A strange phenomenon has occurred this week in downtown Los Angeles. Hordes upon hordes of pallid, humorless and bespectacled killjoys, dressed in drab, unseasonal clothing, sporting strange unfashionable facial hair or absence of hair on top, regardless of gender, have assaulted the Convention Center. Not that the LACC itself is a particularly fun place to be in ordinary time, what with its institutional architecture and the occasional Matt Mullican artwork, but this week it has to endure the annual CAA conference. No, not the local CAA (hello tenpercenters! how's business in this economy? ) housed in the Century City Death Star, but the professional entity otherwise known as the College Art Association.
Every year they organize a behemoth nomadic gathering where art historians, artists, curators and critics meet, ostentatiously for scholarly sessions about solemn subjects ranging from the esoteric ( Cultures for Display: Practices of Exhibiting Non-Western and Latin-American Art In Euro-American Institutional Networks) to the generic (What is contemporary art?).
The esoteric example above is pretty typical of the poor vocabulary employed in that type of event: they could have easily shortened their title to: "Exhibiting other cultures in Western institutions", gee, I'm sure it would have lowered their carbon footprint a little bit, by one or two grams at least. In that same session someone uses the term "A Nonpolemicized Concept". Uh, "non polemical" is too plebeian? I understand the verb ending, thank you (can you believe I got a Ph. D. just so to be able to decipher Jargonese???), but, uh, if no one started a polemic about it, maybe it's not worth wasting a scholarly session on it, methinks.
On the other end of the spectrum, the generic one, I'm sure the participants must have had a great time defining : "what is what? What is is? what is contemporary? What is art?"
Usually they (CAA) keep their stuff in frigid cities back East, or even in the Midwest, so no one here really feels like it's a necessity to go there, unless one needs to apply for a teaching job and be interviewed at the cattle call held jointly, for fabulous 1-year non-renewable non-tenure track positions in unknown colleges in no less unknown towns where, no doubt, the food must be unspeakable, or worse, inedible. No wonder academics spend their time writing and reading crime novels! One need an outlet after being made to suffer through such indignities as enduring a CAA session where phrases include: "paradigmatic shift" (used mainly when things are stagnant), titles are made post-Barthesian by an immoderate use of the" / " or "and/or", identities are forever in the need to be reframed and concepts have to be hybridized, or worse, enhanced. "Politics" in your title earns you brownie points, "Questioning" and "Frameworks" within the same sentence can make you win the Monopoly!
All of this normally has to happen within a singular instance, such as: "Re/Framing hybridized identity - the nonpolemicized paradigmatic shift from Western exhibition practice to an enhanced experience of the Bamiliéké sculptural process at the Wetchester Municipal Gallery: whose signification is this? A case study." I think someone should do performance art about it, quick! Michael Smith, where are you?
One understand why academics as a whole body should be taken to drinking, or develop an addiction to Prozac (Cocaine is too expensive for scholars, and meth is reserved for hillbillies, despite being easier to procure in parts where dour scholars are forced to teach).
No wonder why scholars hate curators: not only museum people get to see REAL ART ALL THE TIME and not just slides (or more accurately: jpegs stolen off the internet and pasted onto dumb Ppt. presentations) but they get to hang out with art dealers and collectors at glam events where:
a) the food is much, much better,
b) sometimes the art dealers are
c) curators don't have to write Jargonese, since they have to make art understandable to everybody, not just to academics.
To balance it out, curators constantly have to legitimize what they do to the public at large, whereas art historians don't have to justify that much what they do, and they don't have to hustle for private money just to be able to do their job.
Besides the sessions and the job fair/cattle call, CAA is also a networking occasion. I always wonder if the scholars hook up (they're all housed in the same hotels), but from the look of them it doesn't seem like many of them are ever getting laid. Even the gay ones look drab! Go figure!
[Incidentally, if some male gay CAA attendees are reading this. For the love of everything that's sacred and holy and precious, please stop shaving your heads. It's soooo last century. Keep whatever you have left short, and invest in good hats, but stop the billiard ball look, OK?]
