CAA & The Death of Art

INFLATION IN THE ARTS IS OF A PIECE WITH INFLATION IN ACADEMIA. The upcoming College Art Association, in New York this year, has just mailed out its conference information.

Scheduled for the first day of the conference are workshops on the important things: finding a job, keeping it, and getting grants. One of them aims at all the newly minted MFA’s: Job Hunt 101: Essential Steps in Securing a Job in the Arts. As night follows day, the next morning brings: Grant Writing for Artists. This is possibly more useful—certainly more candid—than the previous one. It acknowledges the very likely chance that a life in art is coterminous with life on the dole grant circuit.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal

Assistant profs and over-worked adjuncts, scrambling for a leg up on the road to tenure, can pack the hall for Staying on Track with the Tenure Track. Barely 30% of teaching positions are held by tenured and tenure-track faculty; and that small percentage is under siege by annual waves of fresh MFA’s. So, learning how to stay on top of the heap is critical. In the careful phrasing of academia, the moves are called “managing pretenure.” This workshop covers such impressive-sounding things as:

. . . the documentation of one’s activities, gaining an understanding of terms like regional, national, and international recognition, developing nationwide relationships in preparation for the tenure interview, and identifying nonadversarial ways of getting clarification of job expectations.

In other words, Dear Applicant, keep a diary; network like hell; wipe as many backsides as you can wherever you can. And, for goodness sake, watch your manners. The strangest line in the session’s advert is the reminder to understand “terms like regional, national and international recognition.” Somehow, that one leads to the unkind thought that any adult who needs a workshop for this does not deserve a job to begin with. Leave this to be discussed over coffee in the Student and Emerging Professionals Lounge set up on Concourse B of the Hilton.

Then there are the sessions themselves, a medley of jargon-riddled, overreaching efforts to turn art into another of social science. Herewith, a representative sample of the kinds of things that keep ambitious academics up at night:

• The Ethnographic Ruse: Early Erotic Photographs of Non-Western Women
• High Heels and Leather Masks: When Fetish Becomes Art and Art Becomes Life
• Imagining Art History in Proximity of Race
• The Aesthetics of Sonic Spaces
• Fight the Power: Open Source, Free Software, and Critical Digital Practice
• Conceptualism-as-Medium: The Poetics of Critique
• Transcultural Visuality
• Beyond the Other: New Paradigms for a Global Art History
• Green and Sustainable Art
• Beyond Participation: Towards Massively Collaborative Worlds of Art
• The New Agit-Prop: Artists Expose Political Fictions
• Feminism and the Cooperative Model in the Art World
• The Art of Pranks

I like the sound of that last one. But, given the humor quotient of the CAA conferences, I suspect the pranks might not be all that much fun. The Queer Caucus for Art presents, appropriately enough, Narcissism. If you are cheered by the civilizational possibilities of anime and Japanese comics, you can take notes at Cel-Culture: The Hybrid Intersections of Art, Video Games, and Manga. The brass ring for self-importance and self-flattery goes to Artmaking as New Knowledge Research, Practice, Production. (The subtitle is your cue that the resultant art will be some sort of political statement, most likely an indictment of sexism, racism, colonialism or plastic baby bottles.)

One favorite is Toward an Indigenous Artistic Sovereignty: Theorizing Contemporary Native Art. Touched by contemporaneity, native art (by which natives?) loses its traditional identity as indigenous. It become self-conscious—market and publicity oriented— in a way that truly indigenous art is not.  But it does not pay to examine the logic of these things. We need more theory to justify academic art departments and to keep the grants coming.

For those of you who have staked your professional lives on the musings of photographer Deborah Bright, there is “Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Man” Revisited: Deborah Bright’s Critique of Western Landscape Photography Twenty Five Years Later. What? You never heard of Ms. Bright? No matter. Submitting a paper to the CAA is one method of fulfilling the injunction—mentioned above—to network and stroke tenured egos. Below, you can see where a critique of Marlboro Man gets you:

Deborah Bright, "Heaven" series (1996-99)

Lastly, let’s note the wording of Painting: Practice as Strategy. Craft is out; strategy—with its implications of covert, militant intention—is in. And what—oh, what!—is visuality, a word that pops up in several sessions? It is safe to guess that it has less to do with seeing than with jamming the optic nerve with bulletins from academia.

Of the more than 100 sessions, the near-totality of them are steeped in multicultural piety, identity politics and utopian pretension of one stripe or another. There is a reason artists all dress in black: They are in mourning over the death of art.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Sesquipedalianality: Adding Letters to Words
    The Pedagogy of Porn: Sexless Tenures Keeping Themselves Awake
    Materials, Practice, Process: Studio Rigor for Talentless Artists
    Oh Shit: Paying Down School Loans by Waiting Tables
    The Art of Pranks: You Paid How Much for this Class?
    Transcultural Visuality: More Euro-Centric Anti-Euro-Centrism
    Hell Freezing Over: The Day We Get You a Job

  2. The CAA Conference is its own prank. The joke is on MFA grads looking for jobs. Laurie Fendrich [in The Chronicle of Higher Education] has written about the scandal of continuing to turn out credentialed MFAs who have little hope of finding paid employment.

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