as if it were context

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[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

9 March 2015

I honestly thought that undertaking an MFA in creative writing would mostly provide a structure for writing, as well as useful mentoring. It’s true that I’ve received those things, but I’m genuinely surprised at how fundamentally it’s shifting my thinking about the process of artmaking. And having now passed the halfway mark in that graduate work, I find that interrogating my assumptions about art, learning, and creative practice are the real benefits of undertaking the degree.

The trap of the academy—by which I mean my experience of professionally living within higher education institutions for the duration of my career—is that I came somehow to believe in theory as if it were context. Even more, I came to believe that theory is something that situates artworks, rather than artworks being things that very often generate theory. The genesis of these beliefs is complicated, tracing itself back to my undergraduate days, and certainly my first round of graduate school, but even more is grounded in the everyday habits of the academy, in which action is required to be predicated on reason.  While that’s the purview of the social sciences, for sure, it’s not at the heart of many other epistemic models—in which hunches, feeling, and intuition can animate discovery, and through which theory can be constructed from deep reflection on action. I should be clear that I don’t mean to create too sharp a line with this observation, and I don’t mean to castigate or dismiss theory that guides action. Rather, I want to make a co-equal space for theory that emerges from action—which, when I’m honest with myself—is how theory works in my artmaking process. (I often refer to Ben Shahn’s lectures, The Shape of Content, when I talk about these things; and his predictions about the consequences of placing art in the academy, made in 1957, are probably still more precise than my own.  I commend his lectures to anyone interested in the tensions that exist between art and the academy.)

At MFAIA residencies I sometimes ask members of my advising groups to bring a fully realized artwork to a session—either one of their own or one of an artist they admire. We then look at the artworks through the lens of our program’s degree criteria. I believe that most fully realized artworks in the world—and “fully realized” is a term that might require some additional reflection—are generally in dialogue with most, quite often all, of our degree criteria. Taken in this light, the degree criteria aren’t something to be checked off a list or values one uses to justify artwork (or to which one must justify their artwork), but rather they become dynamic elements of one’s artworks; a set of principles that begin to define what art’s work might be.  The exercise of looking at artworks with the degree criteria in mind came back to me over the weekend, reading Justin Hocking’s new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.

Hocking uses his abiding preoccupation with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as an organizing principle for investigating his questions that emerge from his life, particularly for looking closely at his anxiety, fear, and sense of alienation—all of which become undeniable when he moves to New York City in 2005. Bringing Jungian analysis into his dialogue with Melville, he’s able to create a map of might be thought of as the repressed unconscious across three centuries of theory: via Melville’s juxtaposing of Ishmael and Ahab as two-sides of the same mind; through Jung’s version of the shadow self; and in Hocking’s own lived experience. He reaches further back, too, asking us to consider these stories in the context of Odysseus’s conference with the dead prophet, Tiresias, in the underworld (The Odyssey, book 11) and Dante’s descent into the dark wood (Divine Comedy). His allusions become a way of situating Hocking’s ruminations in a context of human discovery and development.

Hocking’s exploration of his shadow provides a context for him to tell his reader about his experience of twelve-step programs, contemporary Christianity, his exploration of Eastern traditions, including Buddhism and Yoga, and the kind of deep meditation he finds in athleticism—specifically surfing and skating. For our purposes, specifically in regard to our degree criteria, this constellation of mystical traditions, added to the literary contexts he’s simultaneously charted, speaks to both his ethical investigations and a kind of interdisciplinarity. Explicitly he’s taking elements and methods from each tradition in an effort to establish his own modality of understanding, what we might call his own epistemic method.

His writing has great clarity and structure, reflecting a developed sense of craft, occasionally engaging a beautiful lyricism—especially when he’s writing about hiking, the ocean and surfing: wildness. In these passages a reader can feel the depth of his affection for the natural world, and his search to finding meaning within it. In addition he sometimes deviates from the expected forms of a chapter, often to important effect. For example, as a transition between a reflection of Melville and a return to personal story telling, he offers a chapter detailing many of the artists who’ve used Moby-Dick as an organizing principle for artmaking. Earlier in the book, he uses short chapters, sometimes just one paragraph, to underscore a reflection or make a connection, such as the chapter, “Samsara,” in which he makes the connection between the movement of skating and spiritual transcendence. Cumulatively, these are ways that he establishes his engagement and experimentation within his practice. And the way the parts come together, the way his book’s craft and thinking create something that couldn’t exist divorced from one another, well this is what I mean by praxis.

In the bolded words and phrases I’m making a direct correlation to our degree criteria, mostly to prove my point about a fully realized artwork enacting and embodying those concerns. I’m also using interpretative language to explore the degree criteria. I’m suggesting that a fully developed practice can be assessed through the tradition of craft—leaving aside for a moment the fact that certainly there are other ways to situate a developed practice. When I talk about experimentation, I’m talking about form in relation to the conventions of contemporary books. This is what I can see in the book. If I were interviewing Hocking on this topic, I might ask him deeper questions about his modes of experimentation, and he might dismiss my observation and replace it with an evocation of process that’s not evident to me in the text. And I’m taking a broad view of interdisciplinarity—moving from the narrow demarcations of the academy to the more rambunctious ways that knowledge and discovery are organized in everyday life (religious practice, twelve-step programs, surfing, etc.).

Focusing on Hocking’s book offers one example of how we might apply the degree criteria to our interpretation of art practice—our own and our others. I’ve done this same exercise with Mark Doty’s book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy and with David Bowie’s albums from the 1970s—such as Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, or Low. I’ve done it recently with Kara Walker’s magnificent installation, A Subtlety. I also try to do it with my own work. And that’s what I’m inviting you to do. The dialogue you establish with the degree criteria needn’t feel like an examination. Rather it can be a process of trying to build artworks that enact and embody the principles of practice that reside within the degree criteria. And in presenting your work, say in the form of the program’s cumulative portfolio, you might begin by asking how does my work embody and enact my… interdisciplinarity? practice? theory? experimentation? ethical concerns? Where can I simply point to these elements in the work? And where do I need to make my process evident through greater explication?

In my own work, the press of theory (that I feel) emerges in the form of undue analysis. I tend not to trust the metaphoric, imagistic and storytelling elements of my writing, and too often feel compelled to explain everything with a follow-up paragraph. I feel like I have to justify my intuitive self, as if everything is a three-paragraph essay requiring substantiation. You might sense that predilection in this letter. I worry sometimes that I’m modeling my habits of over-analysis and than in doing so I risk diminishing art’s capacity to do its work. This, of course, raises a question about art’s work—which I think I‘ll leave for another day. Maybe next time. In any case, this semester in my responses to you I’m going to try to be conscious of this impulse, and I’m going to try to listen to your artworks with these thoughts in mind.

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