king of the Wicker People.”
There are those of us, though, who notice things in that scene, that most viewers miss: For example, the completely anachronistic juxtaposition, on the armors flanking the door, of close helms and breastplates from the sixteenth century, with eleventh century kite shields decorated with swirling-armed crosses. Five hundred years of history separate the former from the latter, no less than separates the latter from the present day. A close helm would have been as out of place at the battle of Hastings as an Abrams tank at the court of Henry VIII.
Most people watching Batman, even artists and art viewers, wouldn’t know the difference, and couldn’t care less, and in fact would probably imagine the previous paragraph being read aloud in the voice of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. The appreciation of arms and armor is easily treated as an oddball, nerdy fringe of art history, and tainted by association with violence: undergraduate art history survey courses rarely cover the difference between a bascinet and a burgonet. Contrast this with the expectation that anyone with a degree in art, in any medium, should easily recognize the painting The Joker later defaces as Rembrandt’s late self-portrait, and the one he spares as one of Bacon’s popes.
Arms and armor may not be appreciated by as wide of an audience as is painting, but they have their fans, and I’m one of them. As a kid, I remember going to visit my family in Philadelphia, and we must have gone to the art museum; I remember a seeing, just in passing, some maces in a display case and becoming totally enamored. My dad bought me a book on arms and armor on that same trip, and I’ve still got it, much abused and well loved. In my teens my mom bought me a book on the arms and armor of the medieval knight, and I’ve still got that one too. The summer before I went away to college, I went to Europe with my girlfriend at the time, and each time we visited a new city I sought out its arms and armor museum: Vienna and Dresden were both quite memorable, though that latter city sadly lost much of its collection in the firebombing it experienced in World War II.
In August of 2007, I was attending a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, before moving to Chicago to join my wife Stephanie Burke, who had just started school at SAIC. She called me to tell me about the wonderful collection of arms and armor she’d seen at the Art Institute. I arrived a month later, headed down to the Art Institute, and found the long, dimly-lit hall…completely empty, save for a single display case with a few swords lingering.
The hall was the Art Institute’s Gunsaulus Hall, which housed the Art Institute’s fantastic collection of arms and armor until late 2007. Three years later, a small selection of the collection was put on display in the Art Institute’s Galleries 235 and 236, where it remains on view today. The exhibition space is small and so the percentage of the collection that can be shown is necessarily quite limited (although its ceilings are high enough to display an armor for man and horse with the rider mounted, something never before possible at the Art Institute). In that display, a sign indicates that this small display is temporary, pending the completion of a new, much larger exhibition space for the collection, at an undetermined future date.
The Art Institute’s collection of arms and armor comes from the estate of George F. Harding, Jr. (1868-1939), a Chicago businessman and politician who amassed an incredible collection of arms and armor as well as other art and artifacts from around the world. In 1927, Harding expanded his Hyde Park home, adding upper stories emulating a castle. He used this “castle” as a museum to display his collection of arms and armor.
The castle was torn down in 1964 as part of an urban renewal project, and the collection was moved to a building, closed to the public, at Randolph and Michigan. The museum’s chairman, Herman Silverstein, along with his wife Bea, was the subject of a lawsuit by the Illinois attorney general’s office in 1976, accusing the Silversteins of “violating IRS regulations concerning charitable trust laws by mismanaging the museum assets and failing to allow public viewing of the relics.” The Silversteins agreed in count in 1989 to resign, and to turn over to the Art Institute the last $4.1 million of the Harding Museum’s cash assets, to be used to conserve and display the collection. The Harding collection itself had been turned over to the Art Institute in 1982, under pressure from the State.
The bulk of the Art Institute’s collection remains in storage, out of view, but even the small selection on display is well worth seeing. There’s also a book, Arms and Armor at The Art Institute of Chicago, by Walter J. Karcheski Jr., out of print but available online very inexpensively. For my dear fellow viewers who appreciate this odd branch of our culture’s visual history, we will have to content ourselves with these, until the Art Institute makes room for a larger exhibition space for this world-class collection.