Sunday, July 13, 2008

spiffs of teaching

Earlier this week I had a conversation with an artist well established in his career. What he told me about going to art school in his era (which must have been the 60s or early 70s) took me for a surprise:

So many of the guys were all revved about teaching. I couldn’t understand it because I couldn’t wait to get out and make art, but these guys told me it was all about making it with young girls. ‘Yeah, they look up to you and are so into you and every year there’s a new crop.’”

He told me it was common knowledge back then that part of the spiffs of teaching art was getting into the pants (or at least the gooning adoration) of students they had no intention of taking seriously as artists. If anything, the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) message was that the student was the object and the objects she made were beside the point.

This reminded me of Joanne Mattera’s recent post on institutionalized gender bias in the art world. I had a hard time letting go of this very candid revelation because it hit home in my own times at school. The fact is I definitely had teachers who had agendas (never plainly spoken) which made it all the easier to drop out, though I never thought of it at the time. If what this artist told me was a common back-story, no wonder my art history Prof, who I mentioned here before, had the easy gall to ask me to get naked when he took photographs back in 1976. It was probably not the first time he ventured the question and maybe he previously had fruitful results.


Sheree Rensel said...

I was at the university in the late 70's. In the painting department, it was common knowledge that SOME female students were "active" with some of the professors. This wasn't ever an issue for me because I think I came of as one of those plaid flannel shirt, combat boot wearing feminists. The ODDEST thing for me is years after I got out of school, I was hit on by two of my former professors. By that time, I had started wearing lipstick. LOL LOL LOL

namastenancy said...

For years I've blamed myself for never finishing my degree at the SFAI. But, now that I look back, I see that I had absolutely no encouragement, no decent feedback from the teachers and no idea how I was going to earn a living when I did graduate. In the meantime, "worthy" male students got stipends and were pointed in the direction of SFSU where they (apparently) got their teaching credentials. I avoided the sexual harassment because I was totally skittish around men and fled at the slightest sign of sexual interest. I wonder how many women were studying at the SFAI when I was (1966-1970), how many graduated and how many are still making art. I know that the pretty ones were freely groped and propositioned; I was so naive that I didn't see anything wrong with it but I sure as hell wasn't going to let it happen to me.

Sean Casey said...

I've found your friends revelation about people who go into teaching at the college level to have affairs with students a pretty common attitude. Don't know why that would be a surprise.

I can't speak for everyone, but generally guys want to kick ass (financially, physically, mentally) and get laid. Period. And whether they cloud their intentions under layers of obfuscation, the goal's the same.

Anytime you have an imbalance of power (i.e. Student-Teacher), you'll have those who will use it to their advantage. Teaching is often viewed (rightly) as an altruistic attempt to share and nurture knowledge. However, It's also giving one person power (via grades, favors, recommendations, etc..) over a multitude of younger, impressionistic, and sometimes insecure people.

What boggles me is that someone can go straight from college to a teaching job in the first place. I mean, shouldn't you first go out and do what you've been trained, before you can presume to teach others?

Joanne Matteras post brings up the contribution that women have made in the arts. It's strange that women have been (and continue to be) rendered and painted, are the subjects of the greatest paintings throughout history, and yet get so little respect when it's there turn to hold the brush. It's as if to say "we'd rather observe you, than listen to you".

Plain old sexism in my book.

Thank you for allowing me to comment.

Eva said...

Hi Sean,

I feel the same about recent grads going into teaching. That always seemed weird to me. It must be about keeping close to certain teaching methods and everything being sort of homogenous. And maybe the more distance there is from school and its connections and politics, the harder it is for them to get a job.

I know I shouldn't have been so naive, but that language is many layered, what comes at young women. None of your teachers are directly saying: "All I want to do is fuck you and forget the rest." They might even be saying that you are so clever and unusual and no doubt someday you will make great paintings....blah blah ... and who wouldn't want to hear that? Then of course you find that it does indeed mean nothing when they blindside you in a private moment.

harold hollingsworth said...

Those professors probably didn't have a single student that made a dent in art either...what a lame approach to this process. I didn't go get my MFA because I wanted to get in the game, do shows, not teach. I do find it odd that right out of school, students are teaching? I always felt that if it came along, after I had achieved something, so in some respects I could pass it along, street knowledge perhaps, then I'd teach. But the craft has always been my thing. If I want to get laid, I don't need a trapped audience to get that going, wow. Not surprised, but I suppose in every layer of industry, there are, or is someone working at getting off somehow, and losing points and information, that could spark a true revolution, too bad...

stanaskew said...

i was one of those art school graduates who went right into teaching. when i faced my first class [beginning drawing], it hadn't occurred to me that i might not have a whole lot to offer at that stage of my art journey. my class survived and so did i, but after one semester i quit, went back to the bay area, got a studio and a night job, and began working at making things ... which continues to this day, some 35 years down the line. at this point in time, i might have a few things to offer in a classroom setting. who knew?

Joanne Mattera said...

Hey, thanks for mentioning my recent post. The more we talk about this stuff, the more people think about it. Much of sexism, like racism, is simply not thinking about the issue. You can't fix the problem if you don't understand, or acknowledge, there is one.

Of course, there's the stuff that goes beyond unconscious actions, like the professors who hit on their students. I'm sure it still happens, but there are more institutional filters in place now.

Here's my story. It's not sexual but sexist. I had a professor in art school--a hairy little guy with minor, and I mean minor, celebrity in the Boston area. He said to me, "You have to decide whether you want to be a woman or an artist."

This is a guy, mind you, with a wife and kids, and a studio and a career and a teaching job, so clearly he felt no need to make that choice in his own life.

He may have been trying to be helpful. Or discouraging. I couldn't tell, and to be honest, I never spent much time consciously thinking about it. But ... I always think of him when I see Judith beheading Holofernes.

Eva said...

This was something I have heard for much of my life, in one form or another, though rarely as blatantly.

When I was about 20, my grandfather said it with more clarity than anyone: "You want to be a lady and have style and do what ladies do. But you also want to be an intellectual and have your say. And you can't be both."

I think he was trying to tell me to choose - because it would be easier on me, not because he really believed those things. He was right too - it would have been easier.

You made a reference to the Prof's life with kids and a wife, etc. I also felt for years that I had to choose between art and love, art and family, that it was almost impossible to have both. Because love, as it was prescribed, had me filling a role that the artist in me couldn't easily accept.

One more thing and maybe it's the biggest thing - the more I think about this choice between being a woman or being an artist - what we got instead was to be a "Woman Artist." So you get neither really; there is no choice. You acquire this other title, and the jury is still telling us that it's a lesser form than the other two options.

I know, I know, if you are 25 or even 35, you are not thinking like this at all. I didn't either. But I will hopefully be around long enough to see how it panned out for those women.