Your desks are too heavy/and your walls are too white…

May 4, 2008 at 11:31 am (art, culture, personal, teaching)

Yay, the semester is done! All that’s left is a stack of grading, but I can deal with that. It was an absolutely terrific semester — I think this was the best yet. I miss my classes already.

For whatever reason, the end of the year has me thinking a lot about my own education and its relationship to my work. I have a feeling that this will take shape a little more as I start doing the research for my classes for next year, but a few random thoughts:

I went to school (speaking of college and grad school, so 1991-1997) and wound up, just because of where I was and the time it was, studying primarily with Conceptual, Minimal, and post-Minimal artists. I don’t think I was even aware of it at the time, since I – like a lot of students – just basically took the classes available to me without really asking (if the teacher teaching the class was “famous” then all the better – but I never really questioned the ideology that they embraced).

I look back on all this and think about what a strange fit it was. I was attracted to art because it gave me a forum and a place to express something that I couldn’t express anywhere else – and that something, while I still struggle to explain what it is, is related to my personal experience in the world. As I sit here, staring at the screen, all I can think to say to explain it is “the awkwardness of being alive,” but that’s not quite right. Maybe the best I can think of at this moment is “the awkwardness of me being alive right now.” Regardless of my fumbling with the best way to say it, the point is that I was always very interested in trying to capture bits of myself as an individual – my thoughts, feelings, my inhabited self (if that’s not too artsy). And in turn, I’ve always been interested in work that speaks to the same thing for other people.

All of this, of course, was the antithesis of what my instructors were interested in. They wanted to talk about theory and philosophy and to move art away from “therapy” and personal experience. i should point out that I respect the work from this period and that many of my teachers were absolutely wonderful to me, and that I am grateful for their guidance. Lord knows what would have happened had I not been forceably exposed to this other way of thinking and of making art – somehow, for me (given my personality, etc), having this to work against was a strong motivator to stick to my own path.

But the kind of work that was really encouraged when I was a student (this may be true to this day, I’m not totally sure) was work that left me numb. It seemed that the more devoid of emotion and personal experience a work would be (and the slicker it was made), the higher grade it would get and the more praise would be heaped on it. I fell under the spell of this ideology for a long time and completely embraced it (my work was never slick, but it was thickly coated in irony and, as such, ok by these standards) and breaking free from it has been a long and difficult process.

All this results in me thinking about how teaching is one of the primary joys of my life, mostly because I get to be around students who are asking many of the same questions that I did, and still do. I’m so fortunate it worked out this way – hey, it could have easily have been that I would inherit class after class of students making Donald Judd-inspired work, but it just hasn’t shaken out that way. As it winds up, my students care deeply about making their work themselves (rather than using fabricators or buying pre-made elements), about having an emotional experience with their work and telling stories about their lives; they reject irony and consumerism and the flashiness of the art world.

I recognize this as a fleeting thing. Ten years from now, it’s entirely possible that I may have class after class of students who think that personal narrative is stupid. It will be their right to decide that and my job to figure out the best way to guide them. But for right now? I’m so lucky to have this perfect match.

(sort of a postscript)
I gave this post a title that’s a line from a Sleater-Kinney song called What’s Mine is Yours. For me, it captures all the anxiety and frustrations of being young and trapped in a place (a small town, in school) you’re perpetually trying to get out of.
Did you ever get the feeling that you don’t belong?
Said the teacher in the classroom, I think there’s something wrong.
But your desks are too heavy
And your walls are too white
And your rules are all wrong
And it’s either run or fight.
Well, I’m still running…

It gets me everytime I hear it. This is why I really consider teaching to be part of my artistic practice – because I’m still running and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.


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