Rivalry in the Arts
Last July, UM-Flint Assistant Professor of Art History Sarah Lippert, Ph.D. organized Rivalry in the Arts: The Inaugural International Conference of Paragone Studies. Paragone is an Italian word meaning “comparison.” The aim of the bi-annual conference, held at the Flint Institute of Arts, is to explore how competition, historically and in contemporary media, impacts artists and their work.
In October, Dr. Lippert sat down with two students who participated in the conference as volunteers to continue that conversation. The interview was intended to offer a casual forum to solicit feedback from some of the undergraduate students who were involved, regarding which aspects of their experiences at the conference were most successful in creating positive learning opportunities; these included Shelby Gilbert, a recent Visual Arts graduate, and Stephanie Stanley, a current History student. Pillars editor Bob Mabbitt was also invited to join the discussion that took place in the Student Art Gallery inside the Harding Mott University Center.
Dr. Lippert: What we’re doing is talking about how the concept of artistic rivalry impacts students at sort of the young professional level, and also in the context of academic competition, how a student of the humanities, of the arts, may be impacted by that history or that theme as well. So we have Stephanie Stanley who is a history major who volunteered at the conference held in July. We also have Shelby Gilbert, who also volunteered and is a professional painter. I wanted you both to think about how you felt about the conference as an educational experience. Then more broadly, if it prompted any thoughts about how you would approach your own work or your life as a student. Shelby, you have recently graduated, so you’re sort of at a pivotal point here, transitioning from one to the other.
Shelby: Sure. I think the conference for me was kind of a window into the professional world that I hadn’t been submerged in in any other way until that point. I mean, we’ve definitely had gallery shows, been involved with different organizations downtown, and out to the Art Walks—which I’m really glad that we have here in Flint—but the conference brought in a lot of people who had extensive knowledge in areas that here at the college we didn’t have as much access to. Different perspectives talking much more in depth and it gave me a glimpse into this other part of the professional art world that I really hadn’t had contact with before. So for me even that conference being based on this concept of competition, I found it interesting that it translated directly to new possibilities in my own life. Everybody that was there was extremely friendly and willing to have conversations to share their knowledge. It felt like a networking opportunity that was invaluable.
Stephanie: As far as what the conference taught me, it really showed me that to get to that level of understanding, you have got to be incredibly intelligent. I admit a lot of it was technical art stuff that I am unfamiliar with. But being exposed to that level of critical thinking, theory, and the language used to articulate such ideas was really good for me because I do intend to go to grad school within the next couple years, and need to get more comfortable with those kinds of discussions. Plus, a couple of the papers were much more historically oriented, what was going on in a given culture at a given time. The one about the Atlanta World’s Fair for example I found completely interesting, and could be understood completely from a historical perspective. As for my personal perspective on rivalry or competition in my discipline, history, there seems to be more camaraderie. But on a larger historical scale, the rivalry between which countries are better and which history is better is very much a part of historical narratives to this day.
Dr. Lippert: Are there aspects from the discipline of history that you think translate well in terms of the history of competition related to the arts? I’m thinking of things like how the arts relate to national identity.
Stephanie: Yes, definitely. Especially during the pre-World War I era, nationalism was intensely high and this was translated into just about every art form: sculpture, painting, and music especially. I mean, a lot of the songs that we consider American or French or Russian were composed and sung in those years leading up to World War I. And it was the same thing in World War II. You can definitely see in all forms of art—film became more of a battleground in that respect at that time—everything was competition.
Dr. Lippert: For both of you, I’m wondering how the departmental or discipline-specific study of areas is sometimes limiting in the sense that if you don’t have an interdisciplinary forum, you’re not necessarily able to connect with all the ways that all you’re learning applies to other areas. Is that something that you learned about through the conference?
Stephanie: In a way. I think that all areas interconnect somehow. Every one touches every single other and part of what I love about history is because you can study any aspect of history you want. History is pretty much an overarching interdisciplinary endeavor no matter how you go about it—as long as you’re serious about it—and that’s what I love about it.
Shelby: When we get into groups, and an academic department is a group, people become used to associating with one another and identifying with each other and there’s a specific culture or climate that is developed in that specific group over time. And I do think we tend to gravitate to what we’re used to. So I can see how things like the conference are a very healthy format to have those boundaries crossed and to encourage intermixing with different professionals in different areas.
