Double Duty: Practicing Art and Teaching in Greater Los Angeles

Charles Gaines and Kerry Tribe

18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, CA August 19, 2015

In 2015, Project X sponsored a series of monthly roundtables and conversations called the Project X Forums, which served as the public component of its year-long residency at 18th Street Arts Center, in Santa Monica, California. The residency and forums focused on eight exhibitions and events organized by Project X between 1992 and 1998. Project X Forum 6 was comprised of a presentation on Pair-A-Sites, one of the Project X exhibitions, and a conversation between Kerry Tribe and Charles Gaines. This event took place on August 19, 2015.

Pair-A-Sites was organized by Project X at the Armory Center for the Arts, in Pasadena, California, from December 1995 to March 1996. The exhibition took the form of a series of three collaborations by three pairs of artists; Lynne Berman and Kathy Chenoweth, Diane Bromberg and Eve Luckring, and Charles Gaines and Cheryl Kershaw. The installations were staged in the Community Room—the one site in the Armory Center that is shared by both its educational and exhibition programs. Little documentation remains of these installations, but a Project X paper was printed to coincide with the exhibition. The paper includes an introduction by William Raines, then Executive Director of the African American Museum & Cultural Center; an essay by Gaines; and several page spreads of image-and-text collages by Berman and Chenoweth and Bromberg and Luckring, which described their  projects.

In his introduction, titled “Education and Art or the Dilemma of the Single-Sided Coin,” Raines wrote, “Who is given access to art training? What qualifies a person to enter the schools and private institutions for a formal art education? How is an artist chosen to participate and in what capacity? . . . As educators, we are charged with determining how to engage in cultural studies that assist in discovering social constructs and relate to individual positions of difference.” On the following pages, Gaines presented an essay on the role of education and the positioning of contemporary art and the avant-garde. His central thesis was, “Art provides working class people and minorities access to an experience traditionally reserved for a privileged class.”

In response to the theme of this essay, we invited Charles Gaines and Kerry Tribe, both artists who teach, to converse about “the double duty of practicing art and teaching in greater Los Angeles.” One remarkable thing about teaching art, which seems exaggerated in Los Angeles, because of the high concentration of art programs, is the simple fact that many of your students will soon become your colleagues; teachers become peers with people they once taught. In my opening remarks as moderator, I presented Gaines and Tribe with a few terms as a framework: pedagogy, practice, availability, generations, and constituencies.

In their conversation, Gaines and Tribe address these issues and more, speaking personally about their own particular approaches to teaching, the contributions they feel they make, the central role of teaching in art schools in the greater Los Angeles area, and the economic burden of both teaching and being an art student. The event drew a great crowd. Project X also invited the following witnesses to attend the event and participate in the dialogue: April Bey, Andrea Bowers, Vanalyne Green, Candice Lin, and Mario Ontiveros.

The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for print. The recording of the entire forum can be found here:

—Shana Lutker


Kerry Tribe: We were speaking earlier about the kinds of classes we each teach and how that intersects with our lives as artists. And I was mentioning that, at this point in my life, with an active career and young children, I’m really only able to teach courses where I’m essentially asked to show up and be myself.

I’m considered “Core Faculty” in the undergraduate program at Art Center, and I mostly teach required benchmark classes that are about students finding their own voices as artists. In one of the classes, called Mid-Program Review, which students take half way through their time at Art Center, they basically demonstrate that they are ready to make and discuss work driven by their own interests rather than academic assignments. In the other course, Senior Projects, which they take two terms in a row, right before graduating, they make a solo exhibition. If you’d told me back when I was an undergrad at Brown, or in the Whitney program, or at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] getting my MFA, that in fifteen or twenty years I’d be helping students develop a “unique vision,” I would have been quite disturbed, because even then I was critical of the ego-centrism at the heart of most artistic endeavors. But as I get older, I’m realizing how intuitive my own practice really is, and also how much ego is involved. I try to be as transparent as possible about these issues when I’m teaching, because it doesn’t do anyone any good to feel guilty about the way they work, intuitive or otherwise. I also think there’s ego involved in being a teacher. For me, certainly, there’s something sustaining in knowing that I get to show up once a week, or whatever it is, and there will be a roomful of students who care about what I have to say and what I think.

