Jan Estep, "Art, Writing, Disciplinarity: The Political Potential of a Mixed Creative Practice," Quodlibetica, Constellation 13: Arts Writing, April 2011.
the faculty of the art department where I teach got together to discuss how we might reorganize. Brought on chiefly by the ongoing budget cuts that are sharply shrinking our program, we wondered how might the six media areas be restructured; we currently are separated along traditional media lines into drawing and painting, ceramics, experimental and media arts, photography, printmaking, and sculpture. A fellow faculty member presented a plan to consolidate into three larger areas: 2D, 3D, and 4D. Each faculty would be relocated to a new area. For example, painters and printmakers would become 2D, and sculptors and ceramicists would become 3D. In this renegotiation of our original area affiliations, the presenting faculty member found a place for everyone except me. In my case he created a new category called “Scholarship,” literally putting me in my own little box, floating above the new 2D, 3D, and 4D groups.
Clearly my colleague does not think of me as an artist, but as something other. As much as I was taken aback by his assessment, it also often happens that people do not know how to categorize me. In my department I was hired through the Photography area, though I am not a photographer. Prior to this position, for many years I taught philosophy and worked full-time as a magazine editor. As a consequence, my art courses are extremely discursive, and though I also embrace more experiential ways of learning, reading texts and critical dialogue play important roles in the way I teach. Moreover, in terms of my own creative practice, I am as deeply committed to writing as I am to artmaking. Thus, if you only pay attention to one aspect of the work I do, you could form a narrow vision of who I am as a thinker and maker.
Like many others these days, I define myself professionally by a growing list of activities: artist, writer, educator, philosopher, and publisher. At times I’ve also been an art critic, arts editor, and occasional curator. In conversation with people I am frequently asked when I am going to choose, a question that implicitly suggests I ought to focus my energies, discover my true calling, and decide which it is for me. The saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes up, with its reductive assumptions about mastery and backhanded attack on quality. But for the most part, people just seem to be curious about my involvement in so many occupations.
Admittedly there are real dangers of spreading oneself too thinly or of being only superficially concerned with any single endeavor. So I understand the question, but I also find if perplexing. At this point in my life it seems natural to move among these various roles; each offers distinct ways to engage the world and to express myself to others, and I enjoy the complexity that builds with so many layers of exploration and communication. It all feels genuine and essential to me or I wouldn’t do it, so cleaving off only one would not do justice to the myriad ways my mind/body operates.
This level of fluidity hasn’t come easy. Nor is it as resolved as my words suggest. It’s taken nearly 20 years to reach this point where I am relatively comfortable with the diverse nature of my creative practice. The small twinge of hurt and frustration felt at my colleague’s isolating me into the “scholarship” box reminds me of the years of feeling limited by entrenched disciplinary conventions. Especially within academia, each field of study sets strict guidelines for appropriate methodologies, research, and writing styles that confine and constrain anyone who operates under their rule. As much as I appreciate the various disciplines and what they each contribute, if you happen to be someone who doesn’t quite fit, you can have a hard time accepting the imposed limitations. It can be even harder to break from the dominant model and find one’s way with confidence. Reconciling with the diverse nature of my practice is an ongoing project.
Part of that process is shedding the negative judgments coming from any single discipline. From conventional academic philosophers I am judged as not serious enough, too “soft,” speculative, anecdotal, and subjective. They simply cannot recognize what I do as philosophy, and I don’t blame them. Art as a whole is much more tolerant. Nonetheless, from traditional artists—who I have described elsewhere as Conservative Anti-Conceptualists*—work like mine is judged for its lack of visual and tactile presence, as not spontaneous and playful enough, and as overly heady and analytical. Each perspective tries to exclude elements of the other, strengthening its borders in a Greenbergian modernist search for internal consistency and uniqueness. This professionalization and disciplinarity can wreak havoc on those
who for whatever reason don’t fit the molds.
This issue is a conundrum within the higher education system, since the disciplinary judgments are internalized as one moves through any given program. On the one hand, students want and need to learn specific skills and ways of thinking and making, and this takes time and familiarity; on the other, if we are not sensitive to the fact that some students flourish best when intermixing approaches, then we might hamper their progress and alienate them from their own specific path.
In looking over the path that got me to where I am I’ve often wondered why it is I became a writer specifically within the context and audience of art, given that most artists divorce the world of the visual from the world of language. The writing I did studying philosophy followed the scholarly models germane to the field; completing my dissertation was painful, an act of sheer discipline, and I’ve never pursued or published anything written along those lines again. After I formally switched fields and studied art, I started to write about art–other than my own artist statements–when I got a job at the New Art Examiner (NAE), a visual arts magazine based in Chicago. Initially a part-time, then as a full-time editor, I was immersed in art criticism and soon found myself writing short art reviews. Over time the writing assignments developed into longer columns, feature essays, and artist interviews. My official titles of arts writer, art critic, and arts editor were solidified, adding to my role as artist.
