From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
Editor's Postscript: This week, The Texas Observer and ...might be good embark on a new collaboration. Select ...might be good features will now appear in the Observer's online section "Arts & Minds."
I have encountered two reactions to Anna Craycroft’s installation Subject of Learning/Object of Study at the Blanton: (1) disinterest and mild distaste (2) enthusiasm. The former response comes primarily from visitors who encountered the installation bereft of activity, while the latter is expressed most often by visitors who attended events—conversations, lectures, performances—in the space and liked them. Whichever way you felt about it, I think this exhibition is, by design, more about the artist's questions than her answers. The following are some of the major questions Craycroft poses, as I see them:
Craycroft’s installation is extremely paired down, to the point that the galleries are barely distinguishable from spaces dedicated to child and adult education in any museum. What balance can be struck between visual appeal and austerity—the seduction of the object and the rejection of that seduction?
Primary colors and simple geometric shapes create an elementary-school like aesthetic. Visitors are even invited to sit on colorful mats on the floor at some events in the space. What is the relationship between education and infantilization?
Craycroft’s imagery—the shapes and colors, the mats on the floor—fetishizes the visual vocabulary of the Montessori method. Where can institutions look for successful pedagogical models?
The spaces are built for events and gatherings rather than individual viewing. When action—teaching, learning, talking, performing—is the meat of a project, how can the space of action function visually when no events are scheduled?
Craycroft’s installation doesn’t provide answers to any of these questions. That’s what’s frustrating about it. It’s also what makes you think.
I've been thinking: projects like Craycroft's throw a wrench into traditional models of art criticism. Critical language is based on evaluations of formal qualities and (more recently) conceptual coherence. But pedagogical projects allow artists sidestep coherent aesthetic or conceptual theses. The projects often pose more questions than answers. They ask viewers to participate in the process of figuring out whatever the artist is trying to figure out.
I’ve seen few articulations of the criteria on which we might base our discussions of such pedagogical projects. In the pages of …might be good, artist Mary Walling Blackburn proposed beauty and slowness as two possible criteria. Beauty captivates, creates pleasure within the process of learning. Slowness allows deep, thorough, careful transformation over time. Slowness particularly appeals to me as a criterion, and in the e-flux journal, curator and educator Nora Sternfeld proposed a set of related ideas. They provide some of the most compelling criteria I’ve seen: the tedious, the disagreeable, the compromised, the unsound and the beside-the-point and the unrepresentable. In my own experience, these are staples of both teaching and being taught.
I’m not convinced that Craycroft knows upon what criteria she would evaluate her own project. The criticisms I’ve heard of Subject of Learning/Object of Study aren’t exactly unfair; visually, the space doesn’t offer a lot to pull in the viewer, even the explanatory material doesn’t provide an “ah-ha” moment, the exhibition programming is sometimes strangely unrelated to the installation itself. However, these criticisms are also based on evaluative mechanisms that weren't built to handle pedagogy. Are these mechanisms appropriate to projects like Craycroft's, or do we need a different kind of language?
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.