PRINT December 2005

Frances Stark

LA’S ART SCENE continues to propagate with unwarranted optimism, like the palm trees that we natives call “volunteers,” the ones always poking through the cracks between the curb and the sidewalk. One simply can’t keep up with all the sprouts and weeds, let alone the bushes and trees. We have no fewer than nine art schools in the region with competitive MFA programs, meaning that every year an average of about 180 (mostly) young artists complete their studies. So every two years LA churns out 360 degreed individuals—and that makes for a massive circle. That vastness doesn’t even account for the city’s cadre of legendary artist-teachers, who are in the business of exhaling those circles like so many dissipating smoke rings. Whether the teachers inhale or not is the metaphorical-rhetorical question we’ll have to save for later.

Who can deny that fits of nostalgia occasionally prompt us to long for smaller circles, for times when connecting dots and creating ties was somehow more organic? A small museum show about a circle of considerably druggy beatniks acted as perfect catalyst for such a nostalgic fit. Then some very familiar anti–art school grumbling in the local press, perhaps borne of a similar nostalgia, snapped me back out of it. A large museum show on drugs surprisingly offered a better perspective, as did the news that yet another art school would be opening in LA. This new school, however, promises to be free and hold all its classes in a “disappearing” classroom on top of a mountain (figuratively speaking, that is).

I’ve been involved in numerous conversations about starting schools—I’ve dreamt it as much as the next guy: something small, affordable, possibly even free—after which I’ve said, “Forget it, it’s too much work. If people want an alternative to school, why offer school as an alternative?” I had to ask myself if this preoccupation with formal education isn’t some kind of deferral of maturity, never mind all the practical benefits of school, because ultimately I really believe that art school is nothing short of utopia. The biggest problem is how much it costs to attend. I’ve often wondered if the astronomical tuition couldn’t be better spent if people with like-minded concerns and ambitions pooled their resources to organize a salon, an ambiguous venue, or publish a journal.

The beatnik Wallace Berman didn’t spend any time or money on art school. Semina, the loose-leaf journal he started in the ’50s, was the subject of an exhibition this fall at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (organized by guest curators Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan). Showcased were Berman’s friends and collaborators, through both photographic portraits by Berman himself and various artworks and printed matter from the likes of Joan Brown, Diane DiPrima, Jess, George Herms, and the late, great Walter Hopps, and many other contributors, famous and not so famous. One of these perhaps lesser-known figures was poet and artist Marjorie Cameron. Her intense, impossibly manly yet elfin face graces the cover of the debut issue. I’ve repeatedly heard the story of her “arrival”: Rocket scientist Jack Parsons, in cahoots with his transatlantic mentor, Aleister Crowley, was conjuring the whore of Babylon and she—by magick—appeared in the form of red-haired, green-eyed Marjorie Cameron on Orange Grove Boulevard. (That’s the posh Pasadena street, site of the New Year’s Day Rose Parade, the broadcast of which was always said to be partially responsible for the never-ending influx of newcomers seeking a frostless paradise. It’s also the site of LA’s very first contemporary art museum, which was originally headed by Hopps.) Cameron became Parsons’s wife and, after his death in 1952, continued her role as artist-muse, appearing in films by Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. When Berman exhibited the contents of his Semina on the floor of the Ferus Gallery in 1957, a sexually energetic, if not explicit, Cameron drawing subtitled “Peyote Vision” was cause for a bust by the LAPD on obscenity charges. After the subsequent trial, Berman and Cameron vowed never again to show work in commercial galleries, but they continued to unite and inspire odd characters across regional and disciplinary boundaries. The newly reconsidered assemblage sculptor George Herms, who had his own solo exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum earlier this year, said of Cameron, “She molded and formed me.” Why is it so hard to imagine that sort of witchy cross-pollination today?

As the Berman exhibition made clear, subcultural or countercultural activities needn’t rely on an elaborate system of mentors-for-hire, but rather flourish or perish through a transmission of influence channeled through unmitigated motivation, mutual fascination, and support.

It is my guess that people both inside and outside of academic circles look, with this thought in mind, at LA’s surplus of art education with differing degrees of disdain, and this dynamic may shed light on LA’s contemporary psyche and its relation to the ever-lengthening shadow of the city’s artistic legacy. Both insider and outsider may easily accuse those seeking expensive degrees of buying their way into pre-legitimized circles. Insiders may also ever so slightly resent having to repeatedly channel all their critical energy and enthusiasm into those who come after them—as opposed to, say, keeping rigorously abreast of what their peers are doing. But the difference is that if you’re inside the academy you pretty much have a responsibility to work through this frustration in direct discussion with students and fellow artists and teachers. If you’re on the outside, or at least profess to be, you can continue imagining that the art institutions are simply hothouses of pretension and self-congratulation. The latter is, of course, a case of the most extreme disdain, but any Angelino will attest to the annoying fact that this clichéd exasperation crops up pretty much on a weekly basis in our local newspapers. Here’s a crude sample from just last month: “Art theory has begun to play such a dominant role in art school that I feel it has lobotomized many young creative minds,” Aaron Rose wrote in LA Weekly (October 28). “Young MFAs are required to read endless texts, many written more than twenty years ago by stuffy Frenchmen with navelgazing theories holding little or no relevance to life in Bush’s America. They are then asked to somehow relate their work to these deconstructionist theories and then be judged by how successfully they do this.”

