From the blog Livin’ it Up Big Time comes this entry, “Looks Like If The Words Are Bleeding (Collected Collegiate Student Essays, 2002-2009).” This popped up on the WPA-L mailing list. Basically, the blogger/artist Theodore Diran Lyons III took some particularly poor examples of writing assignments he had collected from seven years of teaching at different institutions, tacked them up on the wall, circled some of the errors in red and highlighted other errors with large font pull-quotes, and said it was an art piece about illiteracy in America. Comments on his blog ensued, and I am apart of the thread as the long-winded “Steve,” if you’re curious.
I don’t know, perhaps I was giving the guy far too much grief/far too much attention here, but I got sucked in. The whole conversation bothers/bothered me. This is certainly an example of the sort of feedback loop I’ve experienced/written about in terms of blog writing and viral media. I guess I also think it’s interesting the extent to which we reached an impasse regarding the definition of illiteracy (which is obviously more complicated than mistakes circled in red), and the extent to which Lyons is so defensive about all this. Oh well; I guess we all have a way of being defensive, eh?
I think one of the key differences of opinion is the idea about what counts as a “fair game” object of art or public discussion. Lyons wants to claim that artists can claim pretty much anything. In his way of thinking about it, the students abandoned these essays (they didn’t pick up them up at the end of the term), so they were his to do with as he pleased. I think that when we ask students to write things, it is uncool to turn around and then use those things in our own work. For example, it would be problematic for me to lift chunks of text from one or more of my students’ essays and then claim it as my own (though we’ve all heard stories of this happening before). And it is clearly and completely wrong for teachers to use a public forum– a blog, an art gallery, both, etc.– to make fun of students’ failings.
I suppose it’s different here since Lyons isn’t exactly presenting this work as his own and he did work to conceal the identities of his “illiterate” students; but he is using his students’ work, unbeknownst to them, in an attempt to make a point. And in my way of looking at it, he is using his students’ work to more or less demonstrate that they are not very smart and to make fun of them.
That’s just mean.
It also seems to me that the more successful of this mode of found/quasi-performance art uses as the subject/victim the artist himself. I’m thinking of people like Chris Burden, who nailed himself (well, someone else obviously must have done the nailing) to the back of Volkswagen and who was shot by an assistant as art. Think what you will of Burden’s art, but in these pieces, at least he is the object/victim. In contrast, Lyons’ piece victimizes his students. Granted, we’re talking about abandoned writing assignments here and not truly life-threatening acts/art, but these students are victims of a sort nonetheless.
For me, a more interesting piece might have involved Lyons tacking up some of the student evaluations he has collected over the years on a big wall in some sort of pattern. Maybe there are reoccurring comments from students he could circle? Maybe he could note the ways he himself has progressed as a teacher? Maybe he could note the mistakes he continues to make? Lord knows that’s a piece I could put together.