Editors & MFA’s

July 10th, 2011 § 4 comments

Editors are a blessing and a curse. They are like the teachers who told us the things we really didn’t want to hear, the ones who said edit, or reshoot, or who asked, why those images? Like teachers, editors promote their own perspective, one that is dependent on what they want their publication to be, or what they want it to sound like. Noah, the editor of Whitehot Magazine, is a self-declared “voiceless” editor. He didn’t design Whitehot to represent a particular point of view, but based it instead on a simple mission: he wanted to create a place where the voiceless could congregate and write about art. He wanted good writing from artists, art historians, and art critics without having to tell them what to write about or how. I never think about who the Whitehot reader is when I write for the magazine, which probably makes it my most selfish, self-indulgent, and satisfying place to write. Nancy, editing for the Times Quotidian, comes from another perspective entirely, where the voice of TQ is dominated by her voice. She has a good sense of order and concise writing, and gives in completely to her own perspective, tastes, and interests. She reminds me of the weaving teacher I had in undergrad who proudly admitted that she had no interest in books, music, or movies. Nancy is good for me the way all vested professors are. For example, my department chair in grad school, having a vested interest in my success, gave me the type of feedback I needed to be “successful.” Nancy is the practical voice that stresses coherence, and the limiting voice that says, I doubt you really need to write about that like this.

Hrag, editor of Hyperallergic, is the best combination of my other two editors. He extends more freedom to his staff, but insists that the freedom be used to benefit of the “Hyperallergic reader.” Artists, I believe, tend to think about an audience in an abstract way, imagining the kind of viewers we want, rather than the ones who might actually exist: we dream of someone who spends as much time, and shows as much interest in our work as we do. It is a fanciful rather than real audience. I remember Gregory Volk insisting once, much to my dismay, that artists should “forget about the audience,” in a similar way that Peter Schjeldahl tells us to stop trying to write about our art (that’s his job) while condemning artist statements. Writing with a reader in mind, a specific reader of specific content, is very different from making art for a fictitious viewer. In a recent lecture I attended by the photographer Tod Papageorge, currently promoting his new book, Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography, he talked a lot about how hard writing is, and how much he doesn’t like to do it. Needless to say I can certainly understand his love/hate relationship with the medium of words.

My latest review of a local zine called Birdsong, was published by my editor with the title, Too Many MFA’s Spoil the Zine. Though I didn’t actually say it, I did hint at it, or at least at the irony of DIY youths with prestigious and expensive educations. MFA’s, after their consistent rise in numbers since the 1980s, seem to be going rapidly, or temporarily, out of favor, which is worth noting and perhaps combating. After making them necessary for all artists have, those same institutions and the people who support them, are now decrying what they have done to artists and art. Did it really take us this long to realize that the homogenization of artists within institutions might not lend itself to a movement of great creative activity? Jerry Saltz, in a recent essay titled Generation Blank, criticizes my generation of artists for being hopelessly derivative. The tagline of his essay,

the beautiful, cerebral, ultimately content-free creations of art’s well-schooled young lions,

blames us for somehow failing to break through the prison-like barriers of the art world we have come of age within. It’s certainly easy to criticize my generation, I’ll give him that, as all of us who have been through BFA and MFA programs know too well the problems inherent within them, as well as the type of artists they tend to produce—we do spend a great deal of time talking about nothing. It does seem a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, however, me with my fancy degrees poking fun at the Birdsong zine, or Saltz, with his voice of established authority helping to confine the voices of the artists he is criticising. In an interesting rebuttal to Saltz, the writer Kyle Chayka suggests that perhaps he ought to look beyond the establishment, saying that,

if you’re thinking that all is a little too smooth and easy in this young art world, it would behoove you to dig a little deeper for the movers and shakers.

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§ 4 Responses to Editors & MFA’s"

  • Roy Perez says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful mention here and in the Hyperallergic article! We’ve been glowing about it ever since it appeared.

    I wanted to complicate things a little and by clarifying that very few of us in Birdsong have MFAs. I’m an editor and co-founder and I don’t have a fine arts degree. Also, most of us are working class scholarship kids. Not to overstate it, but our degrees, ranging quite broadly in cost and prestige, were often hard-won and not the result of the kind of lifelong privilege I think you’re pointing to in the arts community. That is to say, our educations aren’t so out of sync with DIY cultural production. We’re social workers, law students, teachers, nurses, retail employees, activists, med-school drop outs, and a couple of us are in MFA programs. But we’re folks with jobs and brains who produce Birdsong to bypass more institutionalized outlets. Some of this is reflected in our mission statement at birdsongmag.com.