Dr. Lippert: Stephanie’s approaching graduation. Shelby just graduated. What were you able to draw from the conference that may have had relevance to those transitions?
Shelby: Well, a lot of this is a very subjective experience, depending on your transition and your intentions. So it was very personal to me in the sense that I received a lot of encouragement to go on to grad school to get an advanced education in the arts, and to stay involved in the academic arts community. Like I mentioned before, it was this kind of sneak preview to what might be possible if I pursue more education. So in that sense, just being in the space and having the open discussions, and having this cross-department or cross-profession kind of camaraderie from all these different backgrounds, it did make me think more about being a part of a professional community that felt like that. It made me think a lot about other ways that I can stay connected, too. I think as an artist it’s something that we often do in a very isolated manner. Working in the studio is pretty isolating unless you’re actively reaching out to a community and surrounding yourself with people who have like minds—or who have “unlike minds” who can challenge you.
Dr. Lippert: Stephanie, you were able to pay close attention to what the speakers had to say. I’m wondering if you could share what that experience, seeing professional scholarship in action, was like for you.
Stephanie: It was fantastic. It gave me a glimpse into the active community of scholars that exists beyond the classroom. It gave me a glimpse of the professional side of it, and being a history major, having to do research, it showed me the kind of work that I would be doing. I’ve never really seen someone present findings that way. It was an amazing thing simply to be able look at someone stand up there give this paper and realize “okay, this is what I’m going to do.”
Dr. Lippert: Good. Do you think that it’s made you think about the priorities in your own scholastic development that you want to nurture?
Stephanie: Definitely. It’s one of the things the conference did for me, sort of subtly. It showed me how many different paths you can take and vantage points from which you can come to scholarly work. I hadn’t thought of poets and painters, the artists themselves, presenting very scholarly work about their artistic work. I thought that was great.
Dr. Lippert: And that’s not something that you’ve really had access to prior to this?
Stephanie: Not really. Not with that level of professionalism in scholarship.
Dr. Lippert: You mentioned that you’re thinking about going on to graduate work in history. I’m wondering what your research interests are.
Stephanie: British history, pre-Shakespearean British history because it’s fairly well-documented, but there’s a lot that’s still unexplored. I learned from one of Dr. Ellis’ courses that people have this concept of the British Isles as this one unbroken narrative, and it’s really not.
Dr. Lippert: No, I can see that actually in the scholarship that I’ve done. There are some false impressions and gaps in time.
Stephanie: Right, and it’s because up until the last 20 years, scholars, especially of the British Isles, have ignored different factions that were already existent, and they have to be explored.
Dr. Lippert: And what about the academic profession appeals to you?
Stephanie: Basically, I lack focus and feel ungrounded when I don’t have something to study or some sort of work to do. I need intellectual stimulation and that’s why it appeals to me so much.
Dr. Lippert: Well, that certainly parallels well, scholar versus artistic scholar, which is what Shelby does. Really both are a creative sort of activity. It’s just that they generate different art forms. There are art historians, for example, who bemoan the fact that scholarship itself is not often written in a more narrative or prosaic way.
Stephanie: And I think that’s fantastic actually. That’s another thing I love about history. That it is a story. It would be a great thing to actually have scholarship be more of a story.
Dr. Lippert: So Shelby, in terms of thinking about being a professional artist, I’m wondering if any of the themes or topics that were covered in the conference made you think about aspects of your future profession or things you’d have to deal with.
Shelby: Sure. Just based on my experiences in the art program, and then projecting those experiences and lessons into a possible profession, it’s something I think about a lot. As far as how the conference contributed to that line of thinking, there was one specific paper that somebody presented, Steven Cartwright I think, that had a lot of humor and wisdom in it. He was joking about so-and-so stealing all his ideas. He was kidding around, but not entirely. One of the things I experienced through the art program here was many students who felt that they had intellectual rights to concepts and were so offended if they saw somebody else working on something similar. For instance, I often paint owls and horses. It would be like me being offended that somebody else in the class was painting a horse. I mean, that’s general subject matter. Even if you do have some kind of niche, in the art world you’re guaranteed that somebody else has done something at least fairly similar before. So that’s kind of a funny part of competition in the art world that I don’t love. I’m sure their feelings are real, but I don’t understand a lot of artists who feel it’s intrinsically theirs. It’s not rivalry in the sense like “let’s challenge each other and encourage each other to grow,” but this ownership and attachment and protection of ideas—which probably aren’t even theirs to own. I understand that historically if somebody perfects a new way of bronze-casting, they want to protect that process so their competition doesn’t get the job instead. That was their livelihood. But it seems like when we’re in school, it’s not really necessary to have such an emotional, negatively charged perception of being in competition with each other.
