Art School - Text

Art School 
by Tim Davis

Of all the platitudes ever uttered in the underboiled history of Arts Education, the one that leaks its yolk most unilaterally over my plate has always been “write what you know.” Writing was invented by accountants, not to express any inner certainty but to keep track of ever uncertain outer stores: recipes, formulas, injunctions, warnings away. Writing was investigative before there was journalism. Keeping track, even in cuneiform, is a way of limiting the unknown, rather than expressing the known. Write what you write I’ve always felt. The best writing drags the writer beyond the Sumerian millet stocks of awareness, surety and geometry, and into untooled regions, where the story has its fiery camps.

Artists have translated this first novelist’s commendation into a kind of horny village idiocy. Bruckner, they say, asked a hotel chambermaid to marry him, having never before been alone in a room with a woman. Like kissing cousins, young artists make art out of the amnion of their social lives, because it’s easy, and because it’s there. Traditionally, the form for such expression is loose, unscripted, “true.”

Look at Ingres’ early pencil drawings of French travelers in Rome. They are sexy and Bohemian, made with the lax touch of an artist literally sketching for his supper. The later, older, courtly, rigid, eggshell Ingres would disavow Delacroix, and his own early work, saying, "Touch is the device of charlatans to show their skill with the brush."

Look at Nan Goldin. Go ahead. The Museum School mined for her a vein of scandalous vividness. She let the camera flit around her growing pains like a persistent conscience. The photographs are the real snapshot aesthetic; Winogrand and Eggleston damned to subtlety and complexity. In Goldin’s later work, you can hear the prompting of an assistant through the gamey light and everpresent flesh: Nan wants you on the bed, naked, at 3:15. Churchill’s insistence that if you’re not liberal by the time you’re twenty you have no heart; and not conservative at forty you have no brain --seeming suddenly like the words of an art critic.

Matthew Monteith’s “Art School” stands this prophesy on its head. He approaches his adopted familiars not with the fluid, hesitant intimacy of youth, but with institutional certainty. The technical bravado of this project --impeccably recreating the Airport Customs Office light of Yale’s Green Hall but with maximum depth of field and sharpness-- constantly reiterates the essential awkwardness of the idea of teaching art to anyone.

High Postmodernism shifted the dominant model for art photographic practice from the journalistic to the commercial, and Monteith’s stance is not on the Magnum man’s, nor the big budget advertising photographer’s, but the humble annual report-er. We see art college not as the place where John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe, and Keith Richards and Brian Jones started Skiffle groups, but as a way station on the corporate trail to inspiration. There is something propagandistic about the pictures, something Soviet. They are more expressive in form than any Düsseldorfer’s (say Thomas Ruff’s Portraits), which are inevitably about a deep cultural distrust of self-expression, making Art School more insidious. These clear, resolved, thorough, tactful images of art students feel as disconnected as pastoral postcards of Stalinist Young Pioneers. We instinctively ache for the dream-intimacy of the anguished, Goethean artist-youth, but wake up in front of a set of museum dioramas of the creative process, weirdly fragile in their slight variation and consistent perfection, like a china shop in a bull ring.

Monteith’s true master is the American painter Thomas Eakins, whose investigations of Art and Medical schools, in paintings like William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River and The Agnew Clinic, were criticized in their time as being both overly clinical and overly vivid. Eakins studied civil engineering, and was among the first painters to rely on photographic sources, at one point collaborating with Eadweard Muybridge. He favored painting his friends, comrades and students, always approaching these subjects unsentimentally, with a fervor for perspective and realism. He refused to paint what he knew. Walt Whitman wrote of him, and we can extend this quote to Matthew Monteith easily, "I never knew of but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is."