Experiences with Postmodernism in Art School

They say we are in a postmodern world.  What exactly does that mean?

Here is a story to illustrate my experience with postmodernity.

I spent the better part of 13 years prior to college studying art: learning how to paint, draw, photograph, create printmaking prints, and sculpt. With each class, I mastered the technique, carefully taught by instructors. I spent my time in photography learning about the Elements of Design such as line, color, contrast, texture, depth, value. I learned how many photographs utilize one or two of these principles and well-crafted art will profoundly hit on a principle or two.  The Elements are additionally valuable because they are a language to describe visual conventions that allow the viewer to step into a work of art and be transported to another place and time.

Diligently, I applied these Elements with each new medium. They were my guiding light. I also learned the technical rules of each medium; how to apply oil paint, adding darks first, then lights. My training told me: Master the medium — and then — consider the Elements of Design. Through these K-12 years, the Elements and Techniques were like twins, accompanying me as I took each new class.

Eventually, I attended UCLA School of Art in the Fine Arts program. In my first year, I was to take all of my foundational classes: drawing, painting, sculpture. I was excited; I was ready for more! More Elements, deeper technique. But…one after the other, my teachers said – “Sure, just do whatever you want. Just make art. Just do it. Just create art.” They offered no guidance about how I should do it. In my teachers view, it was not important for me to get any more theory under my belt. It was more important that I just went for it. No more theory.

That year, I played along with my program. I managed to get through all of my foundational classes. Interestingly, it was my sculpture class that broke me. Two projects that I remember doing were very different for me than my previous approach to art. In the first one, I wrapped the steps of the Dixon Art Building with architectural blue prints. I spent the night before taping them down, one by one. Masking tape piece by masking tape piece. I set up an artificial tree in front of a pile that included an old suitcase and some other rusted items. What was this art piece about? At the time I said it was something about plans and remembering the holidays.

At the tail end of my freshman year, for my last sculpture project, I created a large papier mache birthday cake. It was 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Layer by layer, I used old bike boxes and tons of newspaper to create this large festive piece. When I finished construction, I painted it pink.  With my dad’s assistance and truck, I delivered this cake to the Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA.  I placed tons of small candles on the cake and proceeded to light them for my art critique. In the bushes, my CD player was playing the tune “A Very Unhappy Birthday” from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. And what was this piece of art about? I said at the time — to my classmates — it was something about that feeling of being a kid, and the wonder of parties, and things larger than life.

My critique ended; I took the cake home. The summer after I asked myself some tough questions. What the heck was I doing? What art was I making? Why was I continuing to make pieces that I did not really care about. Academically, I was doing fine. My teachers thought I was progressing. However, I was digressing from myself. I was putting out creations without considering the Elements of Design or the rules of the medium.  I know for many, this postmodern approach is okay.  For my process, I felt pretty lost after having worked within bounds for 13 years–to suddenly be given no guidance.  The school’s postmodern, leave the standards and the rules of of the medium behind approach was not working for me. I was getting more fractured. And more broken-up. More postmodern.

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