Dushko Petrovich is a New Haven–based writer and painter and an editor of Paper Monument. The magazine’s second publication, Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, debuted at the 2012 CAA conference and is available to order online. Petrovich and coeditor Roger White have an exhibition of their work opening at the Suburban in Chicago on March 4.
PAPER MONUMENT’S FIRST BOOK, I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette, ended up being kind of a sleeper hit, so we wanted to follow it up with something similar—but better. As Roger White, my coeditor, and I get older, we find ourselves in more teaching situations than strictly social ones, so an art-school book seemed like a natural progression. But unlike art-world manners—which almost nobody had talked about publicly—art pedagogy is a hot topic, so we had to find our own take on the subject.
There were a lot of informative books on the theory and history of art school, but we wanted to make something more practical and candid, a document that maintained the texture of the everyday experience but also served as an intervention. So we had a quixotic vision, but no structure. The more we thought about it, the more overwhelming it seemed, until we suddenly remembered how you efficiently solve complex group problems while teaching—you come up with a killer assignment. The beauty of the assignment is that it crystallizes and condenses various questions in the form of a shared experience, often yielding a surprising result. That was exactly what we wanted our book to do, so we came up with a simple prompt asking people to tell us about assignments.
We sent a note out to people who we thought were good teachers, or good storytellers, and told them to forward it along to people they knew. We initially got a lot of submissions from thirty-somethings on the East Coast, so in the second round we tried to reach out a bit, both generationally and geographically. We also solicited assignments from the self-taught, and from people that had been educated in other kinds of schools. A lot of people politely declined our invitation, but nobody who submitted was turned away. In the end we didn’t really get what we expected, which seemed appropriate for a book of art assignments.
Now we’re working on building a website that will be an interactive archive, which will hopefully make the project more useful and comprehensive. People will be able to search for assignments on different topics at different levels, and they’ll be able to add their own experiences with each assignment.
One good thing about art school is that it’s incredibly compact and pressurized, but that’s also the bad thing: It’s only available to certain people in certain times and places. (Plus, you can only do it once, it goes by in a flash, and the debt can last for decades.) The overall organization of art school, its tremendous expense, its questionable interactions with the outside world—these are all things we would like to improve and reform, and maybe this book is a step in that direction.
Obviously it makes a huge difference whether you’re given a John Baldessari assignment by the man himself or someone else, so we’re not pretending his typewritten pages are any kind of substitute for being his student. At the same time, the vast majority of artists can’t be Baldessari’s students, so this is what he can offer. If art school is a restaurant—perhaps a very expensive restaurant, where it’s often hard to get a reservation—then what we’ve put together is more of a cookbook.
Some of the more famous assignments, like those in Paul Thek’s “Teaching Notes,” are already widely available, but the rest of what we collected gets passed on directly from teacher to student—or after the fact, in stories and rumors. In writing down a largely oral tradition, we’re definitely taking things out of context, but we hope it’s only temporary. The idea is that these assignments will quickly reenter different studios and classrooms, and thrive in their new surroundings.
We started this project before Occupy Wall Street emerged, but, like most people, we’ve been really glad to see the movement take hold, partly because it encourages everyone to come together and make a change in the spaces where they live and work. Art school happens to be where a lot of artists live and work, so we do feel like it’s important for us to look at what goes on there, and to see how we can make it better. Focusing on the assignments is just one way to do that, and I hope a lot of these individual assignments are pointing to that bigger, never-ending assignment.