Art Comes Out Of Art


John Baldessari’s visit to the Burren College of Art (his 3rd or 4th) in April 2006 to receive the first honorary award of the Doctor of Fine Art of the National University of Ireland provided an opportunity to explore with him his thinking about the relations of art practice and art teaching. In his speech accepting the award, Baldessari spoke as much about his teaching practice as his art practice and why it was important to him; and interestingly he hinted at connections between the two. In my interview with him the following day I asked him to enlarge on what he found to be rewarding about art teaching that was clearly an important dimension of his practice.

He began by outlining how he had got into art teaching. “It wasn’t altruistic at first,” he told me. “I did it to make money at my sister’s suggestion. I started at teaching in public schools and I found I liked it.”

He had tried supporting himself by working as a technical illustrator, but found it plain boring. “Teaching was much closer to my creative interests, he said.” He spoke about his motivation coming out of his early religious training and his sense of social conscience. “Art doesn’t help anyone, but I felt it could, he said.” He went on to work with juvenile delinquents for a few months at an honor camp in the mountains with, “students whose attention span appeared to be about five minutes.” “Here size mattered,” he told me.

John Baldessari is 6ft 7ins tall, and whilst he impressed me with his mild and humorous manner I do not doubt his capacity to appear imposing should he so wish. He told me of one student who asked him to open the art room at night and with whom he did a deal. “It worked like a charm,” he said, “and some of these students seemed to like art even more than me!” This experience taught him that art could do good and was worth doing for itself.

He went on to teach at various levels including junior college and on a university extension course. This was at the time when his reputation as an artist became established and soon he was offered a teaching position at the University of San Diego and subsequently at Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts). John went on to tell me that as his reputation as an artist gained ground he became financially independent, “But I found I missed teaching.”

I asked him what it was about art education that had hooked him.

Young artists are the future of art, you have to listen to their ideas; get into an interchange. What I had to offer was advice on getting to where they wanted to be faster. I found I cared.” His interest, he told me, was no longer to do with money, but was to do with how artists understand and develop.

I asked him whether he had ever considered teaching to be an integrated aspect of his practice as had been the case for Joseph Beuys, whose Free International University had been one of his artefacts. “What was important was the importance of being a role model,” he said, “If I can do it then you can too. There is nothing mysterious about it.”

At this point I asked him about his strategy as an art educationist. “Do I have a strategy?” he replied, “I wish I knew. When I thought I was being strategic I wasn’t, and when I thought I wasn’t I probably was.” “Students watch you, they look for what is significant and what is significant to me may not be to them and what they find significant…” Mentorship, he went on to suggest might be a good way of seeing it, and he told me about the Rolex Protégé Programme whereby an established artist gives one on one support to an emerging artist. I asked him to enlarge on the role of the mentor. “it’s probably very pragmatic. Whatever works works, whether it’s instruction or sympathy – both work.

Here I outlined the educational strategy of the relationship of intention, process and outcome, with which I closely identify in my professional life, and I invited John to respond. “I want to see what they do and what they want, and then I want to see how what they do relates. Then I try to fine tune in my own mind what they are trying to do; is there any carry through and how can I help? It’s pretty much like bringing up a teenager. When I was a teenager I drove my mum mad!”

I asked John about his own creative methods.

In retrospect I can see some method in the resolution of an idea, but where the ideas come from is a mystery. Ideas come from ideas.”

He went on to discuss the idea of Darwinian evolution by citing a talk given by Julian Huxley in which the idea of the evolution of giant Galapagos tortoises had been discussed.

One tortoise comes out of another tortoise,” he said, “Ideas support each other. My next exhibition has come out of my five previous exhibitions. But now I’m exhausted, so what is the next step?”

Well, what is the next step?” I asked.

I think it is an unconscious connection,” he suggested. “Everything comes out of what intrigues us. It is all connected; there is is a thread through all of my work; the elimination of information and the maintenance of narrative. When you have one word, does the second word change that first word or lead to something new?”

He went on to talk of his interest in language and his belief that a word and an image are equal, “If a writer build in words then I build in images,” he said.

“Do you have a writing practice,” I asked. He shook his head not so much in negation as in perplexity.

“Often I say I’m a frustrated writer.”

“How do these creative strategies we’ve been talking about connect with your teaching?”

“Well, I’m interested in clichéd information. I like breathing life into clichés, by which I mean dead language. It’s the same approach in teaching; seeing the clichés and revisiting the purpose of what’s being done, keeping it vital.

I went on to ask what part education might have in an artist’s success, thinking about the professional studies that have become part of most masters programmes.

“If you can think of anything else, do it,” he replied, Don’t do art for the money, for the market. My generation had no money. You had to have another job. And you can expect peer pressure to do different from what you do. Talent is cheap. Be crazy and be stubborn. Yes, and be passionate!”

I asked for John’s views of contemporary art practice as he saw it.

“Great art can appear any time, any place. You have yo be open to being surprised. While you’re waiting at the garbage dump you have to look at a lot. The you see something and think, ‘I wish I had done that!’”

“What do you think,” I asked, “of the reworking of some of the art of the 1960’s and 1970’s without acknowledgement by artists much younger than yourself, sometimes appropriating your own work.

He told me of an argument he had witnessed some years ago between Richard Long and Robert Smithson as to who owned the spiral, “In my view neither did, these things are ancient.” He also spoke of an artist who claimed that Richard Serra had stolen the title of a piece from him, ‘Splash’. “My answer to this man was, ‘So why don’t you claim the dictionary as yours, then you can claim that everyone has stolen from you.’ The fact is that art comes out of art, the same idea of evolution we were talking about just now. We build. No-one has ever been influenced by nothing at all. Education is a way of influencing too. It is the same process in art and in teaching. You have to look to the history of your own ideas and recognise what you are dealing with. Malevich reached a dead end with his white on white, but if you can push that forward then do it. But don’t fight blindly. Whatever works, works.”

There is one thing that doesn’t work,” he added after a thoughtful pause, “didactic teaching. I reject that.”

I asked him for good examples of teaching. He laughed, “I received the worst teaching possible,” he said, “That was a big motivation.”

“I think we’ve come full circle back to your own early experiences,” I said.

“Let’s join the others in the bar,” he replied.

First published in VAI Artists Newsletter, VAI Ireland, 2006