31 August 2014

From the Annals of Higher Education

Back during the NYC art boom of the 1980s, a common cliché had it that the hot and heavily-hyped new breed of Uptown po-mo artists mostly hailed from one of two art schools – either the Rhode Island School of Design or The California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts, as it more commonly called). Of the two, one could attribute the latter of having nurtured such talents as David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Ashley Bickerton, Matt Mullican, Jonathan Lasker, Tony Oursler, both Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, Carrie Mae Weems, Christopher Williams, and Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Some even went so far as refer to this group of artists as the "CalArts Mafia."*

Much of this was credited to the School's faculty, which at times included a who's-who of the cultural cutting edge; recruiting heavily – in the realm of visual arts – from from leading artists of the Fluxus and Conceptualist stripe. From this came portrayals of CalArts as the home of an unruly and unstructured program in which – at a point in which contemporary aesthetics were in a state of flux and generally experiencing categorical breakdown – students were encouraged and allowed to pursue the most indulgently esoteric practices to their extremes, ad absurdum. As some accounts had it at the time, a description of the program at the time sounded vaguely akin the 17th-century descriptions of a tour of Bedlam; or at least some type of satirical artworld update of Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem." Such accounts tended to portray the program at CalArts as being the quaint epitome of the excesses of a prior era.**  All of which was a little ironic, seeing how it took place at an institution initially set up by the Disney family, its original mission being that of serving as a type of high-caliber "trade school" for the Hollywood film industry.

In recent years, the online art publication East of Borneo has published a fair number of articles on the CalArts glory days of yore. Since the site is based out of the institution in question, we could regard this as an exercise in self-achiving and legacy-enshrinement. Of these, the recent essay by Janet Sarbannes, "A Community of Artists: Radical Pedagogy at CalArts, 1969-72," offers a good historic overview of the school's early years – the unlikeliness of its origins, the controversy surrounding its curriculum, and the like. Lots of intriguing details emerge throughout ; such as this bit, which turns up in a footnote:

"In a twist of fate, a number of the first administrators were hired by H.R. Haldeman, who would soon become Richard Nixon’s chief of staff but at the time chaired the CalArts board of trustees (having met Walt Disney through his work at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency). Charged with locating the top artists in their fields, Haldeman proceeded to pluck the original CalArts administration from the ranks of the avant-garde."

As well no shortage of era-specific scenarios:

“'What really blew it,' [James] Real maintains, 'was the playful decision by a faculty member to stage a bit of radical theater by taking off his clothes during a board meeting [to discuss closing the swimming pool]. He really didn’t have to go that far to mau-mau the Disney contingent. Just putting his bare feet on the table would have done it with people who, in earlier times, had spent hours arguing over whether to put skirts around the udder of cartoon cows.'"

As well as the tale of how donors reacted when Herbert Marcuse came to town. And if you hadn't gathered by now, the essay is as long on the history of cultural politics at a particular moment in time as it is on art.

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*  Among its other alumni,  such future pop-culture figures as Paul Reubens, Tim Burton, and David Hasselhoff. The Institute's Herb Albert School of Music is another story in itself, responsible for graduating a number of notable contributors to the fields of modern composition, noise, and experimental music.
**  This may all have merely been in keeping with the cultural trend of ridiculing anything having to do with Southern California, which became a fairly popular American pastime in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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