Maybe that’s a funny place to start, but these days I think of myself less and less as a teacher with something to disseminate and more as someone who is, in a fairly transparent way, working through my own struggles as an artist practicing in the world—how to get by, how to deal with pragmatic issues around art-making and exhibiting. And also in school, around the discursive fields that surround and inform work, to help students recognize that it’s not just about making a thing that you like for some set of reasons, but that those things exist in the world and in a matrix of relationships that are outside of that thing that you made. Helping students think more about reception, I guess.

Shana Lutker (Moderator): Charles, earlier you said that teaching was an extension of your studio practice.

Charles Gaines: I started teaching in Itta Bena, Mississippi, where I was asked to teach art history. And then I went to Fresno State in 1968. Around 1970, the CalArts program started to get off the ground. But I didn’t know anything about CalArts at the time. There, the idea of the teaching—the relationship between teaching and practice—was something that was being experimented with. The idea of students being a part of, not practice, but a general praxis of art production, and the undermining of the difference between students and faculty and so forth, was going on there. But interestingly, and I don’t know why it happened, when I started teaching in Fresno, that was the approach to teaching that I found most satisfying. I’m comparing that to having to teach basic courses like beginning or advanced painting or drawing. And for some reason, I didn’t have to do that at Fresno. And so I had to—and I shouldn’t say “I had to,” because it seemed at the time to me what I was doing was normal—but I had to invent an idea of teaching. I think my teaching was influenced by the fact that the social environment at the time was pretty volatile. The Vietnam War was going on. The Civil Rights Movement was going on. There were riots in the streets. What was going on in the United States was pretty remarkable in those days, and I haven’t seen anything like it since. This created a critical atmosphere that fed into teaching, and fed into teaching art. I think it influenced the idea of the avantgarde. At least, it established a way of taking such an idea and applying such an idea to some theory of culture. That general environment and this general search for meaning, I think, created the opportunity for me to do that.

I immediately started teaching that because it went to my interest and, as anybody that has taken a class with me knows, I’m obsessively interested in critical theory. When I say “teaching,” what I was doing was bringing into a class certain texts and giving the students certain projects and so forth that would test possibilities of creating relationships between theory and practice. The things that I would give out were things that I had no competency in at all, so it became a general space. It was tricky, because the students were expecting to be informed by an expert. It’s tricky to try to create this space where people, even undergraduate students, are happy about working in a kind of a seminar, a kind of a research environment, but one that involved a relationship between theory and praxis.

Your question just happens to be the same question that I was asked in an interview for Studio International. I want to read part of my answer, which I think is relevant:

My idea of teaching is to get the students to feel that the value of their idea is measured by how it contributes to culture, not how it memorializes the self. Exposing students to your ideological beliefs and tastes provides the terms of contestation and the opportunity to improve one’s verbal and critical skills. To this extent I tried to create a critical space where their ideas are contested.

It is inadequate to feel that making art is principally about finding one’s own voice, although this is very important. It is more important to find a way for the personal voice to matter to others, to be recognized as something more than the fancy of the individual. Establishing and maintaining the individual ego is not enough, for the perspective expressed by the ego has to be meaningful in some way to others.

It is still an attitude about the nature of art practice. And because of that, the relationship to teaching is clear. It stays away from the model of teaching that is based upon mastery and competence. And once you get away from mastery and competence, then the relationship to what happens in the classroom and what happens in the studio becomes closer. I regard teaching as somewhat like what used to happen, during the Dada period at the Cabaret Voltaire, where the artists would go there and drink espresso and other stuff and fight. This is something that happens very rarely now, except in schools.

KT: There’s probably less transference going on in your classes than in mine. I guess I feel like all I can offer at a certain level is a way of modeling how I work through problems. I would absolutely agree that I’m not interested in helping students cultivate their voices so much as in helping them understand how what they do needs to resonate with others. The moment of the work’s contact with its audience is the make-or-break moment. But when I talk about transference, I recognize there’s a lot of projection among students towards their teachers, a lot of, dare I say, idolization. And sometimes the reverse is true, too. Sometimes I see these students cranking out a new project every term, and I think, how the fuck do they do that? You know. And some of it is really good work. That’s remarkable to me. I don’t work at that pace. And I love to complain about millennials and how everything is about how many “likes” it gets and nobody ever actually bothers to experience work in the flesh anymore. But on the other hand, if that is the way they see everything, we might gain something from that perspective. My students keep me from going extinct.

