Artist White draws on his long associations with academia and the art world to explain contemporary art to a confused public.
The author begins with a bit of recent art history and a look at how artists respond to the circumstances that their creative imaginations encounter. Devoting half the book to three extremely different artists—Dana Schutz, Mary Walling Blackburn and Stephen Kaltenbach—really drives home the concept of the boundlessness of the directions art can take. A hard look at MFA programs asks whether they are offering career training, a professional research program or economic preparation for the realities of art and the long odds of success. The author devotes considerable space to critiques in contemporary art. If the professors ask, “what are we looking for?” and “what do you want of me?” how is the unschooled public supposed to understand? Primarily, we must see that contemporary art is concerned with the immediate present and how meaning unfolds across time and space. Next, White tackles assistantships, both paid and unpaid, and the process of making art. An artist’s workshop used to be a training experience, but it is now, like Warhol’s, a factory. Industrial society has interrupted the direct line between the artist and the object. Now, an assistant develops a work by bending pipe or making a computer design. The movement toward regionalism, à la Grant Wood, and away from large art centers into the country, is again a new form of art. There are also performance, conceptual, social practice and minimalist art. The author’s most useful suggestion is to view a piece in the same state of mind (altered or not) as the artist. Sometimes, though, it’s only meaningful to the artist.
White opens the door to understanding, but it’s up to readers to grasp the fact that there may not really be any meaning. That’s the point.