By Lisa Dent
One beautiful day in the fall of 2010, I sat with eleven other people around a table on the third floor of CCAD’s Design Studios on Broad. Only recently acquainted with each person and unfamiliar with their background and knowledge, I scanned the room for signs of interest, apathy, or fear. All seemed present. I passed out copies of Roland Barthes’s essay “To the Seminar” and told them we would be reading this out loud together and then would discuss it for the next three hours. More confused looks. I officially started to love my new job.
As part of the requirements for CCAD’s new MFA program, students participate in my theory and criticism seminar. I prepare a list of required readings that will allow us to participate for several months in weekly discussions about the ideas that have inspired artists over the last 100 years. Scratching the surface of critical thinking about Western art is the goal. My hope is that each student will be inspired to discover more readings on his or her own later.
But first, they have to get through the ones I assign. By reading the Barthes essay together, I hoped to guide them through how this could go. I’d be less of a drill sergeant, more of a guide dog. Wait, now I’m a Labrador retriever? In any case, I looked to the great French literary theorist for a place to start. In his essay, Barthes proposes a scenario whereby all members of a seminar are on equal footing. The instructor, though sitting at the head of the table, does not have all the answers. We read through the essays together and find a way through them. There will be excitement, disappointment, and change. Although I’ve read these essays many times, I can still only look at them through my own knowledge and experience. How can I know what will come up for each of you? Together we will make this room a safe haven. Here we can talk, read, laugh, cry, argue, and confide in each other.
As I anticipated, the frustration soon revealed itself through a series of attempts to get me to shift my position. “Could you do a presentation with images of these artists’ works for us to see?” No, use the library. Keep reading and bring your thoughts to class. “I’m afraid that I’m not getting any of this at all. I’m so confused.” Of course you are. Keep reading. See you next week. I said in my first email to the class: sometimes you have to feel the burn.
So where do we find ourselves in relation to all of this theory six months later? I couldn’t tell you for sure. All of us are thinking about it every week. See how that worked? How fun is that?
Lisa Dent is an adjunct graduate faculty member at CCAD and the associate curator of contemporary art at the Columbus Museum of Art. In 1992 she was a Helena Rubenstein Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art and subsequently held curatorial positions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she completed its independent study program. Afterward, she was director of the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York and worked as a freelance writer, art critic, and scenic designer. She has taught modern art history and design at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the University of California, Davis, and owned a gallery in San Francisco.
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