This type of caricature is continually being redrawn in the regional press. The worst part isn’t that it’s out of date or misinformed—the Frenchmen in question weren’t writing art theory, for example—but rather that it implies that critical thinking, reading, or even knowledge in general is somehow irrelevant and threatens vitality. It assumes that only a small number of fashionable or canonical texts are being circulated in school, all of them assigned by proselytizing teachers who want the students to believe everything written in those texts. (This is hardly the case; in fact, theory in general has lost its footing—or footnoting, as the case may be—in many art schools, leaving students, ironically, with a desire for not less theorizing about art but more.) A more refined version of this disdain is persistently dished out by Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, who even managed to discuss this year’s big Basquiat show at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art in terms of Conceptual art’s prejudiced favoring of mind over matter. Basquiat may owe something to Conceptual art, Knight admits, but his work is Conceptual with “a difference,” that difference being that his work is supposedly meant to parody “intellectual pretension—[the] stock in trade of the academy.”

Given my weakness for nostalgia, I am not in the best position to defend the academy by saying it doesn’t have the potential to engender pretentiousness. But at the crux of the matter is a dilemma within LA’s art world and its discourse, reflected, at least in part, in the LA art media’s managing to form a convincing backdrop of public hostility toward any sort of complexity, and indifference toward the growing interest in the pursuit of a life as an artist. Connoisseurship in the arena of pop culture is encouraged; it’s acceptable to reference the record collection, but not the bookshelf. So what it seems we have in LA (recognizable in its artmaking, its conversation, its criticism) is a subtle re-rifting between high culture and low culture—low being matter, high being mind.

Oddly enough, it is a German cultural critic (but no stranger to LA), Diedrich Diederichsen, who recently offered me a very helpful reframing of the false dichotomy that haunts us here—and this in an essay accompanying curator Paul Schimmel’s “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” at LA MoCA. (It had occurred to me that if Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s” had obtained a sense of paradigmatic importance back in ’92, then maybe “Ecstasy” would give me a read on the present. In truth, the first image that came to my mind—not a pretty one—was of the rich hipsters at the Tate house totally high on mushrooms while being slaughtered by the middle-class Manson kids who were ostensibly high on acid. But then I turned to the show catalogue.) In “Divided Ecstasy: The Politics of Hallucinogenics,” Diederichsen begins by writing, “Drugs stand in yet another cultural- and intellectual-historical relationship to the arts and specifically to the debates around issues of immediacy and mediality, debates that are important in the theory of media and the history of the avant-garde.” He continues:

Drug use . . . forms part of a tradition that privileges immediacy, from gnosis to rock and roll. This thinking, of course, stands in classic conflict with all of the modern aesthetics that emphasize the specificity of the medium and the artistic genre, from Clement Greenberg to Theodor Adorno, as well as with structuralist and poststructuralist aesthetics and theories of media, which are based on the materiality of language.

For me, something about the idea of expanded consciousness set against two opposing theories of aesthetics seemed to underscore the usefulness of both academic debate and the loose dissemination of, say, peyote visions. And I wondered if there could be any contemporary corollary in LA life for a sculptural work by Klaus Weber featured in “Ecstasy”: a fountain made of Victorian crystal that pumped not water but LSD. Documents accompanying the piece explain that the fountain is meant to be at the center of a simple building of unidirectional glass, which, when plopped down in a city, would transform a public space into a, well, public space. From inside one could see out, but from the outside one couldn’t see in. This—along with the acid, I presume—would, according to the artist, facilitate the viewer’s seeing “the weirdness of daily life, which through repetition has lost its meaning to the local inhabitants.”

The newest art school in LA might in fact be achieving something similar in its project. Artist Piero Golia, who studied engineering in Naples, is the cofounder of LA’s new Mountain School of Arts. He said, “It’s impossible to demonstrate you’re alive in Los Angeles—that’s why I came here.” He and fellow artist and cofounder Eric Wesley are ready to start classes as soon as the new year begins—offering, for example, a course on Mannerism, taught by Steve Hanson and Jorge Pardo, the owners of the bar where the gatherings are held. Wesley and Golia emphasize that when classes aren’t in session, upstairs at the Mountain, the school doesn’t exist, though I presume the living and studio spaces they are offering outside of the bar are permanent. They recently held their first event, a lecture by German artist Franz Ackermann, who happened to be in LA to install his work in the “Ecstasy” show. That night there was a good classroom-size crowd, many of whom I recognized as students already enrolled in or graduated from other schools. Instead of a slide show, the lecture was accompanied by dim visuals because they had to resort to an opaque projector to show pages from one of Ackermann’s catalogues. While the psychedelic quality of his drawing style was necessarily diminished, the nomadic internationalism of what is mapped in practice came through pretty clearly. A few days after the lecture, I asked Wesley and Golia point blank, What’s the difference between your school offering an artist lecture series—the backbone of any serious MFA program and the cause of the dominance of language in the field—and any other? They said their artists are travelers, not visiting lecturers, and it would be a two-way street, insofar as the students would have access to Ackermann in Berlin if they wanted. This access is all granted and given free of charge, beatnik style—but with a difference.

Frances Stark is an artist based in Los Angeles.