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The Smell of Fresh Mown Grass

22 Jun 2015 Hanne Hagenaars

No one will deny that today’s student is much better off than before. Artists of the old generation will smugly and full of glee tell students that, essentially, they will learn nothing at the academy. 

The only bit of driftwood you, as a student, were handed was that one ingenious comment your tutor made as he was sifting through your bookshelf. Theory was of secondary importance and students could avoid going to class without much consequence. Making art was a matter of intuition. From the inside out. Since then, education has improved, and the realisation that the ‘process of making’ can be learned has materialised. After all, new students arrive at the academy hungry and full of expectations, and it’s not a bad idea to teach them something.

Learning the artistic trade is no longer about the practice of technique, instead, concept is at the core of business. This has its downside. For example, in one week, a single work made by an overzealous first year student could be discussed four times, each time in a different lesson. This is the point where the work succumbs to overkill.

Another downside became painfully clear to me when I received the following question for Mister Motley’s ‘Help me’ section: I’m a third year student and am already, a bit desperately, looking for a subject to base my graduation work on. Do you have any tips or ideas?’ Helping her on her way to finding the content of her work wasn’t as difficult as trying to understand how this question could arise in the first place. When art was still a matter of intuition, working from one’s own interior world, one drew and experimented profusely and, through doing so, discovered the content of one’s work.

By continuously making and reflecting on what you’ve done, you’ll automatically start recognizing the themes in your own work. But recklessly making is no longer easily accepted within the art academy. As a student you have to, as it were, think-forward. The inclusion of subjects such as ‘concept’ and ‘research’ within the curriculum of the academy implies that you have a choice in what your theme might be. But usually, your ‘theme’ isn’t a choice at all. ‘What are you good at, what do you enjoy doing?’ and ‘Who are you and what truly interests you?’ As a student, you need a strong psychological backbone to surrender yourself to the obvious. Your work’s content will hit close to home, and its starting points will lie somewhere within your autobiography (in the broadest sense of the word).

Tacita Dean: I have a very strong memory of the sea, of that coast actually (…) My family isn’t a very lively household, there is something lonely in it. My father worked in London, so he was never there. I do remember having a great sense of adventure because we were surrounded by land and I used to go on long walks performing to myself, like being in my own documentary.

Tacita Dean
Tacita Dean

Artistic research is the prevailing concept in today’s art education and ushers in numerous misunderstandings. Its associations with science could possibly conjure the wrong accents. For example, it might imply certain ideas of truth—as though we’re dealing with facts instead of the freedom of falsity. In art, you’re allowed to lie. In fact, a great artwork can consist completely of fabrications. Richard Prince wrote the hilarious tale, Betty Kline, in which pin up girl Bettie Paige is said to be the secret source of inspiration for Franz Kline’s abstract work. Objective truth is of no importance when you’re telling your own truth.

Research is essential in art, in fact, I don’t know of a single artist whose practice doesn’t include research. “My life is my research,” spoke Roy Villevoye. “But it’s just that I completely immerse myself in everything that interests me: I read, I want to see it, I want to be there, I want to be involved with those people (in Papua New Guinea.)” Research can mean a thousand different things and this is what I find of utmost importance for students to understand. 

But today’s students are very capable of understanding this, and can stand their ground. They’re very aware of the tiny dot that constitutes their academy on the map of the globe. They have access to Internet and so are connected to the entire world. A South African writer can easily interview a young artist via Skype about a work made in Ethiopia. Students travel the world through excursions, exchanges, or couch surfing. Barely twenty years old and they’re travelling through Africa on the their own, or they’re in Ukraine doing an internship. The world is no longer uncharted territory; the sense of the exotic is lost. Everywhere, young adults are working with the same enthusiasm and drive as at the academies in Zwolle or The Hague. And this has a far-reaching effect on the student’s attitude.

New values are undermining the Western art world’s authority. After all, students everywhere are working at academies with the same input and faith. It’s possibly harder for students in other countries to make the decision for an artistic career, and there’s no reason to not take them just as seriously as your fellow classmates. This realisation is slowly spreading to the art world, post-academy. For the first time, Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrein, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay and Tuvalu have participated in the Venice Biennale. The old Giardini is like Amsterdam’s old stately canal neighbourhoods: elegant, beautiful, but not exactly the most exciting part of town.

The last two Documentas have, in their own way, shaken the foundations of the art world. Like the critics wrote, Documenta 12 held on tightly to its aim to act as “an authoritative worldwide seismograph of contemporary art.” That Documenta unfolded as a true world exhibition: the notion of the genius was dispelled and art from all over the globe was presented. Documenta 13 entered a pursuit for new values, jarring those of the ‘official’ art world, by releasing accepted ideas of quality, and by using leading criteria like ‘real’ and ‘engaged.’ The concept of taste is becoming less stringent, we’re approaching a point where Western art history is no longer at the centre of the universe. The young artist is characterised by new influences, different ideas of taste, and fresh perspectives on high and low culture. Without preconceived notions or criteria petrified and ingrained into their heads, they venture, their work could likewise hang in the Amersfoort library (because that’s where their grandmother lives,) as well as in de Appel. The Venice Beinnale was described as ‘blurring the line between professional artist and amateurs, outsiders and insiders,’ and this openness is precisely what characterises the young student.

In the eighties, Marcel Vos described the concept of originality as a sort of boa constrictor curled around the student’s neck. It seems as though this hurdle has been cleared. The World Wide Web and the incessant avalanche of images have absolved the young generation of the pressures of originality.  We’re but one mouse click away from being confronted with the sheer impossibility of creating a new image, which is one reason why the young generation eagerly makes use of existing images.

In the past, with the pressure of originality breathing down their necks, students and artists preferred their studios locked down, hermetically closed from their colleagues because –  God forbid – they steal your original idea! But this notion too, has met with a breath of fresh air. Come in. By understanding that the unique image does not exist, artists are able to think along with one another, and to laugh when they happen to make the same, or almost the same, work or photo. What a relief. The student of today is generous, giving and gladly collaborates. The smell of grass with undertones of amber, patchouli and poppy.

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