13 March 2012
TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL
Cause of ambivalence:
My MFA (also, Academia with a capital 'A', and Coolness)
You were so hard!!! You made me question everything, all the time! It won't ever go back!
Thank You! AY❤" (yeah, my brain was pretty much fried when I wrote this!)
In my dorm room closet.
On a weekly, nine-to-five basis, it is my job to pursue and interpret ‘coolness.’ When I present my work to my bosses, the same inevitable question always arises: “Is this cool enough?” which in reality is their way of asking: “Will this make us a lot of money?” While the pursuit of coolness does not always revolve around money, it does ultimately revolve around numbers. Basically, coolness equals power: the power of having a large audience, the power of being supported by this audience, the power of numbers.
After five years of trying to understand and reproduce coolness in my professional life, I began feeling progressively more ambivalent about the idea of striving for mass appeal. While it seemed logical that my company would want my designs to be popular and therefore make money, I began to wonder how, as an artist, I should view the idea of mass appeal in regard to my work (meaning the work that I was not paid to do and that did not necessarily have to bring in an income).
It was at this conflicted point in my career that I decided to pursue a visual art MFA at a small school in Vermont, where the dorm rooms were questionable but the pedagogy was radical. Part of the radicalism of this school was the low residency format that meant that as students we were only on campus during the bi-annual weeklong residencies and spent the rest of our time working from our own hometown studios. This allowed for the residencies to become a safe place where, displaced from our daily lives, students and faculty could openly express thoughts and concerns about any issue from the very personal to the extremely political (and often both). Being in this place of honest exchange gave me back my hope, the hope I used to wear proudly on my sleeve as a teenager, but tucked away in my closet once I put on my adult uniform. It gave me hope that perhaps those ugly, seemingly unchangeable truths that I was never encouraged to question, could actually be challenged and changed. In a nutshell, being a grad student made me brave enough to care.
That sounds silly right? Being brave enough to care. I mean of course I cared about things before school, but in a quieter, ‘cooler’ kind of way. My style of pre-grad school caring was more aligned with this Kathleen Hanna quote I found online: “Being cool in our culture means being cold, stand-offish, uncaring (you're too cool to notice a lot of things) and self-absorbed. You are attractive in a normal white way but have a little dirt on your chin. You are mysterious and lacking in real friends cuz being cool means being vulnerable with no one. (this increases the value that others place on the rare memories of you sharing anything with them...cool)” The caring my education inspired is the kind of caring that prompted me to speak up about my opinions and stand up for the things that I knew were important. You know, the kind of caring that causes outbursts of real human emotion in public, that embarrassing, messy type of human emotion that makes your face red and your eyes water. That brand of caring is not cool.
While Hanna describes the current state of coolness quite accurately, I now wonder if caring deeply about something necessarily cancels out all possibilities for coolness, and mass appeal? While I am now comfortable with being somewhat un-cool in my personal life, I am still unsure of the place for coolness in my artistic life. My desire to both reject and embrace the mainstream has ignited a line of questioning that will forever fuel my process. I wonder if coolness has to necessarily be short-lived, frivolous, and associated to consumerism? I wonder if there is value in seeking the power of numbers through art? If, as an artist, you have something important to say, don’t you want a lot of people to hear it? Can the power of numbers ever be used in a positive way? Is it possible to introduce a type of coolness that can withstand the fad phase and become a more positive and inclusive way of thinking, thus acting as an alternative to the patriarchal thinking so ingrained in our society?
My education helped me realize that my work, my ambivalence and my questions, need to coexist with the mainstream, because they are about the mainstream and for the mainstream. Coming from a design background, I know how to brand and package things well. I see these elements in my work as a language that can be grasped quickly and function in a world of media bombardment. Nonetheless, I am increasingly aware that the things that thrive in the mainstream are often judged harshly within academia. Coolness does not necessarily imply quality; however, the fact that a lot of people love something doesn’t necessarily make it bad either. What is bad is the overwhelming misuse of coolness in our society; the abuse of power and popularity, used to manipulate others for selfish personal gain. The backlash of this is that it has become safer for smart people to be skeptical of all things that are too generally embraced, often clouding their ability to see any value in them. It has also caused a false impression that the masses (especially the younger ones) are inherently dumb and should never be followed. Actively caring is a huge risk especially within mass culture, because the larger the audience, the larger the potential for public ridicule. While I strongly believe that there is a need for critical thinking and conscious questioning in our society, my personal irritation lies with the people who are just critical for the sake of being critical. In other words, the people who are just critical to be cool. As a recent MFA graduate, I have no desire to join the cynically paralyzed, but am instead open to the idea of attempting to promote the idea that communal caring can be the new cool. And yes my honesty and optimism might make me look dorky and naive from time to time, but so be it.
Returning to my own educational experience, I was fortunate that in its radical splendor my little Vermont school was staffed with faculty members open-minded enough to encourage me to explore and revel in my hating and loving of coolness. In all their generosity, the faculty and students I had the honour of working with over the last two years have helped me find answers and create new questions for myself, while still maintaining my love of all things pink. While academia with a capital ‘A’ may have its flaws, I am grateful for those very amazing people within it that have taught me that you can never be too cool for school.
Labels: MY AMBIVALENCE