A open letter to F. Scott Hess
in regard to his article in the Huffington Post Arts & Culture, July 30, 2014
Is De-Skilling Killing Your Arts Education?
One of your lead sentences that summed it all up was:
"The idea that you might train a surgeon to be clumsy, or an engineer to build poorly, or a lawyer to ignore law, would be patently absurd. In the arts, however, you will find an occasional musician who purposely plays badly, or a writer who ignores grammar, but only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated."
Allow me to elaborate a little on my contribution to this article. The teacher I spoke of, lets just call him Professor B, was also a ardent follower of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the art school that was first introducing Conceptual Art into Canada, and the first to eliminate traditional art classes, almost a decade prior to my student days at the University of Lethbridge. While studying at the UofL I also worked part time as a Gallery Assistant to Professor B, the Gallery Director, who was also my printmaking teacher. The story about his classes is retold in your article, so I won't elaborate here. I would like to state however that I found that the UofL Art Department, then chaired by Professor H who was my painting teacher, had resisted the new trend of eliminating traditional courses, and my best and most useful classes were in Figure Drawing. It was only some time after I graduated when the Conceptual trend took over and I was shocked on subsequent visits to my old Alma Mater how misused and mistreated the studios and equipment in the former Printmaking, Sculpture and Ceramic Studios were.
But lets rewind to a specific event. I believe the year was 1979 when through the visiting artists program Garry Neill Kennedy was invited for a guest lecture. These were usually combined with a exhibition at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. Kennedy employed art students to apply successive layers of different colored paint onto the exhibition space, ending up with the final color rust-brown. Just prior to the opening he scraped an area off a outside corner with a knife to show the underlying layers of paint. This installation was called 'Revealing'.
A throng of admiring students gathered around him (he was by then already a celebrity) and I joined the question and answer session. At one point Kennedy stated that "in this world there are only about a half dozen people that understand my art", to which I replied "if visual art is a form of communication, and as the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, then I would think if only six people understand you, you fail to be a good communicator". After a short spell of silence he said something like that I am funny, haha; and his body language excluded me from the circle of sycophants.
A year passed, and my Professor B went on sabbatical. The Art Department squeezed by, by not replacing him but dividing his course load among the other faculty. I was Gallery Assistant at that time and for that year, entrusted with running the University Art Gallery. The department Chair, Professor H, had signing authority, but he basically handed me the keys and named me Assistant Gallery Director. This also included looking after the UofL Art Collection during that time. Ironically, the local phone extension to my little office space I was given was 666. I found this extremely funny!
One of the first things I did that year was to change the scheduled Student exhibition from the Saturday Afternoon Pop and Donuts opening to a formal Friday Evening Wine and Cheese reception, like all other shows received. I then got in touch with Prof.B at his sabbatical hide-out in sunny California and asked about the schedule for the following year, since there was none, but needed to be published. No answer. I discussed this with the Department Chair Prof.H and he said to 'go ahead and make your own'. There were some Provincial Artists I scheduled and displayed. At that time the new Fine Art Wing had been built and we moved. To celebrate the opening of the Fine Art Wing it was suggested that it should coincide with the opening of a International Exhibition. Since I scheduled travelling to Austria at that time already I suggested the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. I got in touch with Rudolf Hausner in Vienna, and he invited me to his home. Laden with information he gave me - and he also sent me more books and catalogues after - I then wrote a essay for this proposal once I returned to Canada. Long story short, I was shot down. The 'Nova Scotia' connection had gotten stronger by then in our far flung Western Province, and to suggest pure and highly skilled painting for a exhibition that was supposed to be also the opening of the new Fine Art Wing was considered sacrilege.
And that, at least in my mind, was the beginning of the end. Cultureburg had finally taken over the rest of Canada.
To put this into perspective, check out the background of the main-player in this development in Canada, the afore mentioned Garry Kennedy, at that time president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design .
Tim Zuck recalled about his student years, "I didn't paint at all there. In fact, that wasn't even an option. I think if you painted in Nova Scotia at the time you would be tarred and feathered." (Abstract Painting in Canada, Roald Nasgaard, page 338)
In retrospect I now understand the question put to me by the curator of the Edmonton Art Gallery (now called the Art Gallery of Alberta) when I submitted a painting to a show called "What's New" (October 1976). He mockingly said "What, you still paint?" (but they did take it, I might add).