To Gnaw with Gratitude
by Erik Benjamins
I’ve had lucky timing. In a most sincere after-school-special sense, my greatest, most relished and constantly reminded lessons learned within upper academia spark from heavenly coincidence. They fall from the sky and harmoniously swuonk together like giant Tetris pieces.
A recently savored bout of relief-induced timing is my enrollment in the second to last class of grad students of a program that offers the cost-free option of a third year. Celebrated by Admissions and popularly taken advantage of, the third year grants MFA candidates the rare privilege of completing their thesis without the precarious balances and frustrations wrought with coursework. Most definitely a prime selling point for prospective students, my peers and myself included. “Oh, such a great opportunity, you have to do it!” my mentor tells me three years ago. But today, back in reality, the powers have spoken and have decreed new law: starting with this year’s incoming class, the third year will come partnered with a nice, chunky fee. A fiscal hurrah at one of the most expensive private art schools in America.
I’m escaping at the right time. I’m thankful, very thankful, and a little depressed. Proudly proclaimed in sans-serif type across MFA Prospective Student literature, the idea of time to develop is much more complicated than an Admissions officer would care to admit. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my two years of crits and seminars were foundational and enlightening, but left little to no time for prolonged meditation on much of anything. Crisis yes, meditation no. Always onto the preparations for the next crit or studio visit, eyes either fresh or familiar, salivating at the opportunity to devour the scraps before them. In a way, it’s psychologically on par with that Goya painting, “Saturn Devouring his Children”.
Is time in such alternate sense a better-suited goal within the MFA context? Don’t projects take years anyway? I’m not really capable of answering as everything I’ve come to know and rely on has become destabilized and muddled. It’s refreshing, but it hurts and I’m on the mend. That being said, this third year is unadulterated bliss. Relished opportunity. A tangible hint at that time, we are so desperate for. An exaggeration probably, but for my peers and myself, the third year is savored, lubricated transition. It is the sweet spot between the absurd chaos and confusion of program politics, bureaucratic maladies and the messy pluralistic life of the free-range visual artist.
So this timing of being here, now, as I move into the third year is a gift. I stroll Boston streets, brimming with gratitude and a smile on my mustached face. And most importantly, another lesson slaps me in the face like a cold red piece of meat.
I’ve taken to using paradox. To speak in binary opposites is to approximate, somewhere inbetween, the things that matter. Such is what I’ve taken to using to understand my relationship to my academic institution of art. It’s comprised of exhausted loathing and sincere appreciation. Two years are finished and the coursework is completed. Typing that, the edges of my mouth stretch to grin. I can’t wait to get out of here, yet already I look back on critique groups and studio visits with sigh-inducing romantic sentiment. Now I understand why most programs are two years long. As a former undergrad professor told me, by the end, “you just gotta get the hell outta there”. I have begun a slow move off the reservation.
So to that steak-slap I mentioned. It’s about language’s paradoxical qualities, able to both universalize and harshly limit. These tongues often save lives, as we are well aware via our growing fluency in crime, medical and espionage vernacular thanks to late night television dramas. I’m talking about the particular sets of languages that permeate and preserve professional, career-based communities. The colorful tongues loaded with unique vocabularies that the chefs, film directors, psychiatrists, baristas, and accountants use.
We, MFA candidates are fluent in our own language. For many of us it will rival, if it has not already, our mother tongues. It is spoken in contemporary art practice seminars, visiting artist lectures, on relevant blogs and artist websites. It is a useful and necessary tongue. This language defines the crucial and underestimated MFA peer relationship. It is how we discuss artwork and demand accountability. How we challenge, compete and grow. As one of my mentors here says, it is how we expand the walls of the institution from the inside. And perhaps most importantly, it keeps us somewhat sustainably afloat, promising professional entry into conventional art world trajectories like obtaining gallery representation or crafting a project proposal in need of funding. Artspeak can be, but is not limited to the high-falutin, academic, and culturally critical. It is the grease of the academic art institution and rightfully so. There is no other setting in which this language reaches such potent doses than the MFA experience.
What concerns me is the inherent insularity within my prescribed language, it’s degree of sucking one in (and keeping them there, smug and comfortable). There’s nothing more satisfying then having an impassioned argument over the contextual merits of an artwork with another grad, a fellow insider and conspirator. It’s exciting! It’s satisfying! It’s seductive and self-congratulatory. And unfortunately, one not need be fluent in another tongue to find art world success. Though lately, I’ve found great challenge in the effort of maintaining such fluency while practicing the art of translation. Translation as an act of departure beyond the institutional walls. Artspeak is unique in the phenomenal and underestimated civic and political opportunities that are the rewards of difficult and mindful translation.
The contemporary visual artist exists with a unique societal leverage. Something I cheesily call the profession-al passport. It is the privileged ability, demanding the type of translation I was talking about earlier, for an artist to converse, collaborate and produce with a variety of persons. It’s career camouflage, but stopped short because the artist does not need to blend in. They do not need to fill the shoes of a sommelier, but rather leverage their position as visitor and infiltrator, prodding the social and political realities that are inevitably present and telling of concerns at a larger scale. Today’s artist is complicatedly, but refreshingly multifaceted; professional identities exist on a lengthy spectrum differing on concepts as disparate as mediums to ethics. A passerby may still not understand abstract paintings because their kid could do an equivalent job, or envy the artist because they don’t have to work a “real job”. Whatever realities or ignorances a non-speaker has, such is absolutely the reason to insist an exchange. Whether that materializes into fruitful conversation over iced tea or a bonafide collaboration, these prospects are worth pushing and pressing.
I want a chef to be my third thesis committee member. Not an artist or curator, but someone dedicated to another craft which in this case happens to be a field my work often meanders into. And I welcome when translation fails. When one of my photographs or aesthetic arguments is lost to the chef, I have no choice but to re-shuffle and re-orient. I respect the chef’s position and seek inclusion and accessibility. It is the deliberate act of putting oneself in a state of uneasy dependence on a foreign speaker. And the rewards could be glorious, productive, mutually enlightening or mind blowingly political! Or squat! I’m hooked on the discomfort and challenge inherent to collaboration requiring such translation. It puts one in a position to learn, which I am very hungry for. OK, so this is getting a little romantic and utopic, but such are the notions that seem to come standard for most Southern Californians. Many collaborative projects have failed and will continue to fail, fallen through the cracks of a poor translation, disinterest or just logistics. And that’s OK. It’s grounding. It’s the reality of a professional messiness that asks us to take our time.
What about my MFA program’s thoughts towards these sentiments, towards the fostering of such modes of translation? They are both insisted upon and denied. I mean I am going to art school. I’m here to receive a terminal degree in Fine Art, rightfully bearing a rigorous conceptual, technical, and therefore linguistic fluency. Though things are changing and catacombs worth of content have been debated, written about and presented on the role of the (always) changing art institution. Two years in and one thesis to go, I am not waiting for changes in philosophy and infrastructure. Nor am I in any rush to make concrete sweeping assertions of personal dogma, but I’m optimistic. I am a believer! And as I slowly flee from my graduate program, I look back with thanks. There are ways I cannot even begin to corral with clarity the reasons I stand behind my decisions to come and stay here. It will take years until I truly realize how much I owe these folks and their limitless frustrations and inspirations they have bestowed upon my confused self. I have naively proclaimed institutional apathy and acted in ways that sought to bite the hand that still feeds me. And while I now hesitate to approve such actions, perhaps it’s better to gnaw with gratitude.