And it’s not like an overall feeling in the department. It was just a few specific people, you know, who had that kind of mindset. I also noticed a correlation between skill level and how much they felt protective and defensive about their work when it came to critiques and things like that. I see critiquing and analyzing and self-analyzing as such a great part of growing as an artist. It almost seemed like they had so much skill that they weren’t allowed to let any kind of critique in.
Dr. Lippert: I see. That’s interesting.
Shelby: And historically you see that. There are a lot of egos.
Dr. Lippert: Yes, that’s true. Do you think that this is sort of a burden that students place on themselves in terms of trying to stand out in the classroom or is it something that is cultivated from an instructional standpoint? Not necessarily deliberately by an instructor, but just in the format of the academic experience?
Shelby: I do feel that generally, in whatever level you’re at academically or in whatever artistic community you consider yourself a part of, there is this sense that it’s all been done. So there is a scrambling, you know, to be smart enough and clever enough and good enough to pull your skills together to present something that’s new and unique. You can see this in the trends. It’s whoever can shock people the most. And that’s not anything new either.
Dr. Lippert: You’re right. Really since the end of the 19th century, artists have been trained to think that originality is more important than aesthetics, more important than anything else. I’ve always been of the opinion that by this point, 100 years later, being original may actually be sort of unoriginal.
Shelby: Yeah, you would think so. But it does seem that that’s where a lot of the sensitivity is towards it.
Dr. Lippert: Right. What was your experience in that context? You had your senior portfolio show last winter. Were there anxieties related to sort of a sense of needing to stand out?
Shelby: Naturally, and this is my own personal feeling, there is already so much self-doubt embedded in the process of any kind of artistic or creative work. I had to just put that all aside. Concern about looking original, looking good, looking smart, looking intelligent, is my work really saying something worthwhile, whatever. You can doubt yourself and not make any work and not get anything done. Or you can make work and suffer the whole time. For me, in order to enjoy the process, which is why I do it, it gives me energy, it gives me sustenance, and it fuels something that I need to keep living my life the way I want to live it. I had to consciously just decide that this is where I’m at in my process of growing and learning. This is who I am right now and I have to be here in order to get where I’m going. Trust that someday, maybe, I’ll have something really important and profound to say. But I’m not expecting that out of myself right now.
There was one comment, that I really appreciate, that somebody did finally say something, you know, not really even negative but kind of…
Dr. Lippert: In the comment book–
Shelby: Yeah. Because I paint mostly horses and owls–
Dr. Lippert: Two very good subjects.
Shelby: It’s just, I don’t know, if you’re going to make art, I think at some point you just have to put all this stuff aside and do your work.
Dr. Lippert: So are you saying, in a way, that culture of rivalry coming out of an academic student program could be a hurdle that you have to finally overcome?
Shelby: Absolutely. If you internalize it in such a way like I had in the past, where it’s just incessant self-criticism, it stops you from getting your work done.
Dr. Lippert: Now you were in the Renaissance class this semester, right?
Dr. Lippert: We talked a lot about Michelangelo, Leonardo, people who sort of embedded their views on artistic rivalry in theoretical constructs.
Shelby: Saying that one form of art is better than another.
Dr. Lippert: Perhaps that was, in their situation, their way of protecting themselves from a lot of these anxieties by creating a system of thought that allowed them to function without all the weight.
Shelby: Absolutely. And there’s no doubt that that’s the same exact thing they’re doing now. You know, instead of partaking in that concept of rivalry in that kind of capacity, I’ve been just stepping out of that concept to protect myself from the negative emotions that can sometimes be associated with it. Not to say I don’t think it’s extremely healthy to have competition, to have things that push you as an artist beyond your comfort zone, and to be able to open yourself to criticism.
Dr. Lippert: It’s really an unavoidable feature of being a contemporary artist, because the entire art world is based on a system of jurying and grant writing and awards and things that are newly designed to make different people stand out. If you want to play the game, you have to play it that way. Do you feel prepared to go into that kind of intensity, or have you been gradually moving into those aspects of the professional world?
