- Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University
Howard Singerman's Art Subjects is a study of the training of visual artists in American universities from 1912 to the present. More precisely, the book is an account of how two philosophies ofeducation have competed to inform that training. At the outset, Singerman announces that the book explores a long-standing "struggle between vision and language" (p. 10) that culminates with a decisive privileging of language. The book mimics its putative subject in at least one interesting way. As it was for art and the training of American artists in the twentieth century (at least on Singerman's account of them), so it is with the book. Each moves from a practice grounded in objective reality to a jargon-ridden discourse that limits entry to anyone outside of its acutely self-regarding disciplinary field. Although the book's acknowledgments segment thanks one individual for demanding thatSingerman "come to a real conclusion" for the book, readers should note Singerman's subsequent admission that it may not have one. At times it even appears that Singerman goes out of his way to avoid drawing one.
Art Subjects appears to have started life as Singerman's doctoral dissertation, but it only occasionally displays the dull by-the-numbers writing of such documents. The book has a clear organization and its numerous quotations are carefully documented. The overall argument is framed, beginning and end, with Singerman's autobiography of his own time as a university art student. It provides him with his framing question: if he has a M.F.A. in sculpture but never learned to sculpt, what does his professional degree signify? The answer is that it indicates that his work is no longer facile. He has progressed from the realm of the artist whose work is professional, displaying facility, to the stage where he is professional. He has progressed to the point where being an artist is theartist's true subject: "Artists are the subject of graduate school; they are both who and what is taught" (p. 3). If this progression is best indicated by an artist's lack of facility in producing works of art, that is the price of professionalism. In the post-World War II university, art training is "founded on the primacy of theory over practice" (p. 181). Yet the result is professionalism without a clear profession other than as an employee of the post-World War II university: the M.F.A. prepares artists for the university discipline of art. Citing Foucault, Singerman seems satisfied that artists have taken command of a theoretical field. Disciplinary boundaries are created and policed by its rules of professional discourse. At the same time, Singerman declares his intention to "use the concept of the discipline as it constrains and structures discourses to keep from having to judge whether or not art is a profession" (p. 201). He likewise mentions [End Page 119] but does not take any stand on the "putative decline of recent art" (p. 210). This ongoing refusal to judge deprives the book of potentially interesting conclusions. It also calls into question Singerman's repeated references to the "self-criticality" of the discipline.
Singerman's neutrality might berefreshing were it not for his use of Foucault to introduce the notion that each new "proposition" within the disciplinary discourse represents progress in a "theoretical field," moving "knowledge" forward. Talking about art (and not, to be sure, talking all that much about specific works of art) and talking about being an artist may or may not represent progress. For instance, Singerman's early chaptersmake the case that the triumph of artistic modernism must be understood as a repudiation of a "female" aesthetic and even of women as artists. Singerman returns to the topic ofwomen artists only once, to note Griselda Pollock's approval of the entry of feminism into the academic discipline of art. Thus Singerman is silent on the question of whether progress is made when the number of women is...