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Spring 1998
Avant-Garde Academy

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“It’s not about consensus,” Pittman stresses. “Consensus brings about the lowest common denominator. Our strength is that we have a very willful, very professional, very acclaimed and very contentious faculty. That’s what makes the school interesting.” At UCLA, says McCarthy, “we’re dealing with the present, with what it means to be an artist today.”

To those outside the art world, being an artist typically means one of two things. The first is the Romantic notion of the artist as some sort of secular prophet through whom visions of an imagined world are given form. The other is the neo-classical counterpoint to this idea: the artist is a gifted craftsman who hones his or her talent to create objects of transcendent beauty. These are also the twin assumptions that have driven the way much art and art history have been taught for at least a half-century.

“Historically,” asserts Pittman, “a failure of art schools is that they’ve been relegated to expressionistic, therapeutic roles; they haven’t been regarded as training grounds for a cultural profession of real importance.”

“Nobody would question that notion down on the southern end of the campus. Doctors and scientists are trained to be professionals, with a working knowledge of their fields. Even in the performing arts and film studies everybody assumes that the students are there to learn what they need to know to become successful professionals in their fields. It only becomes an issue in the fine arts.”

Formerly, instead of inquiry, the emphasis was on craft, style, technique. Content came later. But at UCLA, Pittman emphasizes, teaching and studying art is about “intellectual inquiry.” Indeed, the much-respected painter explains, “the majority of student artists I work with do not paint. I discuss and critique multiple practices: I’m interested in the idea rather than the medium. The work of art is dictated by the refinement of the idea.”

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