[NetBehaviour] Bollocks to James Elkins
simon at littlepig.org.uk
Mon Aug 22 10:02:34 CEST 2011
Elkins is an ambivalent writer. He is smart and eloquent and often identifies issues clearly and promptly. However, his positions are usually not far from the arts establishment. His book on "Artists with PhDs" sought to defend the status quo in the US (that the MFA should remain the terminal degree) and the principle that art programmes will produce good artists so long as they remain studio based and practical. He does not seem to be a fan of interdisciplinary methods. As he say's on his website, "I am wary of the administrative and theoretical discourse (really, jargon) that supports and justifies them (PhD's) in the U.K."
It's quite reasonable to be wary in this respect. The advent of the creative arts PhD in the UK has led to a form of "grade inflation", where artists who wish to teach in art colleges are now generally required to have a PhD. This does come with bureaucratic strings attached. However, there is another side to this, which is that the creative arts are treated much more seriously in academia, with funds for research and artists enabled to work with peers across the arts, humanities and sciences. These are great developments and it is notable that this is happening in those places where the PhD has been supported. More traditional centres are not seeing these changes.
The main flaw in his thinking is that art colleges are somehow involved in producing artists. They aren't. If a student arrives at college and they are not yet clearly motivated to be an artist, and en route to that, then they are unlikely ever to become one - or at least, unlikely due to anything the college can do. What the institution can do is provide the environment for burgeoning artists to develop, where they can interact with their peers and gain the important insights that offers. Their teachers might teach them something as well - but that is less likely. College faculty should focus on keeping the gates open and exposing the students to the widest possible range of experiences. Somehow I think Elkins would probably agree with these objectives but his arguments suggest the opposite - art colleges as elite centres whose job it is to confirm excellence and pass on the baton of what is considered best practice. A recipe for conservatism.
On 21 Aug 2011, at 23:18, Michael Szpakowski wrote:
> I think he's often an interesting writer although he's better at posing questions dramatically than he is at actually answering them and, as I say in my group preamble, he's less of an iconoclast than he'd like (and like us) to think.
> The sheer arrogance of this quote did rather take my breath away.
> Although the group name satisfies my childish sense of humour ( when I log in to Flickr I get a cheery "You have been a member of Bollocks to James Elkins since..." which cheers me beyond reason), it's more an opportunity to try and assemble a set of what folk consider to be their best shot at making still image art/photography in a networked environment. If there are people who don't do that already I'm really hoping some will rise to it and make something wonderful...
> I'd like to demonstrate concretely how wrong he is...
> warmest wishes
> From: Mark Hancock <mark.r.hancock at gmail.com>
> To: Michael Szpakowski <szpako at yahoo.com>; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at netbehaviour.org>
> Sent: Sunday, August 21, 2011 9:28 PM
> Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] Bollocks to James Elkins
> Excellent idea. While I liked Elkins collection of essays on Art Criticism, I think he really struggles to understand the internet in any form. His thought that nobody reads art criticism doesn't seem to extend as far as blogs or various web-based journals.. God knows what he makes of net.art?
> On 21 Aug 2011, at 15:18, Michael Szpakowski wrote:
>> If you make still images of any sort with the intention of making art and post them to Flickr,
>> please join the new Flickr group: Bollocks to James Elkins.
>> and add a single image...
>> I'm pasting the rationale ( which is also on the group page) below.
>> If you don't use Flickr but see what I'm on about consider joining and posting an image....
>> PS if it takes off I'd like to think about organising a physical show of the same name, no promises of course, lets see what happens...
>> In his new book on photography (‘What Photography Is’, London and New York 2011 ISBN 978-0-415-99569-6) James Elkins, a writer always worth reading and to some extent an art world iconoclast (though at every critical instant perhaps a little less so that he imagines himself to be) gives vent to a magisterial rant about those who post on Flickr, which is characterised by both a sad lack of imagination and an unpleasant vein of snobbery.
>> It climaxes:
>> "If you are active on Flickr, if you read popular photography magazines, if you enjoy National Geographic, if you use Photoshop to create effects, then this is a critique of your work. It may not seem pertinent, buried as it is in the middle of a book on many other things, but this is what a critique of your work looks like."
>> I particularly relish the idea that anyone who chooses to use Flickr or Photoshop, merely by that choice, is not only cast out from the photographic/art world elect but is implicitly also rendered incapable of recognising the majestic subtleties of Elkin’s thought without some nose rubbing... Remember, just so you know,"this is what a critique of your work looks like."
>> The banality of a criterion that is solely based upon the use or otherwise of a technique or channel (a bureaucrat’s delight: "Photoshop!? Tick the box here: not art!") won’t be lost on anyone with a little bit of wit, academic or no, even we plebeians, above whom Elkins floats , Zeppelin-like, in such majestic and Olympian disdain.
>> The criteria for rejecting a putative work of art cannot be solely how it is made and whether any technique employed has at any time been clichéd or abused. Such shortcuts are no substitutes for extended and fearless looking, thinking and argument. The mark of artistic innovation is often precisely that it elevates the previously unnoticed or despised technique, format or subject.
>> In the Goldberg Variations, after some of the most sublime and intellectually demanding contrapuntal writing ever, Bach finishes with what? - A drinking song.
>> But there’s more to it. Elkins doesn’t really believe that the ignorant Photoshoppers &c will really be reading his book and hence being directly addressed by him. The diatribe and its climactic paragraph are a nod and a wink to those on the inside, an invitation to join in a sneer at the intellectually unwashed.
>> What is also manifested is a fear of pollution by rubbing shoulders too closely with those non-insider masses. Despite Elkin’s brave words about the breadth of his address to photography (and of course, implicitly, the signal failure of anyone else to see why this matters or to do likewise effectively) there are places he fears to tread. In the book he coldly contemplates, at length, the foulest images of execution by torture but runs away from the snapshot and the network.
>> Those of sterner stuff, who consider themselves to be making art and who use Flickr as a conduit for that work are invited to join this group and post one single example of their work. (You may replace/rotate but only one at any one time). Photoshoppers and fans of National Geographic alike are welcome as is anyone who photographs with the intention of making art and who feels that the networked environment of Flickr is a useful place to post and share their work.
>> The only criterion is, I repeat, ‘Do you consider yourself, in any fashion, to be attempting works of photographic art?’ If so, post one here and join us in saying, collectively, ‘Bollocks to James Elkins!’.
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Simon Biggs | simon at littlepig.org.uk | www.littlepig.org.uk
s.biggs at ed.ac.uk | Edinburgh College of Art | University of Edinburgh
www.eca.ac.uk/circle | www.elmcip.net | www.movingtargets.co.uk
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