Elizabeth Boling, MFA
Associate Professor
Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University
eboling@indiana.edu
   
  Design Cultures
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
Design Culture in Fine Arts Studio Programs

  For about 10 years I studied in two different fine arts programs, first for a B.F.A. degree in printmaking and drawing from Texas Tech University and then for an M.F.A. in printmaking at Indiana University.
 

In both of the programs in which I have experience, the culture in which students worked was overt; there was nothing subtle about the ways in which art students could be distinguished from students in other programs -- beginning with our clothes. We dressed for our work in overalls and boots purchased from the same stores where construction workers bought theirs. I have recognized since that our dress was also partially determined by the larger culture that views the work of art to be manual rather than cerebral; we both mocked and colluded with this view enthusiastically. We also dressed as an outward sign of our commitment to expression and aesthetic judgment by decorating our clothes with paint or thread or buttons, using the most interesting and unusual bags, packs and portfolios we could find, and investing inordinate amounts of energy in selecting or crafting our own jewelry, watches, wallets, and other accessories.

The undergraduate program in which I studied was centered in an open print lab, and the graduate program in individual studios with communal lab spaces. In both cases, the students spent most of their time in the work space within view or earshot of the other students working in the same medium. Painters spent a lot of time in their own studios where they were largely self-sufficient, but printmakers and ceramicists and sculptors and paper makers and jewelers and weavers and glassblowers spent a considerable part of their time in the spaces where the presses, kilns, lathes, saws and looms were located. All of these disciplines called for central storage of supplies as well, so part of the physical spaces were given up to bags, boxes, shelves and bins that were used and maintained by the whole group. In addition, each student collected by some means a bank of source material. This might be a wall of images at one end of a studio, or a collection of found objects overflowing milk crates under a person's work table, but everyone collected materials as a resource. Students also collected "mental stores" by reviewing show catalogs in the library, attending shows, digging through the slide collection in the department, and otherwise stuffing their heads full of stimuli.

The studio spaces were utilitarian - able to withstand the abuse of hard use. They were also adaptable. In the case of the communal labs, equipment and tables were shifted when work demanded it. In the graduate studios, people removed walls and built lofts and painted every surface imaginable -- including the glass carafe of the communal coffee-maker. In graduate school the members of the faculty maintained their own studios near, or in, the same place as those of the students. We all shared the sense -- and acted upon it -- that those who worked in the space actually owned it, even though none of us would be there for more than the time required to finish a degree.

People spent not only their work time, but frequently their social time and even their private free time, in these lab and studio spaces. They hung their work in progress on the walls, or displayed it on stands in the halls, as a means of viewing it themselves and as a means of soliciting comment on it. Those who did not expose their work to view before a formal critique had the right to do so, but were viewed as a consequence as aloof and not entirely integrated into the studio community.

Formal critique was a staple activity, and in some programs it was virtually the only recognizable structure of curriculum outside of signing up for 12 credits of printmaking or ceramics or painting each term. Everyone within one area of study attended critique together on a regular basis, usually weekly. Critique was also open to those outside the discipline and some people attended multiple critiques most of the time. In the comparatively smaller undergraduate courses everyone hung work for a critique at once and the instructor chose which work would be discussed by the simple expedient of commenting on that work and ignoring the rest. In the graduate program the critique rotation was posted at the beginning of the term -- usually two people per week, with the sessions held in the evening for 2-3 hours at a time.

Critique was held in the working gallery space, and those who were "up" for that week were expected to prepare their work for viewing in advance and to make introductory remarks about it when their turn came. Everyone attending the critique then jumped in to comment, with the instructor sometimes participating less than the students. We all knew that we were being judged not only on our work, but on the evidence we supplied during critique that we could apprehend the salient issues in a body of work and comment appropriately on them. The myth of the inarticulate artist was given short shrift; we all knew that the oral defense of one's thesis show was the portal between student and graduate. In reality, many illiterate artists may have graduated from the studio program; we had to write a thesis statement, but for most people it was completely secondary to the oral defense, and for most of us it was one of only a handful of papers we had to write in pursuit of the M.F.A.

The hierarchy in the environment was unorganized, but entirely clear. New students might come in with some capital -- a fellowship, an experience working with someone famous, or simply a lot of really cool gear -- but any new person had to establish credentials through the actual production of viable work in that environment. Viable work had to exhibit some kind of continuity in approach from one piece to the next, to show evidence of growth or development in ideas and/or technique, and at that time had to be supported by some conceptual rationale because purely form-oriented work was frowned upon. Many social gaps could and would be tolerated in an individual who produced work respected by the group. Individuals who did not produce were marginalized quickly, ridiculed or ignored unless or until they performed on the one dimension that counted. We did make exceptions for a very few individuals whose deviation from the expected level of output we suspected might be attributable to an inner vision we could not fathom, but those individuals had to ante up tremendous stores of personal quirkiness, insanely long hours of work, or undeniable insight into the work of others to earn a place in the group. It was possible to leapfrog in the hierarchy through entering juried shows outside school, and most people were expected to compete successfully in external juried shows by the time of graduation. Participating in competitions, mounting gallery shows alone or in groups, establishing "a direction in one's work," and producing a body of work sufficient to mount a culminating thesis show were solitary endeavors which we were expected to hear about, plan for and execute independently.

There were no classes offered in how to do these things, and no one sat the new student down to go over the list of expectations. A student might be visited by a member of the faculty in his own studio only once a term or once in a graduate career, although the student might go to the faculty member's studio to request advice or guidance. Those who were observant learned from their peers how to behave and produce; those who were not learned through fairly overt indoctrination by peers, a process that included ridicule, preaching, and social rewards and punishments.

 
 
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Last Updated: February 18, 2005