December 15, 2003


I had this notion as I was painting that last work on paper this morning, so
I thought I would hammer it out:

What unites my experiences in the Navy and Architecture and Art is a common relation to the conceptual ideal of each profession. Each operates variously in reference to an idealized model of its' practice. But one of these cannot exist without the essential embrace of its? defining conceptual ideal.

In the Navy, there is the legacy of the sailor's world, a heritage that goes back to the dawn of human history. Even the days of Odysseus were long in the tooth for the then ancient seafarer. Unfortunately, the Navy of my era had little use for the customs and form of seafaring and it was at that time in the process of scuttling most if not all of that legacy by eliminating most vestiges of tradition: language and jargon, the uniform, communications such as bells and whistle codes, age old protocol of conduct between sailors aboard ship. I felt it was unfortunate and wasteful.

I remember regarding this, the nature of a tradition lost. I had formed the conviction that there is a specific value to tradition that isn't simplistically anachronistic. There was something special about a wisdom culled from history and preserved in a heritage of imparted form. There must have been a way to avoid the disposal of recieved wisdom. There must have been a way to keep tradition modern, to carry the past into the future and avoid the wholesale discard while fulfilling the mandate of modernity: to reconcile the things you make with the life you are living.

Too often, we throw out the baby with the bath water in our zeal and anticipation of the next and the new. The example of the succession of rail to freeway in Los Angeles is a prime example. Swayed by our dream to live a George Jetson future now, we scuttled what was once an extensive and delightful regional rail system for an automobile based transportation solution which we would soon discover to be not enough to address all our transportation concerns of the near future.

In architecture, there too is an idealized model of the architect as a professional and of architecture as an art form. This model is imparted almost exclusively within the environment of undergraduate architecture school. It takes five years to teach people how to design buildings together with the package of supporting knowledge (engineering, mechanical systems, human factors, etc.), basic undergraduate humanities, and electives. In this world, ideals of creative thought, discipline and conduct are imparted to the neophyte.

Once the student leaves school for apprenticeship and professional licensure, the datum's of design, humanities, and increasingly, professional conduct are increasingly remote as the rip tide of business sucks the architect into a day for day management miasma. It is not unusual to hear architects complain that students who have just graduated are not professionally useable in the office, indicating that a lack of regard for the function of apprenticeship that was once designed to train the young architect in world of professional practice and the set of skills and conceptualizations necessary for the acculturation of the architect's mindset. It is also not unusual to hear the veterano architect wax nostalgic for the halcyon days of design studio, lofty explorations become rare in the maw of professional practice.

I hope that this illustrates well enough how the ideal of architecture is held within the bosom of architecture school. This is a recent development. My mentor, an architect who was initiated into the profession in the seventies was one of the last of the generation that could receive a generous acculturation into the world of architecture through apprenticeship, an education outside of formal schooling. Today, without the university experience, it could be asserted that the ideal of architecture could disappear altogether as the profession dissolves into the commercial dynamics of the building industry.

In the artworld, it can not only be said that there are many artworlds (the set containing the full spectrum including the naive artists in the craft fairs to the seemingly arcane pretzel logic of the international ?high? art scene), but that all artworlds but one are phantoms. All artworlds are cultural constructions and as such, are conditional to the extreme. The one authentic artworld is the one an artist generates within him or herself.

One of the most dangerous hazards to an artist is the misfortune of having his artworld highjacked by another, more aggressive cultural citizen. This may sound funny to people outside this bubble of contemporary art, but it is a palpable hazard that one could actually be persuaded that art is something that exists outside them, somewhere else. In this unfortunate circumstance, the artist begins to chase a fleeting definition of art forever outside of their grasp. Without the ability to possess a personal vision, one is in danger of fulfilling someone else?s vision, inevitably always falling short. More importantly, one needs a vision that burns, a fierce conviction, a grapple that rivals the price of mortality itself. This points to a reality that the artworld must exist within the artist first and foremost. The artist must manifest an artworld, the artist must be in effect, the first audience. All other audiences must be secondary, tertiary, subsequent effects in ever expanding rings. The achievement of the widest rings of audience, the accolade of the world at large, has meaning only if the artist is the first member of the audience. Without this prime condition, art does not really exist, it will become a mere affectation, a cosmetic instrument for the ego, lost.

Therefore, it could be said that this conceptual ideal of the artist does not exist in the mists of history as it does for sailors. I?m writing here of a specific ideal as an artist in our time, here in the West, in what exists in art museums, art schools and what is regarded as art dialog. The art dialog is a special qualifying term in the artworld. It is indicative of what is relevant, what separates it qualitatively from lesser art. This also distinguishes it from art from non Western cultures... for example, the decoration of a Dogon hut entrance. The conceptualization of the persona of the (Western) artist is unique and can be characterized by the Oedipal turn: the the constant questioning by each successive generation of the one previous to it. In short, it is the story line we heard in the darkened slide lecture rooms in art history class, or in the great books of art history. This art is defined by a fundamental condition of freedom. This is an art that does not exist in the ?then?, but in the ?now?.

Nor is this art ideal formed and sustained solely within the cocoon of the university as it does for architects. Here, I am pressing the edge of my argument, as the realm of the architect is not wholly separate from the contemporary artist. The line that separates architecture form art is design, the insistent context of the client, a perpetual out of the body experience that grounds the architect. No such tether leashes the artist to the world.

The ideal that I have been identifying here exists first and foremost within the heart and mind of the artist. As such, the ideal of art is more insistent for artists than it is for sailors and architects. It is a necessary and primal condition. This, a seamless fusion of the evanescent and concrete.

Posted by Dennis at December 15, 2003 8:26 AM

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