Commentary: Dr. Howard Singerman’s “A Reserve Army of Intellectuals”

by Alan Longino

There is an unsettling connotation to the word ‘intellectual,’ especially when a lecture concerning such a term is focused much on the audience you are addressing. Yet, this does not detract from Howard Singerman’s lecture on Wednesday, Oct. 9th at the new Hunter MFA building on Hudson Street.

Arriving, the entrance to the Hudson street building is not actually on Hudson. It’s on Canal. And, walking back-and-forth along a block and a half of TriBeCa during rush hour will only make one question their own ‘intellect’ – that, or the ridiculousness of their phone’s map. The room, located on the second floor of the MFA studios, filled up quickly and Dr. Gaines delivered opening remarks.

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Dr. Singerman, a man of unassuming stature and quiet countenance, easily betrayed such an unassuming stance with a powerful presence in lecturing and an articulation reserved for actual intellectuals. Although the presentation never addressed the actual idea of who or what an intellectual is, it went to great lengths as to how these intellectuals – namely art students, lesser the art historians, are being taught and the problems, as well as plusses, in such teaching methods. It delved into the history of the MFA program, its origination at the University of Iowa, its growth and attraction on the West coast, and New York, or the East Coast’s adherence to historical antecedents such as the Art Students League. The history of the MFA program was illuminating, but the real draw was the referendum a group of artists, art historians, and art faculty had regarding how art institutions should progress and best serve or educate artists and art historians.

However, what it mostly came off as was: How do we standardize education for artists? Of course this was not the intent of the lecture or original referendum, but some comments from the original panel—asking all the top institutions for their reading lists and to create a comprehensive list—were alarming in their attempted generalization of art institutions. It is understandable for an institution, the MFA, to still be misunderstood in its relative infancy, but what was not discussed at all in this presentation were the effects of the Internet on not just the MFA candidates, but how it has and will affect this generation of students in both art and art history.

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It could be considered cliché to cite the Internet, but it’s also unavoidable. The Internet has not only flattened geography, information, and the time taken to relay such a latter across the former in the past, it has obliterated it entirely. What this means for art institutions is that their students have been affected by an oversaturation of imagery from all corners of the world before even stepping into undergrad, and for art historians – history being a mostly quaint term when considering the Internet – their comprehension of such images is much surpassed those of preceding generations. This does not mean classes having to fast forward, nor does it mean incorporating a broad understanding of readings, research, or pluralistic, post-medium/post-studio practice; the Internet takes care of this. What the Internet does not take care of is the necessity to feel the works we make, research, or theorize about. What we need from art institutions is not a direction into specific field of study—less the case with MFAs, more so with Art History—but an incorporated effort to relate such history to the breadth of subjects being considered by students of this iGeneration.

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During the Q&A segment, the final question most spoke to this idea, albeit in a roundabout manner. One woman mentioned that, historically, artists viewed critics, curators, and art historians with attributed skepticism, even antagonism. All of this is well due, however, it struck me that the reasons being for such was how the two were approached and taught; they have always been kept separate, confined, and distanced – although often under the same titled departments. It is no longer possible, or feasible, to keep such fields aligned to their respected subjects – the compartmentalization of geography and information between artists and art historians (critics and curators following) must not only be flattened, but obliterated.

Alan Longino is a MA candidate in the Art History program at Hunter. He enjoys writing and net art, and takes little with much seriousness or exceeding gravitas. Except writing and net art. Ask him about art.

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