Warhol vs. Smith (for 15 Artists/15 Weeks class)

December 20, 2008 at 3:32 pm (art, culture, teaching)

Ahhh… grades are in, the paperwork is done, I’ve just written my last letter of recommendation for the year… and so winter break is about to officially begin for me. Of course, winter break = lots of work, primarily finishing up stuff for the January show and (hopefully, finally) doing a stop-motion animation (this time I have it all scripted out!!) but I’m psyched for it – it’s my work which I’ve been neglecting to really do for the last few weeks.

But one last little school tidbit before I embark on all that. I won’t be doing any course planning for next semester til January, but a question that has been nagging at me is this: For my “15 Artists/15 Weeks” class, should one of the weeks be spent talking about Andy Warhol or Jack Smith? (I can’t discuss both in depth; there just isn’t time.)

Here are the various pros and cons…

Andy Warhol’s influence on contemporary art is without question. Students at SVA are likely to be familiar with his work to a point (the soup cans and Marilyn pieces are ubiquitous, but I doubt many of them have seen any of his films or really have an understanding of what he was up to in his work). What’s more, I’ve noticed a distinct re-examination of his work by the students I encounter; whereas when I was a student, Warhol’s genius was unquestioned, this generation doesn’t really seem to buy it.
(Not that “likeability” should have that much to do with whether or not I should include him in this course, but this is an interesting trend that I don’t think I can really ignore.)

Jack Smith, meanwhile, is largely unfamiliar to SVA students and the public at large, despite his work having a profound effect on many different artists. His films deeply influenced Warhol’s work – but, and this is where I break from the Smith Fandom – only to a point (I don’t personally buy the argument that Warhol somehow “ripped off” Smith). Still, when I show Smith’s work to students, I can’t help but notice that they adore it – they love what he was up to in the work and also the entire lifestyle he embodied, which they relate to and also romanticize. The enthusiasm with which they greet his work is profoundly different than the sort of dull response I get to teaching Warhol’s work. (I chalk a lot of this up to the excitement of learning a history that is somehow “hidden” or “mysterious” versus just learning a deeper version of a history most people are familiar with. At the same time, it is what it is – it’s excitement over boredom, which is a really big difference.)

So… which is it? Surely there will be a discussion of both of their work, but I do need to pick one to primarily focus upon. Class is only so long, and especially if I’ll be showing films I’ll have to make the distinction of privileging one over the other.

I’ve gone back and forth with this in my mind a thousand times. I really don’t know.



  1. Andrew Thornton said,

    You know, you make a good point of Jack Smith being relatively unfamiliar to SVA students. I also think that SVA is located within reasonable distance to a lot of Warhol treasuries of information and art. And maybe you can encourage the students to get a car and go out to Pittsburgh. I think it’d be a good field trip for them. Maybe a trip to the Mattress Factory as well and seeing some of the cute little art houses and art away from New York might be healthy.

    And I think that far too many SVA students are products of Warhol… even if they know it or not. It really has been engrained in much of the thoughts of young artists today.

    You should do Jack Smith in my opinion. Pick excitement!

    If you feel like you’re doing them an injustice by skipping over Warhol, give them a list of books, videos, museums, and galleries that are devoted to Warhol and let them investigate it on their own.

  2. Andrew Thornton said,

    Or just direct them to various professors at SVA who used to be members of the Factory. Some of them are still around.

  3. Francesca Lyn said,

    I vote Jack Smith!

  4. kara said,

    I think it should come down to whether or not you believe you will impart a more valuable conversation on your students with Smith or Warhol. I was unfamiliar with Smith until you pointed him out now and I think you would have a much more meaningful impact through presenting his work over Warhols. Not to say that Warhol is “dead” or that you don’t have something to say about him–it just seems that building awareness of another Great far outweighs the benefits of talking Warhol.

    Maybe concentrate in Smith in class with video/discussion/readings and offer some extra readings and resources for Warhol to be done outside of class so as to not skip him entirely.

  5. kara said,

    oh! and who have you decided to talk about for your Woman artists? i remember talking to you about that months ago.

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