Jay Noble

Tradition and Pluralism
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statement addressing drawing in the pluralistic condition of contemporary art and education

Pluralism is a condition of contemporary art which has led to an inclusive attitude towards an ever expanding range of creative practice and media. In addition to traditional European sculpture, painting, and printmaking genres, pluralism has led to the inclusion of outsider art, video art, folk art, installation art, comics as art, degenerate art, junk art, and much more in art media as far ranging as dung to electrons. In short anything being made or experienced anywhere today has a chance of entering the pantheon of art if we so choose it. Such is the freedom and at times the arrogance of this era.  So how can drawing, which can be explored without end by the most modest of means, charcoal on paper (or even less), compete in the midst of this milieu?

The following is not a diatribe against pluralism.  It is brief a look at some misteps of pluralisms application in educational institutions, and a proposal on a better way to allow pluralism to flourish.

I am a product of this pluralistic condition in art education, and if the following description of my education sounds convoluted… it was! Ideals and values systems involved in my education were very diverse and included Dada, the social consciousness of Joseph Bueys, a late 60’s UC Berkley Graduate and his “Total Loss Teaching,” a Bauhaus foundations, New York City, the School of Paris, drawing from perception, abstract expressionists, American naivite, art biz, and art mags.  All these were vying for my allegiance and approval.  I’ll admit that this was a very confusing and often frustrating time for me. No central authority rose it’s head to make sense of it all, and I was on my own to sort it out and choose what was best for me. Despite these difficulties, I discovered an exhilarating sense that I could do anything I wanted as an artist. I am glad now that the spectrum was so broad, because I feel like I understand the path I have chosen to greater degree than I would given a more insular range of options. In the end I followed my heart, and the most consistent thread running through all these experiences, which is drawing and it’s extensions.

One drawback of this type of pluralistic education, which I have made it my mission to solve, is that students, while getting a taste of a wide range of art approaches, lack the depth of experience necessary to understand or empathize with any singular art practice. This created a kind of unintentional ignorance or indifference towards mastery, if not the masters, of singular disciplines.  While I solved this for myself by attending intensive summer programs in an area of special interest to me, my peers were unknowingly preparing themselves to be jacks of all trades and masters of none.

In the effort to pluralize educational institutions to reflect contemporary conditions, traditional art practices too often loose the institutional footing necessary to help students succeed in their respective disciplines. Traditional art practices are particularly vulnerable because many are the result of thousands of years worth of cultural development. Many require decades to master which places them at a deep disadvantage, given the four year span of college, in comparison to other types of art practice which offer more immediate gratification. Educators have yet to solve the problem of how to give equal footing to the plurality of ideals they hope to espouse, not just equal listing in academic catalogs.

The footing necessary for the student of traditional practices to succeed can look very different than the footing necessary for the student of non-traditional practices. Traditional painting, for example, is rich and diverse enough to be it’s own liberal art. When it is viewed as a subcategory of something called Fine Art, it receives neither the care nor the institutional space necessary to help students access and learn to use the breadth of painting’s creative resources. In effect this is like teaching two semesters of German, two of Japanese, two of Spanish, and so on, all in an effort to earn something called a “generalist foreign language major.” Of course, in a situation like this, depth and fluency in any one of these languages would be unlikely, even with the option to "specialize" in one of them for a couple years.  Traditional painting is a cultured language just like German, in that it has to be learned before anything resembling art can be attained by it. Foreign language departments have figured out how to give students the curricular structure necessary for them to achieve fluency in the language of their choice. With a few exceptions, art departments have not.

I think the best solution to this problem is to make sure that art practices new to an institution are not introduced at the expense of previous disciplines. Institutions must create a new space for new practices rather than trying to cram them into the same space of other disciplines. By space I mean departmental budgeting, visiting artists, physical studio space, course load, number of professors proficient in any discipline, and so on. For example, the inclusion of a professor of drawing proficient in new media is often introduced while a professor proficient in older media leaves. Courses in video art or installation are introduced to catalogs while figure drawing courses are cut out. In effect, the introduction of diverse approaches is achieved by squeezing out or weakening the other.  Dicersity is achieved, but by unempowered voices.  If a department cannot introduce new practices without first providing the appropriate institutional space, and insuring the integrity of previously intact disciplines, it probably should hold off introducing that practice until these need can be met. This squeezing out, not only weakens the incoming discipline by depriving it of the conditions necessary for its growth, it also stifles the existing ones as well. In order for pluralism to be a reality for an institution rather than bureaucratic pretence, these needs cannot be ignored.

One final and I think very important note is that I do not see traditional and contemporary as two separate categories of experience. After all the traditional is a contemporary drawing practice. While there are separate categories of experience within contemporary art, tradition is seen as one of many. Of course then it becomes a matter of “whose” tradition we speak. The inclusive spirit of contemporary art and education cannot function as pluralistic without the inclusion of all current art practice including living traditional practices. I just so happen to have chosen the path of a European tradition in the spirit of the School of Paris. A very expansive, open-ended school with an inclusive spirit which has seen the inclusion of diverse influence from China, Islam, Japan, Africa, the Americas, industry, commercial culture and more. It is in this spirit that I approach my role as a professor, with a deep respect for tradition, while remaining conversant with other relevant emerging and contemporary issues.

Jay Noble

Paintings and Drawings