    Thanks again for bringing attention to our little outfit. We’re big fans of Hyperallergic!

    Birdsong contributing editor and co-founder.

  • Hello Roy! Thanks a lot for your comment, I do hope you liked my article on Birdsong, I actually enjoyed it a lot and have been meaning to write to the magazine asking if I could possibly become an artistic contributor! I really enjoy working with Hyperallergic, I hope to do more than book reviews for them in the future, so needless to say I am also a fan.

    I think most of my post is really about me being a visual artist turned writer, and how different writing is from making artwork. My thoughts about editors stemmed from the title of my review of Birdsong that I really didn’t expect. Not that I necessarily minded, but it starting me thinking about writing for a reader, and how editors edit their content for that reader. I feel pretty certain that Hrag’s title got a lot of clicks.

    Reading through the bio’s of the Turn issue, a lot of the writers seemed to have New School writing degrees, and a few of the artists had art degrees, perhaps why I assumed most of the contributors for that issue were products of our current educational system. I personally don’t have a problem with MFA programs, as I mentioned I have two expensive art degrees that I worked very hard for and am still paying off. I have a full time job, a part time job, three magazines that I write for, and I try to squeeze making art and living life in there too, so I completely understand your, “we are not privileged” stance. I do think it’s interesting, however, that there seems to be a current backlash against being “overly” educated, or against MFA’s in particular. I also think it is coming from, in many cases, people who have them, or who teach in their programs.

  • Roy Perez says:

    Thanks, Alissa, I love this and your response. I think we’re dealing with a lot of relevant and nuanced politics around creative production. You’re right that the recent issue has a higher quotient of fine arts training than previous ones. And I actually agree, both as an editor and a poet, that all our expensive degrees present the anger that we’ll reproduce voices and perspectives, making exceptions all the more interesting. Dean Young’s book Art of Recklessness says some interesting things about this phenomenon. Kind of boils down to “stop worrying about more people writing; it’s great.” But I also hate being bored.

    I should say I took the title of your article and the questions it opens up as an opportunity to deflect an image of trust-fund navel gazing that’s been projected on us as part of the broader Williamsburg zine scene. We’re not too worried about how other zines get by or who they publish, but we do think we’re different in that we come from economically and culturally diverse backgrounds and that we created a zine meant to reflect our aesthetic interests as such. This is certainly more salient in some issues than others and it’s something we think a lot about as Birdsong grows and has more resources with which to do what we want.

    I’m wondering now, per your thoughts above, about Birdsong’s reader–there’s definitely a coterie-like aesthetic going on, which is for us a way of rejecting the idea that art needs to be universal or heady in any particular way. We think a lot about affect–as in feeling–and we think a lot about worth–as in aesthetic value and failing to conform to it. We’re not trying tobe radical, punk, or overtly political all the time, but we are trying to invest in new styles of craft and the imperfect and the accessible. We also try not to think about it too hard, I guess Tommy would want me to say. We are different editors, he and I. And good editors for each other, actually. I am now rambling.

  • I live in Williamsburg proper, and have to deal with a lot of eye rolling and hipster hating when I mention where I live. I feel like the hipster hate boils down to an ageist reaction against young people–and lets face it, the kids of all generations are equally as spoiled and annoying as every other generation that came before them–and young people, many of them hipsters themselves, who run around proclaiming they “hate hipsters.” When a term or area gathers as much angry stereotyping as Williamsburg and hipsters have, however, it becomes the type of thing, like being a feminist, that you have to claim and defend or disown. I love Williamsburg, and when I hear too much about the “gentrification” I just look outside and remember I live across the street from a Puerto Rican biker gang, and I don’t feel like it’s all that gentrified. Hipster is almost like MFA these days: own it and move on.

    I like your description of the zine, and your goals, and I think it comes across in the work. I also like your use of “imperfect,” as it seems like a good way to describe good intentions and effort that can’t always, or necessarily need to, make the waves/difference they aim for. I stand by my conclusion in believing very strongly that objects of effort, like Birdsong, created by creative and talented individuals, have the power to pull us from our everyday routines and assumptions, and allow us to indulge in something unique.

    This blog began as a ramble, so rambling is quite alright!

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