Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Writing Pedigree Zero

In talking with Barbara Mink at her opening last Monday, the subject of my art blog came up. (Also blogging more generally, but who cares about that?) Mink likes my writing, comparing "The Thinking Eye" favorably to the general glut of online journaling. Somehow during this discussion, the notion of "pedigree" (her term) came up.

I'd like to make it clear, if it isn't already, that I don't have much of one. I have an undergraduate degree in studio art from a credible institution, which is about it. I've never written about art for money in my life, (although with any luck this will change soon). I don't have a degree in art history or art theory or anything like that. That may change as well, but not soon at all. I've also never formally studied writing beyond the usual college freshman level.

It may be worth pointing out that Mink herself lacks much of a pedigree when it comes to painting, at least according to this sketch of a resume. On the other hand, her formal qualifications as writer are considerable. Among other things, she lectures in management communication at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Many (perhaps most) of the pe
ople at the opening were her students or collegues. She has also been involved in a wide variety of local politics and other social organizing. More interesting for me at least is her job as director of Ithaca's yearly "Light in Winter" festival. (Last January's festival included the lovely Laurie Anderson.)

So anyway, I was wondering about the relative value and merits of a (strong) pedigree in the visual arts and writing (critical, journalistic, etc.). How do we know when to take artists seriously if they don't have a BFA or MFA? If these credentials are unnecessary, what (if anything) is their significance? On the other side of the fence, what is the value of "uncredentialed" writing in this age of specialization and expertise? The internet, and blogging in particular (I didn't want to bring this up, sorry) seems to be a hotspring for the do it yourself ethos. I think that this is largely a good thing; (how) do we get this across to ivory tower communicators? Finally, how symmetrical are the two sides of my metaphorical fence? Is writing inherantly more formal or technical or serious than painting? Or is it just a matter of entrenched institutional habit?

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Blogger Tracy Helgeson said...

As always, there will be those who care about credentials and those who don't. I personally can be impressed and/or intimidated by credentials but ultimately if I don't care much for the work, those credentials don't change my mind. To me honesty and soul, whether it's writing, art or accounting, overrule credentials every time.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Credentials are taken most seriously by those that have them. You can have the best credentials in he world and still be a bad artist and you can have no credentials and be a great artist. For me, it all comes down to how good the work is.

12:50 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

Like most people involved in the arts, I like to think that quality is of central importance. And I think that evidence of skill and imagination on the part of the artist (as manifested in the work) is in some sense the foundation of judgements of quality. But I also believe that such judgements have a social, inter-subjective character. So I think its a little simplistic to pretend that quality is something that is simply 'in' the work. For one thing, there is simply too much art out there to go look at. So I think things like credentials inevitably play a role. Also for what its worth, most of the artists that I greatly admire have some kind of formal training, are not naive or "outsider" artists.

Also, in my post, I was trying to get at the gap between visual art and writing, particularly artwriting. Any ideas?

3:34 PM  
Anonymous nancy geyer said...

re: credentialed arts writing:

Way back when I was taking graduate courses in art history, I found the assigned reading a turn-off -- dry and tortured and everything I thought arts writing shouldn't be.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across two interesting-looking books by writers who are noncredentialed in the arts. One is by John Updike - on American art. The other - called "The Ongoing Moment" - is by Geoff Dyer (one of my favorite writers) and is a history, of sorts, of photography. He's written about D.H. Lawrence and about jazz and is the author of "Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It." Very funny guy.

I won't go into the way he organized his book, but here is what he has to say about his lack of credentials:

"I'm not a photographer. I don't just mean that I'm not a professional or serious photographer; I mean I don't even own a camera. The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take one of them, with their camera. (These rare works are now dispersed around the world, in private collections, mostly in Japan.) It's a handicap, sure, but it does mean that I come to the medium from a position of purity. I also have a hunch that not taking photographs is a condition of writing about them in the same way that my not playing a musical instrument was a precondition for writing about jazz..."

He then goes on to say that there's lots of great photography books and essays out there - by curators, scholars, and people like Susan Sontag and John Berger. "With the bar set so high," he says, "I was free to walk right under it. But I still hope, as Diane Arbus put it, that 'I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things.'" (how's that for imprecision!)

I also read a comment recently by the writer and curator Dyan Sudjic. He was trained in architecture but decided to write about it, not practice it. He says, "Architecture is too important to be left to the architects. There aren't enough books about it that are written by non-architects -- Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" is an all-too-rare example. Architecture needs to be considered from a general angle - a different perspective is a healthy thing."

It's all in the writing, not in the credentials. Good writing can come from the highly credentialed - despite my own bad experience with academic writing - or from someone with no credentials. I'm not speaking idealistically - I know that many people now expect you to have them. I do think this is short-sighted though.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Lynne Taetzsch said...

What I hate about blogging is that I just wrote a great comment and then when I clicked "preview" it was erased.

Summing up: Formal credentials help you get noticed, but what is important to "quality" is educating yourself one way or another.

Arthur, you obviously have educated yourself by looking at a lot of art and reading about it, and that enables you to write insightfully and knowledgeably about art. Artists who educate themselves and work at their art have the same shot at quality as anyone with a degree. So do writers.

3:52 PM  

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