Shelby: Yeah. I think that having the senior show was a wonderful way to prepare myself for that, and to be grounded where I needed to be emotionally and mentally in order to kind of deal with being critiqued. And you know, getting involved in gallery shows, each time you’re putting yourself out there, it gets a little easier. But there’s no doubt you want people to respond positively to your work. I mean, I’m not at some point where I don’t care at all.
Dr. Lippert: Also in that course, you participated in recreating a master work. Yours was “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” by Titian. Did that project tie into any of the things that you learned about at the conference or to your sort of professional understanding of how competition will affect you in the future?
Shelby: I think the biggest thing with both that project and the conference is that they make you become aware of how much you don’t know and how possible growing and learning and developing skills and knowledge lies ahead.
Dr. Lippert: Well, good. Your completed work was shown in the annual exhibition of the Communication and Visual Arts Department that was held last April. It was certainly viewed as a success by the faculty of the department. I’m wondering how you feel about that work and what is your sense of connection to Titian, if any?
Shelby: The reason I chose to try to replicate a Titian work was because of his less rigid approach to painting, and I identify myself as a very un-rigid, unsystematic painter. I paint very intuitively, versus systematically. So researching Titian and his color palette and how he approached the canvas, it was very rewarding, very reaffirming. I wish that I could have delved deeper and learned more about him. There are so many approaches to how people make work, and it’s so subjective and so personal. But I do feel that academically there is a lot of pressure to be systematic as opposed to intuitive, and that has to do with being able to self-analyze and grow and things like that, which I appreciate. But I also feel like we need to develop a language and a way to include approaches that may come more naturally.
Bob: I had a couple thoughts, trying to tie together some of what Stephanie was saying about history, and holes in history. This idea of one art form being better than another based on a specific goal. For instance, if your goal is to have your piece stand the test of time, maybe it wouldn’t be a painting. Maybe it would be a stone carving. I’m wondering if we can highlight some of those specific criteria for one form being “better” than another. Was that talked about at the conference?
Dr. Lippert: Yes, there were several scholars who were looking at poetry versus painting or painting versus sculpture. I think that’s an interesting question for you, Shelby, as you move into your career. I guess I would want to know why painting. What is it about painting that allows you to carve out that niche, and do you ever have concerns about control over its legacy, its survival, its industry?
Shelby: Well, I think the reason I chose painting is kind of intrinsic and why I’m not concerned over its legacy or its staying around. I’ve asked myself this before and I’m not 100% sure. I was very interested in printmaking and sculpture, very three-dimensionally inclined, you know, having my hands on something is very important to me. Painting is something that for where I am right now in my life just seems more accessible. I can set up almost anywhere and paint. So I guess in that sense, it’s portability and that I don’t need to have an expensive set of equipment, an expensive studio, ventilation. I think that that plays a big part of it. But furthermore, more importantly, the medium of paint itself is something that I can work with. I like the oil paint because acrylic paint you work so quickly and oil paint you have to have a give and take relationship with it. It seems like it has a life of it’s own. It’s kind of alive. Like sculpture it’s like you spend even more time cultivating it and bringing it to life. So for me, oil painting is kind of a happy medium, somewhere on that spectrum of time. It can be relatively immediate. You can manipulate the space. You can make serious corrections. You can make changes. Whereas if you’re working on a piece of marble and you chop off some nose that you didn’t want to chop off, it’s really hard to go back from that point. So that editability of oil paint is a real factor.
Dr. Lippert: Which is why Michelangelo put a higher value on his sculptures.
Shelby: And why a lot of people say we now see this rivalry between painting and digital painting.
Dr. Lippert: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
Shelby: I personally have no qualms with either one. I think digital is just another medium. You can become proficient and skilled at working with that. It takes time, too. I think there’s this view that digital media, or working with art programs on the computer, doesn’t take skill. But I think to do it well it takes skill and it takes a lot of time. I took a digital painting class a long time ago and I used to spend an extra 14 to 15 hours a week on those projects sometimes. So I have no doubts as to how much time and skill it takes to actually do that.