The problem with CAA, in all fairness, doesn't reside with the organization itself, but in the fact that art history in America hasn't exactly advanced as a discipline in general for a couple of decades now. IMHO it has remained stagnant for many of the same reasons that make "America The Concept" unpalatable to foreign populations: insularity.
It's all very well to go all anti-Western and to try to advance the cause of minorities within the art discourse, or to brandish political art as the only type worth studying, etc. but the problem it creates is a tiny, micro-sectioned view of art: take a small slice of the sample, hold it under the microscope, and use that tiny sample to draw conclusions. It can be useful, but only up to a point: by now most everybody is pretty well aware of the structure of power at play within the art discourse, so there's no reason to repeat the same conclusion ad nauseam.
Meanwhile, there's a partial loss of general knowledge about art history that make some US scholars (not all of them, mind you, but many who populate CAA sessions) seemingly unaware that there is or was a study of many of the same problems available 80, 100 years ago. It pains me to see people discoursing about Public Art without having any idea of what Alois Riegl has published about monuments. In 1903. Or that art historians would use the word "wunderkammer" without having read Julius von Schlosser (or without knowing the rules of the plural in German, but that's another debate).
I'm happy the Getty (the GRI) went out of its way to publish Aby Warburg's complete writings (the essay on International Astrology is a personal favorite) but I think they should provide the US art historians with a complete series panning the corpus of the discipline, so Pliny the Elder and Philostratus and Vitruvius and Vasari and Winckelmann, etc. would be readily available.
Aside from the discipline ancestors, there are loads of foreign art historians (German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) who are only partially translated or not translated at all in English, and sometimes British historians whose publications are not available here.
It's ridiculous, and it deprives young scholars from a deep well of knowledge that could, I don't know, prove useful, insightful, and may make them study broader problems than the problem of identity politics in the local display of watercolors. I know scholars should read at least 2 other languages, but let's be realistic, very few actually do, and finding foreign publications here when the domestic ones get out of print so fast is an expensive endeavor. In any case I think it would do the US practitioners of art history a lot of good to have this general corpus available, and it would help everybody to get out of the post-Greenberg-post-October-post-Critical-studies miasma we've been collectively immersed in for too long (I also think a hefty dose of sociology and anthropology would do everybody tons of good).
In addition, and this is for all art historians on the planet, not only the CAA attendees: I strongly advise you hang out with real artists, even if your specialty is 17th century Dutch or Precolumbian or whatever. It will give you a better understanding of the challenges of actually making art, which in turn could help you understand the how and why of the way art looks. So you can talk about it without having to resort to the tired clichés and/or the theoretical crutches you've been forced-fed in graduate school.
Of course like all dreary events there are a few highlights at CAA that help save it from total gloom: the Svletana Alpers lovefest yesterday, featuring FBC! favorite North American academic, the adorable Thomas Crow (who doesn't speak or write Jargonese ever! He loves real art! He's the nicest person ever! He knows who are all these people I've just written about, and he has read them!).
Stephen Melville, on the other hand, was totally boring. In attendance was Thierry de Duve, who supervised my master thesis (hi!), but as far as I know didn't present any paper at CAA.
At exactly the same time as the Alpers-session was a session on the Sublime I missed with Ivan Gaskell, whose writings I like. Read Gaskell!
I also got to hang out with Robert Simon of Robert Simon Fine Arts, who kindly gave us a tour of the Getty Baroque Emotions show (awesome show!). Very enjoyable, I learned a lot and he also obligingly confirmed the altarpiece painting here was late 15th/early 16th century Italian (he also told me the name but I didn't write it down, and the 2 pieces on the sides are Rubens). Running into various former colleagues from LACMA was fun.
Lastly, the book section made me stumble upon a new small press, Hol Art Books from Tucson, Arizona. They're reprinting articles about the 1913 Armory Show, for example (For and Against) as well as launching new publications by living authors very soon. They had the most adorable pink booth ever, and were the nicest people around. I hope you stop by and purchase some of their publications!
(pics, in no order: the Svletana Alpers panel, The back of Thierry de Duve's head, empty chairs at a session, part of the Matt Mullican Granite Panel piece at the LACC)