I have been involved in a master class for photographic artists for some time now, but have decided to terminate my involvement. I must admit I find the conversations very interesting, and I really love the focused dialog between artists that really doesn’t happen in every day life. You need to seek out people working in the same medium, but that alone is not enough. They need to be mentally in the same state, and regular weekend retreats enable that. Even artists have days when they have to do their taxes, take the kids to the dentist and test out new gear… so not all days allow for the freedom of mind to drill into the importance of the work.
But the academic art world, and especially the specialized world of fine art photography coming out of the art schools, tends to be extremely fixated on its own belly button. The last weekend was a combined class with graduates from ENSPA, the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The students meet every four months, and present their work in relation to a theme that was assigned previously.
Of course there was some highly creative work on view. Some of it was quite clever, and had an interesting take on the assigned theme. But most of it was so conceptual that it required a long essay to be read out loud before the work was presented, and that barely made the images more comprehensible. It also seemed like most people had the same ideas, including five who used Google Earth as the basis of their project, and several more who recontextualized images by photographing existing pictures or capturing various screens, posters, or paintings. This has been done ad nauseum, and it has been done well. I will admit that one or two of the works were quite smart.
Two weeks ago I attended Paris Photo, the annual pinnacle of photographic art fairs. I am always surprised about the number of galleries that specialize in representing the work of such students-turned-artists. The galleries’ primary business is selling art to large insurance companies, energy consortia, and major banks, who in turn have funded trusts dedicated to building up art assets. These funds are being curated by other art school graduates, who in turn are seeking consultation from other former art school graduates. Outside of the art world this is called a circle jerk. There is an insularity to the art being sold for large sums, but ultimately that art has not withstood one of the tests of art: does it work?
One test that academic art has failed consistently is in the market place. Can money validate art? Its an age-old question, but one fact to consider in whether importance is artificially bestowed should be that 85% of the conceptual work did not hold its value once achieved in previous auctions.
Sean O’Hagan poses some other interesting questions in his article On not answering the Question: what makes a good Photograph over at Photoworks.
So I am terminating my flirtation with academia. It lacks passion, and it lacks lust. And frankly, none of my heroes and role models emerged from academia, and that may say the most.