Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University

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Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University

Singerman, H. (1999). Berkeley: University of California Press. 296 pp. ISBN 0-520-21502-8

Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, takes its title from Henry Singerman's contention that artists "are the subject of graduate school; they are both who and what is taught" (p. 3). He observes that in public school, "teachers teach art" while in his undergraduate college experience, "artists taught art." In the graduate school, Singerman argues, "artists teach artists"(p. 3). Artists are thus simultaneously the teachers, the students, the content, and the goal in university art departments. This intricately structured book is not a linear history of MFA programs in the United States, but is rather a web of recurring themes in pursuit of a question and the development of an hypothesis. This layering of ideas, issues, peoples, places, and eras makes for fascinating, provocative reading, although its usefulness as a reference text is compromised. It is difficult for one to readily trace the history and evolution of MFA programs due to the thematic and non-linear nature of the narrative. Although many details and dates are imbedded in the text, the reader looking for a timeline or information on specific programs will be frustrated. Nevertheless, the discussion of issues relating to the history of studio training in the university and the paradoxical nature of art as a profession is engaging and ultimately rewarding.

Singerman begins by questioning the purposes and practices of his own not atypical graduate school education. While pursuing an MFA in sculpture, he acquired none of the traditional skills of the sculptor in his graduate program of studies. The means to learn craft skills were available if independently pursued (usually from a helpful shop assistant), but the central problem was "not how to sculpt or paint, but what to do as an artist, and as `my work"' (p. 4). What has evolved as training for an artist now "takes place in a college or university, stresses theorization and a verbal reenactment of the practices of art and the role of the artist and is rewarded by a degree" (p. 4). Throughout the seven chapters of the book, Singerman examines how this institutional formation of artists has developed and how the practices of art and the identity of the artist have been "fitted to the image of the liberal arts college, the university-based professional school, and the research university in America" (p. 5). Artistic subjectivity has become the university's problem and its project, offering during the 20th century a series of new artistic subjects. In the process, the artist became deskilled, retooled, and reinvented as a university professional.

Inherent in this growth of the professionalization of the artist is a set of unresolved contradictions that Singerman threads throughout the text as recurring motifs. The most striking is Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius's insistence that "art is not a profession which can be mastered by study" (p. 7). According to Gropius, and repeated often by American educators through mid-20th-century, art cannot be taught and cannot be learned, even though the manual dexterity of the craftsman can and must be. What is implied is an essential separation of art and technique. Paradoxically, the maxim that "art cannot be taught" has spawned the corollary that everyone can be taught, "if not manual techniques, then visual fundamentals" (p. 8). Since one can learn the "language of vision," it is a short step to honoring the predominance of discursive language and the production of formal knowledge in the practice of art criticism as being the preferred technique of the university-trained professional artist. The question is begged persistently as to whether or not the artist is a professional and if so, what that means.

Another paradox arises relating to the artist's value for the university, particularly the liberal arts campus. …