Within the bubble of the magazine office we believed writing was important and certainly we knew firsthand that artists and art institutions appreciated the coverage we gave them. Although many of our writers were also practicing artists, there was a clear separation between the art (what artists do) and the art criticism (what the writers do). Even within this microcosm of the art world each discipline had its firm boundaries. It was also clear that we needed each other. The writing explained the larger ideas and meanings behind art and thus its broader social role—this has been and continues to be a main reason art needs writing—and our reviews created capital for the artists and venues we covered. For many people this was the desired function, rather than the articulation of ideas, community building, or
collective sharing that the magazine also provided.
When the magazine folded in 2002—largely because of a lack of finances—it gave me the chance to reevaluate my relationship to arts writing. I moved to Minneapolis that same year to accept a full-time teaching job in academia. Correspondingly my writing started to be less review- and venue-driven, and became even further committed to discussions about life, art, and meaning. It felt as if philosophy was returning, the pendulum having swung fully to art for a spell and now returning to some kind of center. As a result the lines between my art and my writing were blurred. While I continue to write essays and short think pieces for traditional magazines, catalogues, and publications like this one, since 2005 I’ve also begun to publish printed matter—illustrated maps and artist books—that combine images and
longer texts into hybrid forms. Pushing this further still, as an artist I’ve also increasingly used text as the base of my image making so that reading within a visual field often activates my artwork.
While I can make distinctions among the various physical forms each takes, it is conceptually and creatively hard for me to draw clear lines among the various activities. Where does art begin and philosophy stop? Where does writing begin and thinking stop? Where does life begin and art stop? My practice repeatedly moves back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, and the play of language at both ends is central. Yet rather than gravitate to a more literary context, the writer in me has adopted a contrarian’s position: to repeatedly posit the concrete reality, validity, and efficacy of words and writing within the visual context. Why insist on doing this when many, if not most viewers do not want to read when they walk into a gallery? And why pursue this intermixing when many, if not most artists believe in a
fundamental schism between art and writing?
When I talk to other artists about their resistance to and suspicion of language they regularly mention a fear that writing will dominate or displace the art object. It is difficult to trust that the artist’s stated intent or a critic’s declared assessment will not limit the viewer from having his or her own response. Most artists want their work to be more than what they or any individual writer has to say about it. And artists want their work to provide a real, felt experience, not just reduced to a footnote or intellectualized thought. This fear acknowledges that collectively we do give language power to foreclose meaning, to limit and categorize, and to shut us down. However, none of this is the result of language itself.
Writing—the practice and process of it—continually reminds me that words are just words. We barter in them, we communicate with them, we write our law and public record with them, and under their thrall the world takes on different realities. Yet really, ontologically, the world is never fully under their sway, and by extension the art object never truly is exhausted or replaced by language. We can always write or say more and say something different, infinitely, if we want and if we have the social freedom to do so. I do not argue this to be cavalier about lived material conditions that prevent individuals from access to language, basic literacy, or real political change, or to deny the impact of internalized social constructs embedded deep in the body/mind, but to make evident something about infinite possibilities.
Language is not metaphysically binding and is thus always potentially subject to change.
Artists often fear language precisely because they feel it to be more fixed and static than it is. Writers, who work intimately with the material of language, understand that despite the authority and conviction language can have, our words fundamentally lack substance and stability. No matter how forceful or confident the expression, what we say is neither permanent nor definitive. Like art, it is always open to misunderstanding, contradiction, erasure, failure, and alteration.
As much as I trust words and our ability to connect and understand each other with them, the act of writing makes palpable the eternal gaps between saying and showing, and between language and reality (the physical world of things, bodies, and actions). Writing teaches me that there is always more to say, despite my attachment to a certain set of words at any given time. Writing allows me to put into words the very idea that there is always more than anyone can say and that writing is capable of infinite change. Language is as expansive, generous, and fresh as we let it be. It gives infinitely and it accepts everyone.
To answer my contrarian impulse posed earlier, I think at heart I want to prove a philosophical point, that art and language, body and mind, feeling and thinking cannot be so easily divorced from one another, despite appearances and the polarizing rhetoric that separates them. Thought has a material presence and writing is a doing, just as much as art is a way of knowing and sensual experience is mind-full. And this matters politically. Sustaining an abundance of creative activities defies easy or simplistic categorization of any single term and attests to the slippery boundaries and interconnections among the various creative acts. When a viewer or disciplinarian limits the imagination along a fixed set of guidelines, a mixed creative practice defies such narrow thinking. This potential to disrupt rigid, ideological
definitions and allow for flexibility in one’s assumptions is desperately needed in political situations. Whether we are disciplinary or interdisciplinary, to the extent that we can respect each other’s ways of being in the world, without defending the rightness of our own, we help each other live together in peace rather than anger.
copyright Jan Estep 2011
*Jan Estep, “Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art?,” Quodlibetica, Constellation #7 Fakeries and Fabulations, April 2010.