SL: In the last 15 years, have the millennials actually affected a shift in your approach to teaching?

CG: Over time, I see the political situation in the United States in the last 20 or 25 years getting progressively more difficult. And there is generally a split, a wider and wider gap being created between different races of people, and also between the genders, and a certain intolerance that’s going on. And there is increasingly an embrace of a kind of a model that doesn’t care about minority concerns. So I had to find a way to address all that in my teaching. Outside of my teaching, I’ve tried to address it in terms of getting involved in policy areas to try to |do something about curriculum and to do something about hiring and so forth. But I try to deal with it specifically in my teaching. I began to teach a class on the history of contemporary black art, and I was really astounded by how little people, even my minority students, knew about that history. I think that there has been a growing ignorance in education in general; how we talk about art and how we talk about other ideas in the world have been completely separated from the lived experiences of different groups in the world. I undertook teaching this class to try to address and do something about that. I mean, it’s like peeing in the ocean. But that was about all I could do.

KT: Your sense is that things are getting worse.

CG: Oh, yeah, they’re really getting worse, yes.

Andrea Bowers: Can I ask a question? I mean, I have to agree with Charles. I think, as the professors, we have to start to organize and ask our students to consider alternatives, alternative pedagogies. I used to believe, because Charles was one of my teachers, you know, that it was my ethical responsibility to teach, because we could have these discursive spaces that Charles was talking about. And now, I’m at a point where I feel like it’s unethical for me to teach. If I bring in students of color, or trans students, how dare I strap them with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt? So, what do we do? Because, as teachers, we can’t afford to keep teaching. The students can’t afford the debt for the rest of their lives. Is there an alternative model for this? How do we change this?

KT: And is this problem unique to art education? Over the years, I’ve had some lousy students who were really good artists, and some really lousy artists who were hardworking, well-intentioned, solid students. I worry about my students’ debt in both cases. I feel a lot of responsibility in this regard, and it’s often very conflicting. Can I tell a student I think they should drop out?

Anuradha Vikram: We know that our schools and teaching environments are being challenged in this way. And we’ve talked a little bit about the pressures that the students are feeling. Is that changing the way that you have to respond to them? How is it impacting the classroom?

CG: Welcome to an ugly world. What we’re suffering from is the slow but inexorable retreat from social responsibility that neoliberal politics has been working on for the last 30 years. These rising costs are connected to all of the other things where middle-class and poor people are feeling the weight. The idea behind it is to not give services to poor people, and maybe middle-class people, too, right? So it has been happening policy-wise over all these years. Now, the policy’s working. Trying to get an education, you wind up with huge debts, and so, as a teacher, you’re questioning, like Andrea is saying, the ethical responsibility of advising other people to accrue debt. Now, to me, it’s an ugly picture, but a complicated one that doesn’t have a good answer. Because, if I withdraw and tell people not to pursue school, you will have completed the last neoliberal chapter, you will have simply abdicated higher education to rich people. And so, finding a solution is clearly long-term and complicated. It’s something that has to be attacked on a number of levels, not just one, or the immediate problem of being in debt. But I think you really can’t say that you’re in a better place by not getting in debt. And so it has to be in each case a personal decision. I would disagree with Andrea about this, in that I don’t think there should be a campaign that says the reaction to retreat from those places, those educational institutions.

AB: But, Charles, I am suggesting alternative pedagogies. I’m suggesting we start looking at alternative models. And I don’t think it has to be 20 or 25 years off.

[Crosstalk with audience contribution.]

Audience Member: I attended a lecture at MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles], and Helen Molesworth was asked, as a newcomer to the Los Angeles art world, what she felt were the biggest differences between the New York art world and the Los Angeles art world. She said, “In New York, the best artists don’t have to teach; and in Los Angeles, they get to.” What are your thoughts?

KT: At a very basic level, I think it’s a huge privilege to teach. It’s amazing to feel like you’ve had some part in the development of students who then go on to do lots more interesting things, in art or elsewhere.

