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January 24, 2002 Artists look at what's real in art and the real world



by Barbara Black

Back in 1963, a Fluxus artist called Robert Filliou decided that art was one million years old, and declared Jan. 17 art’s birthday. The quirky idea has been picked up as an opportunity to reflect on what the venerable practice of art means to us.

About 60 students and faculty of Concordia’s art school held a “gallery in a hat” at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery on Jan. 17, with a birthday cake for afters. The idea was to put a question on a slip of paper into the hat — something inspired by Concordia’s catch-phrase Real Education for the Real World — and moderator François Morelli would pull them out one by one, read them, and get a discussion going.

The talk centred on the dichotomy between the ideal world and gritty reality in at least three ways. One was whether a practising artist can make a living in the real world. Another was whether the Faculty of Fine Arts should emphasize pure art at the expense of art with a commercial tinge. A third was how important grades should be to the Concordia art student.

One artist said that only about 4 per cent of artists can be considered financially successful, and many of the students looked glum.

Professor Leopold Plotek admitted that the prospect of doing what you love for little or no money is naturally a source of anxiety for young people, but he added that the stereotype of the starving artist is wrong.

“In Canada, artists don’t starve; poor people, disadvantaged people, starve.” In other words, an artist can usually find a way to make a decent living; in his case, it’s teaching at a university.

In fact, said Professor Lynn Hughes, doing something else for a paycheque can be stimulating, and make you more efficient. A degree in art needn’t lead directly to a career in art. She had met a recent graduate in painting and art history who is working in communications for a leading computer company, and loves it. A student added that art itself is hybridizing into new forms, creating new ways to make a living.

In any case, Plotek said, artists who want to create are unstoppable, regardless of whether it pays. “You can’t stop people from doing this kind of craziness.”

The dichotomy of high vs. low art was raised by a student who was a bit irked that his own style of drawing was seen as something close to cartooning. Art is part of culture, he said, and it’s widespread. “The design of my shoes is part of culture.” If Concordia doesn’t give full due to popular art, who will, he asked? “Don’t restrict it to the elite.” Another student said that the way she is taught is so conceptual that she finds it hard to explain it to her parents.

How important should grades be to a fine arts student? The students were divided. One said that after graduation, it’s his portfolio that employers or gallery owners and art dealers will want to see, not his GPA. Another student said that some graduate schools – Goldsmiths Art College in London was mentioned – look at your marks first.

Studio work most important

The faculty members tended to support some sort of academic evaluation, although Plotek said that a student’s studio work counts for “99 per cent” when it comes to admission to graduate school. Hughes pointed out that grades have the effect of identifying the students who are serious and disciplined, and an art scholar is expected to measure up academically.

Katya Kessin, who teaches at Concordia, said that the Faculty of Fine Arts has changed since she graduated in the mid-1980s. Now, students are offered all sorts of choice. “There is more emphasis on informing students what it means to be an artist, and the various roles they can play.”

Finally, the artists asked themselves, How do we change the real world? Ask what we have in common, offered Robert Holland Murray, a senior part-time faculty member. A young woman said that she had started out in science and gravitated to art, but in a sense, they had similar values. Another young woman who said she had a business background urged artists to be brave and passionate, and value themselves instead of taking society’s evaluation.

“Human beings have a need to create,” said student Melanie Authier. “I have friends in engineering and medical school, and they’re coming to me with questions about art, about ways to connect.”

Hughes said that art is undervalued by the world at large. “It’s not a frill, it’s incredibly important. It’s seen as a luxury — unlike cars and other possessions. Yet in the last years of my mother’s life, those things weren’t important to her. The only thing that mattered was music.”