Academic Art

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.



4 thoughts on “Academic Art

  1. Hear hear! I think the fear of either having nothing to say or the fear that what you’ve said is trite results in a downward spiral of ever-increasing complexity, confusion, and obfuscation of meaning. Do these academic artists have the skills, but no clear vision of the message? Or do they have a clear vision but lack the skills to convey it (a language barrier, despite their education)? In fairness, they, like artists, are exploring their interests and desires, and do this well, but it results perhaps in a ‘different product’…

    Any visual art that requires a written explanation has failed a fundamental test, I agree. Art should not fear the notion that there is nothing new under the sun. Humans have been expressing similar things in different ways for all of history. Something as magical as love is different to everyone, and this delivers a different expression each time, even if the tropes remain the same. You don’t have to be obvious, but you need to communicate properly. A very nice piece Yoram!

  2. I’m I total agreement with your thoughts, although I don’t think this is currently an issue with just photograph. I’m currently doing a degree in art and design and have learned during the course that to achieve good grades, I have to follow the flow of conceptualising my art, not for good taste or art but for academia. It saddens me that I have to sell out my passion to have a degree. On a positive note it has linked me to like minded individuals that have driven my true art and not what I show my tutors.

  3. Glad to see your thoughts. And I agree mostly. Part of the beauty of using photography as a medium is that a picture is worth a thousand words. For a photographer to have to explain to a viewer what each image means would sort of rob them of their own experience with the image. The overall point for me being evoking a feeling that could be unique from individual to individual. The purpose of art is to create some sort of a feeling in the viewer that they may or may not “connect” with.

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