CG: I remember, back in the seventies, I was asked why did I teach. “Here in New York,” this person said, “if you’re a teacher, that means you’re a failed artist.” And I guess he was trying to advise me not to teach with that comment. But the fact is the art scene in New York is huge. New York is full of artists who are teachers. More than the New York art world would like to admit. I mean, even more so back in the seventies and eighties, before the super market took over. And in Los Angeles, there aren’t as many artists. And it just looks like a lot of them teach. But, for my money, the difference will be played out in the numbers game; there are more artists, and more artists who are making a lot of money, who don’t have to teach, in New York, percentage-wise, than here, which correlates with the population of artists in each location.

KT: A lot of us came to L.A. to go to art school, and I don’t think as many people go to New York to go to art school. They go to New York for other reasons.

AM: But there is a little bit of a difference in character. I mean, having spent time in both places, I definitely feel like, while there is an increase in participatory or open practices in New York, New York is still very much an object based town, and that may have to do with the market. L.A. is not really like that. L.A.’s artists are discursive artists, and they’re inclusive artists in that way. And so teaching is just part of that; teaching is part of, versus adjacent to, a practice. I wonder if that’s kind of the crux of it, that in New York teaching is perceived as being adjacent to your practice, something you do instead of producing your work, and here maybe not so much.

CG: Again, I just think it’s a myth. I’m just thinking about all the people I know back in New York who are teaching. And I think that when L.A. was a much smaller place, some big artists started teaching in the schools because at that time they could use the money. Over the years, they remained committed to teaching, even when it got to a point where they didn’t have to. But that’s not a big world. That’s a very tiny world. And the people who stand out loom large. I think we’re extrapolating, that it’s a characteristic of the region that’s distinctly different from New York. But I think that we’re exaggerating what’s here to the scale of New York and seeing a difference. But I don’t think that difference exists.

SL: I’d like to go back to this idea of generations in the view that on the surface, might mark generations— but it doesn’t. As Kerry said, you turn around, and the person you were teaching yesterday is now teaching next to you. That hierarchy is so quickly dissolved. After you teach for a little while, you understand this. And knowing that you’re always teaching to your future peers means that it is a conversation that’s shared. I don’t know if that is unique to L.A. or not, I feel it more here. It’s like that idea of generations as a compost pile, you know, it starts out with all those differences, and slowly melts down.

AM: Not an answer, but just a thought related to this: I was on a panel with Howard Singerman, and he said that at art schools in New York art history is the medium. Would you say that about L.A.?

KT: No.

CG: Well, maybe I can put it another way. One of the things I get out of teaching is that everybody’s there in the room to talk about art. It’s very hard to do that in other parts of your life. And it’s a very important thing to do. I mean, it’s crucial that it happens during a nascent period of people’s career. But I think that, rather than saying “art history,” school is where the most intense experience of art discourse operates. When you get out of school, you never experience it again.

KT: You never know what anyone thinks about your work once you get out of school.

CG: But not only what everybody thinks, but to think about what you’re doing. And to feel compelled to do that.

KT: It is a really unique thing where everyone voluntarily decides to do something as irrational as go to school to learn how to be an artist and signs up for that set of exchanges over a course of years with a community of peers that they are going to trust. I don’t know that one can keep the art market at bay, or lots of other things that come and infiltrate art making, but I do think the crit is a really incredible thing. And you can try after school, we’ve all done it: you get out of school, and you try to get something set up with your friends, and it’s like a book club. But it’s really special what can happen in the crit, I mean, really, really special and amazing, that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

CG: I’m not talking about crits, necessarily. I’m talking about finding value in taking considerable amounts of time to try to think about what it is that you’re doing as an artist, even if you talk about that in terms of what I mentioned before about the relationship of your work to the world. You get together and spend 15 hours a week just doing that. And once school’s over, then that intensity is gone. It doesn’t come back. It’s hard to retrieve. You can get together with friends once in a while, but you’ve got other things to do in your life. That experience is really unique to schools. Maybe I’m supplanting art history with intense critical thinking.

KT: I would by no means hold it up as a perfect system, or inclusive enough, or democratic enough, or lots of things. But I think, for my money, it’s the best we’ve got right now. We should change it. But that opportunity to be together and take very seriously all of these ideas and try them out in a way that does have consequences, and yet is not the outside world—no one’s presumably writing reviews of it—there aren’t the same pressures; I think that is to be lauded and protected. And whatever replaces the institution— because the institution has to be replaced by something, it’s not tenable in an ongoing way—that’s the kernel to keep.

Further Reading