Some artists are just kinda wrong

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.

4 thoughts on “Some artists are just kinda wrong”

  1. I dunno … I followed this discussion on WPA-L too but I don’t see Lyons taking the easy shots at student literacy problems that your post here (and many respondents on the WPA list) suggests. Or at least, it complicates the knee-jerk reaction to laugh at these student errors; as Lyon writes, the work does have “a humorous sensibility. This comical aspect thereby gives the work a sublime punch of pleasure (a viewer’s pleasure in the form of laughter while reading such horrifically composed statements) commingled with pain (the terrible potential scenarios one can project regarding the future of the United States if a successful educational remedy is not implemented)”. Lyons describes this general trend as “disheartening” and offers three paragraphs of statistics about declining literacy rates in the US. While I take your point above about Lyons’s using these pages without student consent, I think to focus solely on the question of whether he’s making fun of his students misses the tension between that impulse toward mockery and real anxiety about the future of literate life in the US.

    It’s something that I think is an interesting point, especially thinking about the process of socialization into life as a teacher of writing … on one hand, yes, we are taught to respect our students and to help them develop as writers and intellectuals … but on the other hand, one way I’ve found GTAs (and even some faculty) in my department bond is through the incredulous sharing and making fun of the kinds of errors the exhibit calls attention to. To suggest that this kind of behind the scenes mockery doesn’t take place (which is not really evident in your post but implicit in some of the WPA-L responses) seem disingenuous to me.

    In all, an interesting discussion, and I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

  2. I think you’re right about the gallows humor aspect of first year writing instructors talking about errors, goofy mistakes, bad students, etc., etc. I know I’ve done that. But I don’t make bogus claims about the growing literacy crisis based on a handful of errors collected from seven year’s worth of essays.

    And I still think turning his students’ writing into his kinda lame art project and then adamantly defending all this is pretty sleazy.

  3. I assign a lot of writing in my courses — and I have about 250 students per semester (no TA — I’m at a CC). My colleagues in Art regularly complain about the papers they grade. They think the papers are terrible because there are no prerequisites for their classes, so they get students who aren’t qualified to take many of the college-level courses.

    I agree with Lyons about the poor state of writing in my classroom and I read similar papers every semester.

    It has been my experience that about 95% of my students don’t pick up their papers — so I stopped putting comments on the final paper.

    In terms of the morality of his use of student papers, it does seem as if some kind of trust has been broken. The student writes the paper for the instructor to read. Unless he has a clause in his syllabus that says “abandoned papers may be used to make art that will be displayed in public” I think he’s done something wrong.

    Of course, he could add the clause to his future syllabi and student would never read it anyway.

  4. Steve,

    Nice to make a more formal acquaintance. I enjoyed our correspondence on my blog, although I believe you assume bad faith on my part. I am not sure it is warranted from viewing the work visually.

    Still, I appreciate that you made a good contribution to the discourse, and I am glad some of the readers here are more sympathetic to the aims of the project.

    Keep up the hard work toward a more literate (articulate) future! (Final statement not sarcastically offered. I intend to continue to join in this pursuit!)


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