One Artist in Search of a Theory

A reader sent me this listing posted yesterday on Craigslist. It came with the simple word “Yikes!” That is about as eloquent as you can get over a post that is almost too forlorn for words. The listing appeared, appropriately enough, all in lower case. Diminished punctuation suits the pathos of the quest:

performance artist looking for an art theorist to coach me on understanding and articulating the intellectual underpinnings of my work. i am looking for someone who follows current art world trends, ideas, themes and artists, especially the recent interest in performance art. please be aware specifically of the current and historical discourses around race, identity, and radical feminism.

i would like to practice speaking about my work in light of recent trends and more established art theories. ideally you would suggest readings and books to facilitate our discussions.
one meeting for 2 hrs/wk would be ideal.

please send me your resume and a paragraph about your experience.
thank you in advance

The performer, presumably female, is offering $20 an hour for the advice.

An artist in search of a theory! There is a Pirandellian poignance to this! For starters, the poor girl admits to not understanding her own work. What art school let her out in this condition? Was there no adult supervision or advice on career goals? And why is she doing whatever it is she is doing if she has no idea what it is? Why it is?

Are people paying to see these performances? Can she do Wednesday matinees without the theory? If ever there were evidence that what we call performance art is not art at all but, more nearly, a kind of discharge, this is it. Look no further.

Her anxiety over talking her work—her recognition that she needs to do it—underscores the debilitating role academia has had on the arts. Academics are word people. They turn everything into discourse because that is their bread and butter. You cannot blame them, really. It is the air they breathe. All art is in the talking, the narrative. Mallarmé’s famous line “Everything in the cosmos exists to emerge as a Book” needs a bit of tweaking these days. Change Book to Press Release or, that dismal genre, the Artist’s Statement, and we are back in business.

Back, too, to  Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. His motivation for writing it is instructive:

Although I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, I do not have the traditional skills of the sculptor; I cannot carve or cast or weld or model in clay. I think the question that I began this book to answer is, why not?

In the final chapter, “Toward a Theory of the M.F.A..” Singerman pretty much acknowledges that art is a route to clinical narcissism. (No, he does not put it that way. But he might want to if he gets around to a second edition.) It is a way, not of making objects, but of shaping an identity. Creating oneself. The artist works on herself as an artist. Her identity as an artist is the product on display. With little to show beside oneself, talk is all there is.

Postmodernism slouches toward Craigslist.

Update: One reader thinks I am making this up. Another seems interested in the job. So for anyone who falls into either category—skeptic or applicant, here is the link to the specific listing on Craigslist.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey