By Gianmaria Franchini
Consider, for a moment, Jackson Pollock’s once-radical works. For better or for worse, in brazen and explosive gestures, they blew apart the world of art history into scribble and eruptive splatter. In the violent casting down of a collection of some sacred and some not-so-sacred artistic conventions, new ones arose in their places.
Of course, change is essential to creative forces. Subject to public taste and trends, and bound to the habitually self-reinventing figure of the artist, techniques in teaching and creating art are in a constant state of flux. Following suit, it should not come as a complete surprise that UC Santa Cruz’s relatively small, isolated art department is undergoing some unprecedented changes. But in a modern art world where few things are static, some trite and very old, but vital questions should be asked: What is the purpose of art? What is the purpose of our art department? What lies beyond trends? What anchors should be held in place?
“The department is growing. Some of the lecturers are having their courses cut back, and that is in part because we are filling in our full-time faculty positions,” Art Department Chair Elizabeth Stephens said. “Without making changes, we risk losing agency within the University of California system. And we need to raise our visibility. This is painful for the art department; people are angry because they’re losing their jobs, but if the whole department loses an opportunity, what do you do?”
In an attempt to garner recognition and a larger share of portions of the University of California’s selective coffers, the UCSC art department has set up a visiting artist program and begun to establish a foundation for a graduate program. Visiting artists first brought their expertise to our campus in the spring quarter of the 2005-06 academic year as guest lecturers, and this fall others will collaborate to implement two new courses. The graduate program has been in a design phase for some time, and according to Art Department Manager Hannah Pederson, it will not come to life for another five years.
Nothing is being torn down, conceptually or otherwise, but these adjustments will impact the way art is made and taught on campus for years to come.
The plans are not without their detractors, and collectively, student artists, faculty members, and administrators are in the midst of some soul-searching.
Though decisions have already been made and pieces put into place, it is important to keep in mind that UCSC is an institution formed to educate.
This is a foundational truth that is at times drowned out by the forceful din of chatter between the department and its students.
Paul Rangell, a long-standing art lecturer, gave a succinct summary of his ideas on his department’s role.
“I think the art department here is here to serve the needs of the undergraduate students who are searching for a broader perspective of what they want to do with their four years that they’re paying so dearly for,” Rangell said. “In terms of experiencing a wide range of artistic experiences, offering a place where they can challenge themselves both in intellectual and tactile manual ways, using their hands to make objects and trying to form their ideas into a tangible form.”
Although Rangell is not a full-time faculty member, his stay on campus has been nothing short of extended. He is well-versed in the campus’ history, and his broad ideas on the function of visual arts within UCSC match up well with the department’s statement of purpose found on its website.
“The art major offers an integrated program of study in theory and practice which explores the power of visual communication for personal expression and public interaction,” Rangell said. “The department provides students with means to pursue this exploration through courses that provide the practical skills for art production in a variety of media within the contexts of critical thinking and broad-based social perspectives.”
A range of legitimate concerns have been brought up by all members of the art community, many of whom are distressed over existing problems with the undergraduate program and uneasy in the face of imminent changes. Rangell expressed some trepidation about the current state of affairs.
“It’s becoming clear that there aren’t enough classes to serve the needs of the students who are still in the midst of their search,” he said. “It’s symptomatic of the bigger picture — what is happening nationally — and UCSC is laying down and surrendering to those national trends. But I’ve been here for so long, I don’t know what’s national. I know what’s local.”
According to some art department higher-ups, that is precisely the problem. Operating within a contained community has its drawbacks, and the planned changes, opening UCSC’s classrooms and galleries to marked contemporary artists, are a sort of remedy to the department’s relatively parochial position.
Stephens sees a window of opportunity rapidly closing, and believes that it is time to pave the road to a stronger reputation.
“If we don’t [make the changes now] we risk losing an opportunity — there’s a huge influx of new students entering UCSC,” she said. “I don’t think it hurts anyone to raise standards. Change is difficult and scary for people. The art department is trying to become a contender within the UC system — as well as nationally.”
Cognizant that radical changes to the structure of the department will unsettle the precarious employment of veteran art lecturers, Stephens was adamant in expressing empathy for their plight. But she was also unwavering in her stance.
Lecturers are certainly concerned about their employment, as they have already seen their course load diminish, but they also fear that alterations to the artistic environment on campus will ultimately be procured at the expense of providing students a holistic undergraduate education.
Lecturer Miriam Hitchcock, herself a UCSC veteran, mirrored the concerns of some of her colleagues.
“I go way back with UCSC. It’s a place I have a great affection for, it was my undergraduate school, and I’ve always thought of it as a nurturing environment, and it’s hard to see that erode,” she said. “From my point of view, I’m not sure if the world needs a new [Master of Fine Arts] program. I would like to think that quality undergraduate education is enough of a reason to feel that you are prestigious.”
While lecturers like Hitchcock and Rangell have the opportunity to form committed relationships with students and the university, visiting artists’ stays are transient.
They can provide much-needed outside perspectives to students, but they cannot ground the art department. With language alluding to creative desire, Hitchcock elaborated her ideas on the singular value lecturers bring to undergraduate education — an assessment that puts the student and the educative process at its center.
“Maybe, as soon as you’re ranking faculty, you think, wouldn’t it be exciting to have a dialogue with people who knew what you were talking about instead of having to educate them?” she said. “You know the more tedious aspects of teaching, which is informing, and the harder role in teaching, which is taking the raw material of somebody who is an intelligent and capable young person and watching and helping them develop. That’s a gradual process but its really rewarding.”
Former lecturer and current faculty member Jennifer Parker believes that any departmental changes made are designed with the student body’s best interests in mind. She feels her role as a teacher will only be strengthened by the department’s moves.
“When I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, having visiting artists was amazing,” she said. “Having perspectives from all over the country, all over the world really, was invaluable. I don’t think this is a result of pressure from the university; it’s our obligation as educators. The decisions we make are for the students — without them we wouldn’t be here. We want students to make art that is meaningful.”
Christina Wang, fourth-year art major and leader of the campus organization Student Art Movement (SAM) is highly informed and invested in art department affairs.
SAM has served as a voice for student undergraduate concerns, and Wang believes that restructuring offered courses will put a strain on undergraduate education. She is enthusiastic about the visiting artists and the future graduate program, but believes their implementation is premature and may exacerbate a lack of foundational courses.
“I think outside of the administration, outside of the politics, there’s a real lack of foundation classes,” she said. “The program here is very much conceptual, but there’s nowhere to learn the basics, and in fact they are not emphasized at all. Contemporary work can be great, if you know the rules you can break. The visiting artist program is not a bad idea, but it’s the cart before the horse.”
This conflict, between carrying out our university’s “Thinking at the Edge” mantra and maintaining requisite basics, is one of the more compelling philosophical matters the art community is grappling with. Fourth-year art major Levi Goldman believes he is a well-rounded artist because he transferred to UC Santa Cruz after two years at a junior college.
“A lot of students here aren’t given many technical skills,” he said. “ At my [junior college], I learned how to work with mediums in a tactile sense, making things structurally sound, and acquainting myself with materials available to me. As far as with people I’ve seen that have been here for four years, what I’ve seen is they do want to carve stone, they want to know how to make things, they don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Like Wang, Goldman looks forward to learning from visiting artists, but he is weary of what could be displaced upon its arrival. Faculty and students alike are excited over the prospect of broadening our campus’ artistic horizons, but the legitimate concern over ensuring students are properly educated remain.
“I do hope to get into the visiting artist class. It’s visionary, but on the other hand, our department seems to be in a really strange place,” Goldman said. “The emphasis is on everything being new – I think we have to remember that some trends might not last. They might become a genre or they might become a movement. What I fear is that the growing and holistic part of art might disappear â€“ there’s a danger in making art academically rigorous and highly intellectualized. What drew me to art was that I could tap into some energy and just roll with it.”
The future and shape of the art department is currently at stake, but in truth the questions being asked aren’t as contemporary as they may seem.
“This is a conversation that has been happening since art had been made part of academia,” Parker said. “In 1917 Duchamp put a toilet in a gallery and called it art, and it freaked people out.”
In a certain sense, UCSC is still engaging and contending with that statement.