The Disappearance of Imagination

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Disappearance of Imagination”

Linda gave me her copy of Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World to read while I was at Idyllwild this summer. The chapters are sufficiently self-sustaining that I was able to start with the one that interested me most, “The Crit,” and have worked my way through several others at this point. While I primarily teach literature courses at CSULB, I also (for the time being, at least) work as a member of the MFA faculty. This particular degree program, no matte what the emphasis, is one that seems to have a certain historical amnesia built into its propagation. My book, Holdouts, pointed out how the prominence of MFA programs in creative writing routinely gets backdated to the 1970s and nobody bothers to fact-check the accuracy of that dating.

Thornton falls into a similar trap in Art World: “Since the 1960s, MFA degrees have become the first legitimator in an artist’s career, followed by awards and residencies, representation by a primary dealer, reviews and features in art magazine, inclusion in prestigious private collections museum validation in the form of solo r group shows, international exposure at well-attended biennials, and the appreciation signed by strong resale interest at auction. More specifically, MFA degrees from name art schools have become passports of sorts. Look over the resumes of the artists under fifty in any major international museum exhibition and you will find that most of them boast an MFA from one of a couple of dozen highly selective schools” (45-46).

The problem with Thornton’s compression of the role of MFA degrees in the art world is that she implies that MFA degrees were just as important in the careers of visual artists born between 1946 and 1955 as those born between 1960 and 1970. The artists under fifty she refers to at the end of the paragraph would have been born in the latter increment, and indeed MFA degrees would have become a much more familiar legitimation ritual by the time they were in their mid-twenties. But her book erases the period in which the so-called “baby boomers” began to exhibit their work in public galleries.

What I am curious about is how this aporia might be connected to yet another vacancy in Thornton’s book. The word “imagination” does not have much traction in the “Art World.” In fact, I would urge you to read it for your self and count how many times the word appears in the first hundred pages. Is not imagination an inextricable part of the experience of art? Apparently not, if Thornton’s book is to be accepted as a gauge of artistic discourse. If it can be so casually overlooked in a discussion of the contemporary scenes, then this should serve as a reminder that the many definitions the word summons need to be memorized and made use of on a daily basis; otherwise, the social meaning of art will soon become nothing more than an economic arrangement meant to devour what little is left of our ability to resist insipid homogenization.