Dr. Lippert: You mentioned that you think it’s important to have a sense of connection to the material process. As you would know from the Renaissance class where we were talking about different artists duking it out, arguing that sculpture is better than painting, or vice versa, a lot of the contextualization of the debate was based upon this notion of underplaying the physical process in order to make the intellectual process more preeminent. The classic example is Leonardo saying that Michelangelo is a hack because he gets all sweaty and dusty when he carves the marble, whereas he tries to describe painting as “oh, I’m just thinking and it’s magically happening.” I’m wondering how you feel, as a 21st century artist, about how that attitude may have changed? You know, it’s not as taboo to talk about the painting process as a labor-intensive process.
Shelby: Well, it almost seems like exactly the opposite. Like in the example of digital art compared to actual painting with acrylics. I was going to say from that old perspective digital art would be extremely sophisticated and intelligent.
It makes me think of those drawing pads for little kids that have plastic covering over the top, where you can squish the paint out and make paintings, but you never actually get dirty.
There seems to be a lot more pride in how much work it requires to make something. And I do feel a personal bias in this direction. When I look at a work, I almost want to see a sense of time. That doesn’t mean that the work can’t be immediately produced. There’s a sensitivity about how the artist is capturing or presenting that work. By a sense of time I also mean that there’s a sense of a cultivated skill, you know, that’s built over time.
Dr. Lippert: Right. That’s an interesting issue. In 18th century aesthetic theory, a lot of theorists tried to argue that the visual arts were completely divorced from temporality of any sort, that they could capture a single moment, of course film had not been invented yet, but that they could capture a single moment and that anything suggestive of temporal process should be left to the poet or the playwright. But I think that you’re right that temporality is a focus for a lot of artists, and the process being thought about as “how will I graduate from this aesthetic to another or take the work from one place to another?” I’m wondering how you perceive the general public’s response to that. Evidence of skill, or storytelling ability, or even just a sense of the work reflecting the time period. Do you think that the public values a sense of temporality in a visual medium?
Shelby: I don’t know. It’s hard to speak to the opinions of the public. They seem to fluctuate so rapidly, even more rapidly as technology advances and culture seems to be going faster and faster.
Dr. Lippert: Would you say that the supporters you’ve had, people interested in your work, value the processes evident in your style? Because when I look at your style of painting, it’s clear that there’s a lengthy layering of activity and gesture. I’m wondering if any patrons, visitors to exhibits of your work, have ever commented on this. Do you think that’s something they value in your style?
Shelby: I think as an outsider, outside of the art world, you’re not actually looking at the materials. I think it’s really hard for the general public to identify or notice. There are all these different styles you can recognize if you’re very familiar with all different approaches to painting, but I think even the ability to see that takes a long time to cultivate. Even personally, I just now started to kind of see some sense of time, either in that person’s skill or development or in the work itself.
Dr. Lippert: Right. In the context of the emergence of graphic design programs and interactive web design programs, do you feel that in this or any other sort of academic context, there a tension between the traditional studio and the digital arts?
Shelby: I think definitely there’s a tension, not all schools have it, but that seems to be a trend.
Bob: That makes me wonder about how technology, which can make production of many art forms faster and easier, may be putting pressure on artists to develop many different abilities. I see it in more commercial creative endeavors. We want a graphic designer who can do web design, edit movies, write TV ads, and illustrate freehand. Does every creative person have to be a literal “Renaissance Man” like Michelangelo or Leonardo? Do you feel pressure like that?
Shelby: I do sense that. Even just talking about careers with people in my age group, a lot of people seem to be leaning more toward having a greater variety of skills. I don’t think it’s very easy to have an art skill and find a job, so I do feel there’s more of a push to broaden skills, artistically and otherwise.
Dr. Lippert: And I can speak to that from sort of the scholarship side of teaching a fine art tradition in an academic context. Generally, some of the emerging trends are diminishing medium-specific training. You know, there are a lot of graduate programs now at the MFA level that are basically emphasizing that you come in and you create. It doesn’t matter what combination of media. In fact, they prefer that you not define it and it seems that that’s driven by the fragmentation of the media that’s happened at the academic level and also in the public sphere. A similar tug of war is going on between looking at art history as traditional art versus visual culture, which is the term people now use essentially to say that any visual media is an art form. Therefore, not defining the media helps you to open up those abilities.
Bob: Very interesting. Thanks for letting us listen in on such a great discussion.
Dr. Lippert is currently organizing a new UM-Flint Community Lecture Series.
She is seeking presentation proposals from UM-Flint scholars and artists.
For more details on how to participate, visit the UM-Flint Community Lecture Series website .