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last updated 6/14/11
Introductory remarks delivered by Brian Curtis, Associate Professor, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
at the 2011 CAA Conference in New York City, February 12, 2011
for a Special Roundtable titled "CAA's Second Hundred Years in Studio Art"
Chaired by Michael Aurbach, Vanderbilt University

After reading two recently published collections of essays on innovations in art pedagogy, "Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century" and "Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the Ph.D. and the Academy," I became more acutely aware that the overwhelming majority of proponents of a concept based, language oriented, post-studio, post-Duchampian, post-retinal, post industrial, post literate, post-object models of contemporary cultural practice that valorizes digital technology, collaboration, transdiciplinarity, hypermediated intersubjectivity, social process, topicality, and discursivity over the direct experience of intuitive sensory pleasure are determined, by radically redefining what art is and how it should be taught (or not taught as some actually suggest) to totally eliminate traditional aesthetics and skill-based, media driven, hands-on studio training within a generation or sooner if possible. The forces of contemporary cultural practice, armed with jargon laden litanies of high-powered strategic abstrusiosities and reinforced by popular-media hype, unsubstantiated facts, and poorly reasoned premises, are winning the day and the final and deciding battle to replace the MFA degree with the PH.D. in Studio art looms large on the horizon. An art academy without traditional hands-on training strikes me as preposterous as ceasing to publish books and instead placing our hopes for increased knowledge and wisdom in an impersonal calculator that has repeatedly been proven to disrupt concentration by promoting distracted, superficial surfing of disembodied informational tidbits. As preposterous as these changes are, the postmodern juggernaut is devouring the bedrock of our culture and leaving porn, pap, and dispirited pop-culture in its place.

The pedagogy arising out of contemporary cultural practice privileges content over form and severs what passes for contemporary art from its long-standing artistic roots. In promoting pluralism, radical pedagogy inserts a constantly changing, ever-broadening definition of art that subverts the tradition of a singular best and belittles qualitative standards, individual creativity, originality, intellectual discipline and structured learning. And perhaps most suspect of all is the fact that  constructing a curriculum based upon a deconstructive linguistic discourse can’t help but create a profound self-contradiction in as much as once deconstruction is institutionalized as a foundational pedagogical principle, and it has been institutionalized, it immediately becomes reconciled with the power structure that it claims to be attacking.

I am constantly amazed at how effective this organized attempt to marginalize aesthetic sensibilities has been especially when you consider the flimsy premises upon which this hostile takeover of our visual culture  rests. This radical redefinition is rooted in a curious convergence of historical, social, economic, philosophical, and technological events under the disruptive guidance very quirky and troublesome gender shifting trickster who has served as a catalyst for this systemic shift away from the Western rational tradition known as the Enlightenment and toward a cynical nihilism. These elements have combined to form a perfect storm of cultural disruption. Arcane anti-common sense philosophical theory, pop-culture euphoria for all things digital, voracious, unregulated capital markets catastrophically severing the link between profit and material productivity, and a rash of global unrest have each contributed to the formalized codification of the intellectual provocations of Duchamp and have severed the link between visual perceptual experience and the inherent value of a work of art. Although this “sterilization of the visual” has roots dating back to Plato’s idealism, the current antagonism between visual and verbal forms of knowledge is Duchamp’s legacy.

Fortunately there is an alternative model. It is a cross-cultural Darwinian model that points out we have an innate predisposition, embedded deep within our minds and inherited from our most ancient ancestors, to value and crave mega-wallops of direct intuitive sensory pleasure from our experiences of inspired performances or from objects that require specialized skill in their making, require a decoupling from practical concerns, logic, and rational understanding, while acknowledging their place in the long-standing traditions of art.

This approach represents a model that is firmly rooted in the understanding that the human central nervous system evolved with specific perceptual mechanisms whose purpose it is to organize sensory information into meaningful experience and that, when successfully engaged, produce intense sensory pleasure and profound emotional satisfaction. Despite the fact that we all depend on these perceptual mechanisms to make sense of our environment, the complexity of our fast-paced, high-tech global society makes it all too easy to forget how much we share with our prehistoric ancestors who survived by finding meaning in their environment and satisfaction in the beauty and wonder they experienced. Their genes are our genes and their art instinct is our art instinct.

Let me close with an exhortation, "Challenge your students to think, encourage them to feel, teach them to care, and provide them with the tools to effectively reaspond to the wonder and beauty they experience in their lives before exiling them to a Duhampian wasteland.