Mitchell Schwarzer: Snapshots of the Disciplines

Mitchell Schwarzer gives his introduction at the CCA faculty retreat

On February 4, 2012, the faculty at California College of the Arts gathered at the college's San Francisco campus for a retreat focused on the state of the arts across our many disciplines. In the morning, 25 short presentations offered insights into challenges and opportunities faced by practitioners and thinkers in recent times. The word aired most frequently was crisis: the crisis of the Great Recession; the crisis of Global Climate Change; the crisis of understanding and working within a discipline in our digital age.

Watch the video of all the presentations (91 minutes), shot and edited by Yoni Klein (Photography 2012)

The economic downturn has produced an economic squeeze within most of our disciplines. Art directors, as Alexis Mahrus remarks, have diminished roles in shaping an illustration. Smaller profit margins reduce the flexibility and time given over to experimentation. Branding and celebrity worship take up a larger slice of the creative pie. Some presenters, like Sue Redding of Industrial Design, see no problem in this conflation of art and business and, furthermore, dispute the notion of a crisis. Yet many presenters feel that the economic crisis is not only real but wielding dangerously asymmetrical impacts. Demand remains strong for high-end craft goods and blue-chip fine art. Some small nonprofits are struggling to survive. To Ignacio Valero of Critical Studies, the priority given over to luxury items can be attributed to the ongoing influence of classical economic policies that privilege individual decision making over collective social and natural needs. Likewise, Sandra Vivanco of Diversity Studies notes that economic inequalities have greatly worsened over the past few years, especially in the developing world. Contemporary society is forging a timeless, spaceless way of conducting business, a race for lucrative and short-term gains that concentrates investment more than ever in the hands of a few.

Across the arts, a 24/7 global marketplace demands a faster rate of change, a larger volume of production, and, depending on the context, a heightened emphasis on profits. Venues are changing. While movie theaters continue to close, every city nowadays hosts film and video festivals that cater to every subgenre imaginable. While midsize galleries face daunting challenges, the showcasing of contemporary art burgeons across high-end galleries and a riotous assemblage of art festivals, fairs, biennales, and triennales. Curators have come out of the back offices. They consciously make their mark in a show's content and strive, far more than in the past, to engage younger visitors and nontraditional constituencies.

Within industry, fashion cycles are getting shorter, says Amy Williams, and pressure for quick inventory turnover is greater than before. Not surprisingly, this pressure on novelty and sales affects the way products are designed. Graphic designer Bob Aufuldish finds knowledge, skill sets, and techniques sometimes becoming outdated within less than a year. Architects concerned with social and environmental values, as Hugh Hynes observes, are attempting to implement small, incremental changes and subtle design variations within business models that continue to highlight steady growth and bottom-line accounting.

The migration of our eyes, hands, minds, and pocketbooks online lies behind much of the mania. Shopping occurs all the time, and everywhere. So does entertainment. The Internet is enabling consumers to become producers. Everyone, it seems, can be an artist, a writer, or a photographer. As Tammy Rae Carland asserts, young people no longer use cameras, especially those loading film; the cell phone is becoming a nexus of photographic production, possessed of hundreds of technical apps yet hazy artistic protocols. Apps appear as talismans and the newest technologies, observes interaction designer Kristian Simsarian, are habitually fetishized; people and their stories, he states, must be the real center. Yet religion, the customary backbone of artistic practice and storytelling, went unmentioned at the retreat. Indeed, the transition to a digitized screen seems to have brought about a new socio-spiritual alignment with respect to the arts. One might call it a democratization or popularization that prays too fervently and frequently at the altar of an individual and his or her relationships.

The same kinds of apps that make any of us a photographer enable us to be filmmakers, too. From street art to outsider art to deviant art, what we're seeing is noisier, wilder, and ruder but not necessarily more insightful or, in the long scheme, more productive. If everyone can be a filmmaker, shooting on their personal mobile devices, uploading onto social networks and YouTube, what becomes of the discipline of film as it has been constituted for more than a century? How, as Brook Hinton asks, will film language develop through such diffuse interlocutors and venues? As with television, does greater inclusion result in fewer choices?

Similarly, does the continual expansion of disciplines beyond their traditions portend their devolution? Sculpture, as Allison Smith points out, has been so exhaustively expanding its range and repertoire that it is difficult to grasp its unique material and spatial contours as well as the terrain of its debates. Artistic democratization and disciplinary expansion may explain why long-standing guiding concepts, such as beauty and taste, were hardly mentioned at the retreat. To Ted Purves of social practice, there has been a demonstrable shift right in the social forms art takes: from those revolving around quality to those of capacity, from aesthetic critiques to conduits of agency. Important today are the social processes of crowdsourcing, reportage, interviews, protests, and other participatory approaches that pluralize art content and have the potential to articulate the "We" at the expense of the "I." The terms of artistic judgment are not only changing; they are decentralizing and dissolving our ability to recognize a canon or read a unitary zeitgeist.

