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  • On Not Teaching Art:Baldessari, Pedagogy, and Conceptualism
  • Jacquelyn Ardam (bio)

The conceptual artist john baldessari (b. 1931) has had a career in teaching as prolific as his career in art-making. For over four decades, he taught art in a variety of settings including high schools, community colleges, arts schools, and universities. He helped found the Studio Art program at the University of California, San Diego, was an originating faculty member of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he chaired the Art department for over twenty years, and taught at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1996 to 2007. Baldessari's art practice and pedagogy are deeply intertwined, and a number of his best-known works explicitly thematize and engage in pedagogy.

Consider, for example, the 1968 photoemulsion on canvas Wrong (Fig. 1), which juxtaposes a photographic image against text. In the image, a man stands in front of a palm tree such that the tree appears to be growing out of the top of his head. The image is dull and flat, and the figure is framed in the middle distance, just slightly left of center. The landscape is suburban, and the figure's face is somewhat obscured. If we look closely enough, we see that Baldessari himself is the subject. Beneath the photograph, we find the word "WRONG" painted in clear, large lettering in acrylic paint across the canvas. The judgment that this one half of the piece exerts on its other—a judgment so blatant that it reads as comically [End Page 143] excessive—evokes the discourse of amateur photography guides and how-to manuals that espouse the "rightness" or "wrongness" of certain photographic compositions. Common wisdom advises against photographing subjects directly in front of trees, while the compositional rule of thirds advises against centering points of interest in the frame. Baldessari's photograph disobeys both of these guidelines.

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Figure 1.

John Baldessari, Wrong (1967). Courtesy of John Baldessari.

Baldessari's Wrong has often been read as pushing back against what Abigail Solomon-Godeau calls "the protocols of amateur photography,"1 and in so doing, the piece is explicitly didactic. The word "WRONG" suggests that, like an answer to an exam, a photograph can be correct or incorrect, right or wrong. Its claim is not that the photograph is "ugly" or "unappealing" or "uninteresting"; "WRONG" is instead a didactic claim, the kind of claim that can only be made when rules are stated and then disobeyed. And this "WRONG" is authoritative not just in its brevity but also in its style. Baldessari explains: "Although I actually did teach lettering in high school and could have done it, I wanted to remove myself from it. I hired a professional sign painter and told him, 'Don't try to make it look like art. Just make it like "For Sale," or "Keep Out," or whatever. I just want it to look like information.'"2

The aesthetic of the "WRONG" lettering is bold and clear, and comes without any explanatory discourse. As such, it opens a discursive sphere that spurs a number of questions from its viewers. What exactly is so "wrong" about this [End Page 144] photograph? That it does not follow the compositional rule of thirds? Or is the problem that the figure is standing in front of a tree? Can we imagine an instance in which a photographer might want a palm tree to appear to be growing out of his subject's head? Is the problem the image's muddy lighting? Or does the "wrongness" have more to do with the photograph's content? Is it "wrong" because it associates the artist himself with the banal suburban landscape? In designating the photograph within the larger canvas as "WRONG," is the work—the text/image juxtaposition as a whole—now "right"? And who is to make this decision about the photograph's wrongness or rightness? The artist? The viewer? A teacher?

The "WRONG" is both a part of Baldessari's composition and a commentary on it; it enacts a form of authoritative didacticism while questioning that very act of bad teaching. And in so doing, WRONG...


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