As consumers become producers, the online world swells and the offline world retracts. Public spaces and meaningful interactions with strangers are continuing to weaken. Bookstores and quality publishing houses, laments Gloria Frym, are vanishing. One might say the same for printed books, magazines, and newspapers. But transdisciplinary mediums and sites spring up. Printmaking lives on, redefined, as Michelle Murillo explains, beyond print and paper within other conditions and materials: via works that resemble sculptures, on floors and on discarded objects. In a fungible, digital age, can our disciplines be structured any more around precise materials or techniques or designated places for viewing? Kim Anno thinks not, and charts painting exploding beyond paint to substances such as pollen, and beyond the wall or canvas to the intangibilities and infinities of the sky.

Given the environmental crisis and what one might call a related social crisis of excessive consumption, the nature of the materials artists use is being rethought. Ceramicists, as Nathan Lynch tells us, are devising new attitudes toward decay and breakage, incorporating the life and death cycle of objects into their work and process. With less new building occurring, Amy Campos detects a tendency among interior designers to shift their practices toward the adaptation, reuse, and repurposing of the existing built environment: reformulations of inside and outside. Given escalating costs of gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals, Marilyn da Silva notices jewelry makers turning to unwanted, discarded, or otherwise found sources. Several presenters called for artists and their disciplines to be much more aware of the life cycle of artistic materials, from their raw environmental state to their meanings of refinement and dissemination to their decay and return to the environment.

What are the implications of these disciplinary developments for arts education? Do artistic disciplines possess a sort of genetic code, as Jeanette Roan of Visual Studies asks, a set of inner imperatives, validated by science, that structures their actions? Or do outer social transformations largely dictate their trajectories? Amid galloping technological changes and collapsing disciplinary boundaries, art historians and other scholars of visual culture are debating the extent to which artworks should be understood through their meanings or through their presence: as epistemology or ontology. In a pragmatic rephrasing of this discussion, the respective value of defined skill sets aimed at a precise end versus broader knowledge and critique mixed into life has come up for debate. Should we train our students, as Rick Vertolli of Animation asks, for the top jobs in the field, those highly creative positions of which there are very few, or should we recognize the importance of support positions?

If the arts are to lead and not just follow society, how do we bring their traditions and strengths into a more fruitful alignment with the evolving practices of business and technology? Must the arts parallel and adapt to technological trends? Or can they seek out a life of their own? Russell Baldon and Josh Faught bring up the close attention furniture and textile makers continue to give to hand crafts, as celebration of one of humanity's defining features: a focus on making that offers a field of storytelling, material, and technical inheritance as well as resistance to dominating power relations. Several presenters raise the importance of reaching out from a discipline's traditions via exhibitions, apprenticeships, mentorships, and other working arrangements premised on small, localized enterprises. Others refer to the critical importance of paying deep attention to the internal workings or essence of a discipline.

Crisis is by no means unique to our times. Nor are feelings of domination by the marketplace or technology. Since the onset of arts education half a millennium ago, not long after the tall ships began to sail around the globe and the printing press began to widen the realm of the written word, crises have marked the rapport between the arts and society. The perspectives shared at the retreat do point out, however, that certain dynamics have changed. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the arts broadly supported the creation of a high, fine, or elite culture. At different moments between the 19th and the close of the 20th centuries, artists, starting with painters and eventually extending to designers, turned around and began to challenge their support of traditional society. Vanguards sought to lead culture to new shores. Divisions between high and low, classical and popular, art and everything else were deconstructed.

These presenters today make a clear case that disciplinary boundaries have become porous, materials and mediums more interchangeable, techniques and technologies quickly dated, makers and users harder to distinguish from one another, and expertise and specialized knowledge often disdained or disregarded. Customary assumptions of the role and value of the arts no longer hold. New questions emerge. How can we, as artists, survive and prosper in this breathless environment? How can we contribute to a society more diverse and unpredictable than ever before? How can we immerse ourselves in the world without losing our sense of who we are? How can we position ourselves at the nexus of hands and eyes, ideas and forms, and new enterprises and technologies? How can we be relevant to the opportunities and the crises that are certain to be coming down the road?